A national network in Norway

Studiesenteret.no is a network of study centres linking 110 municipalities and nine university colleges (30.09.2013).

At present the network consists of 52 operative nodes – study centres and campuses. However, the network is growing rapidly and will soon comprise every fourth municipality in Norway. The network is building a more extensive national structure for tertiary education and lifelong learning. Studiesenteret.no is the hub of the network. The organisation is financed by the member municipalities, university colleges and the Norwegian authorities (since 2007). A significant share of its income comes from projects (innovation and development). In 2004, Studiesenteret.no was a «national beacon» for the Research Council of Norway. Studiesenteret.no was established in 2000. The centre is a publicly owned, non-profit organisation.

Chapters:
Addressing the Rural Challenge
A Fine Balance – about the educational platform
A Comprehensive and Continuous Programme of Study
Technology Supported Learning
The power of the Network Seeking International Partners
Contact

Addressing the Rural Challenge
Norway is a small country with 5 million inhabitants. The country has a well-developed university system with high-quality state institutions throughout the country. The current challenge – in our post-industrial times – is that the university system is still designed for «industrial» production. This has a particularly profound effect on the districts – as there is no structure for tertiary education and lifelong learning. Moreover, the entire funding system has been designed for the central institutions. Per capita, the government is spending «all» of its resources in central areas, whereas investment in the districts is low. The difference in educational level between the towns and rural areas is enormous, and increasing. Some of the differences are a result of the business and social structure in the country. However, this difference will become more problematic in the time ahead, as all rural industries are transformed into knowledge industries. Fishing, aquaculture, oil/gas, power production and agriculture are some examples. If the focus on knowledge is not raised in the regions, the rural communities will not be able to reverse the negative trends in settlement, industrial and commercial development and appeal. Studiesenteret.no is addressing this challenge. We will help raise the level of competence in the districts. Our municipalities regard this as a strategy for developing attractive, sustainable and robust communities. For Norway as a nation, the aim is to encourage more people to attend tertiary education and together build a broader national knowledge platform.

A Fine Balance
What would be a good and productive everyday student day for adults? For people who do not live near a university town? For people who are working? For people with family commitments and a busy social life? It is just such a study day that we are dedicated to giving individuals in the districts: Inspiring study models. Studies of a high academic quality. A motivating environment. Flexibility. A fine balance between flexibility and a fixed structure in the form of real time organised learning activities. Research and experience have shown that most people learn best through a combination of teaching methods. The programme of study should be highly flexible, but also consist of some synchronic activities. It is a bit like taking a big leap; it is the firm foothold which makes it possible to take the leap and fly off… Depending on the type of studies, Studiesenteret.no’s teaching methods have many things in common. Let us start with what makes extensive study possible – asynchronous learning: All study programmes have access to excellent web resources. This means that you can log on to the programme’s web sites 24 hours a day – seven days a week. Here you will have access to the course material, exercises and tests. You can also discuss with other students or have a dialogue with your teacher. Many of the lectures are recorded and posted on the web site. Some of the study programmes also comprise synchronic activities. These may consist of lectures – attended by all the students in your class, or seminars where you work on a specific case together with other students (at various places in Norway!). Your tutor will also take part in discussions and provide guidance. Lectures and seminars take place through high-definition video conferences between several study centres and the university college. Smaller study groups will also be organised at a specific time – often at the local study centre. The purpose of the synchronic activities is to achieve something which is very important for all learning; i.e. to establish a dialogue between students and between students and tutors. Discussions and discourse with others give you a chance to apply your knowledge and receive immediate feedback. You will learn quicker and acquire a deeper knowledge than by just «reading» the texts on the reading list. For some study programmes, such as teacher training, it may be necessary to attend lectures etc. outside the study centre – such as at the university college. Practical training may also be included in some study programmes.

Surveys have shown that the average mark for studies completed through our network and at the various study centres, are as good as if not better than for courses taken at campus. There is no significant difference in terms of course completion between the study centres and campus.

A Comprehensive and Continuous Study Programme
At the time when the network was established as a project (1996), analyses were conducted which showed that two conditions were fundamental for our approach: The admissions area had to be national There had to be a comprehensive and continuous study programme at each centre The admissions area – or catchment area from which students are recruited – has traditionally had strong regional roots in Norway. This is inherent in the so-called regional mandate imposed on the universities by the Norwegian authorities. The challenge has been – and continues to be – that each region, on its own, is sparsely populated, making it difficult to recruit enough students for comprehensive, regional study programmes. The ensuing result is that the regions have some high-quality, decentralised study programmes in some major disciplines such as teacher and nurse training, but not much else. Studiesenteret.no wanted to change this and create a coordinated joint recruitment process spanning several regions (admission areas). This has been accomplished and students are now recruited from 13 different counties/regions in Norway and the current catchment area includes approximately 300,000 people. Studiesenteret.no should offer short-term programmes in order to give as many people as possible the unique chance to develop and take part in our knowledge-based society. This is obvious. However, Studiesenteret.no has found that the programmes need to be more or less continuous. If a Bachelor Programme in Business Studies is established, it must be offered every year. This to create a ripple effect in the local communities – between people who are already studying and those who are still deliberating embarking on a further education programme. Another advantage of having continuous programmes is that for some subjects it would be possible for different years to share classes – which would be more efficient and facilitate contact between the various student groups. The network currently offers about 100 different study programmes ranging from individual Bachelor-level subjects and Master courses.

Technology Supported Learning
What learning processes should be stimulated – and what technologies can help drive these processes? Our philosophy is not to start with «superior» applications – but with the teaching and student learning. Technologies that support asynchronic activities Technologies that support synchronic activities Naturally, these activities will overlap. For instance, we have observed that various learning platforms, Learning Management Systems – that until recently had a clear asynchronic focus – are now increasing their use of media technology and developing elements of real-time support. We see that inexpensive technologies such as Skype stimulate «on the fly» organisation of students separated by large physical distances. Moreover, we have observed that social networking websites such as Facebook etc. are used by student groups (often as replacement for the LMS systems), as these are tailored around their «total live situation». However, roughly speaking we distinguish between the asynchronic and synchronic. A central element of our development is to recreate some of the best aspects of close and physical contact between students and between students and teachers; the impulsive, the direct dialogue, the quick exchange of opinion, seeing and hearing well, the positive interaction. This is something that is available at campus, for instance during seminars. We have recreated this in our models. Whereas lectures may be attended by several hundred students, we break our groups down into seminars comprising only a handful of people. This ensures that «everyone» is included. We then gather them in a room with HD video equipment, large screens (low-noise), without headsets and tangled up wires. All movement is unrestrained and natural. The communication between the centres/nodes is still virtual, but the quality is perfect. Experience has proven that our thesis holds true: the result is interactivity of a high quality. The activity also includes 100% physically organised study groups at each study centre. Finally, the real time and physical presence in a social learning environment is an important dimension («coffee breaks are an excellent pedagogic tool!»). The current network consists of an open broadband network with a 10 Mbps connection between the nodes. This is the minimum requirement for organising HD video-based activities combined with individual web-based student activities. MCU units are located centrally in the network (for multi video conferencing) and recording units. The video solutions are not proprietary and comply with international standards. All the traffic on the net from the various study centres takes place directly from each node (no centralised solutions). Due to the nature of the network, there is no central processing of the applications used by the university colleges. It is an open network, which makes it possible to use different LMS systems and applications at the different courses. We regard our focus on open standards and the opportunity to use different applications as one of the network’s major success factors. Furthermore, it promotes development of new solutions – based on the initiative of the university colleges and the individual teacher.

The Power of the Network
Establishing a functional system for extensive and continuous university programmes in the districts is demanding, and goes well beyond the technological and educational challenges. First and foremost it is a question of organisational approaches, which in turn define our main focus in the development of the network: the initiatives are directed at communities and individuals who are working to develop their municipality and local communities, or at universities or university colleges which will work to develop regions and individuals – and which have a teaching staff who appreciate such a challenge. It is the combination of these forces that can help everyone in the network to achieve their goals. The network is characterised by an «open source code» mindset. The barriers to educational improvement and development in the districts must be demolished – not erected. Thus, we do not have a dedicated LMS system – all universities are free to use their own. Thus, every municipality can construct their study centres according to the best conditions and not according to fixed design criteria. Thus, there are open ICT standards throughout. Thus there is no «mediation» between supplier and demander – but openness throughout. Thus, we focus on building relations and establishing cooperation – rather than on applications, ICT systems and control systems that serve to separate suppliers and demanders. A modern network can contribute to a «shift in power». This also applies to Studiesenteret.no. The network is powerful enough – outside of the established and often centralised power structures – to create «the best system in the world». This is a double-edged sword. Studiesenteret.no seeks a close and open cooperation with established and state funded institutions – particularly as we believe that our network represents an efficient strategy for reaching central political development goals for all of Norway. In a modern network – such as Studiesenteret.no – we are also aware of the almost philosophical aspects of developing a modern network society; the idea that we to a greater and greater extent will work in transparent environments, where the physical and virtual will merge. This is about to happen and will take off once the broadband and technological developments have been stepped up a notch. What will happen once the transparent environments are here for real: when, regardless of where you are, you can move – almost naturally – in a sphere where the boundaries between the virtual and the physical have been practically erased? What opportunities will not this generate for the network idea and the idea of new educational methods in new places?

Seeking International Partners
Studiesenteret.no has come far in its efforts to establish permanent structures for tertiary education and lifelong learning in the districts. The network has gained extensive experience in establishing the necessary interaction between university colleges/universities and the regions, developing study models, developing and applying technologies and contributing to motivating and developing teachers and students to apply efficient teaching and learning processes.

We are now looking for international partners and involvement in innovation projects.

  • The following topics are of particular interest:
  • Complex initiatives for making university resources available to a broader proportion of society
  • Technological support in the distribution/interaction between the university/teachers and study centres/students Application development Establishment of international courses and studies

Contact
email: post@studiesenteret.no

Director: Lars Utstol
email: lars.utstol@studiesenteret.no
Cellphone: +47 416 13301

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Hyperlinks (videreutvikles og oversettes senere):

Distance or Nearby Education? Some people might describe our services as «distance education». We choose to turn this around and claim that; as our solutions and innovation initiatives revolve around the student – and not the university – we may as well call it «Nearby education».

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