FRANCE: 'Digital university' makes progress

The French government is striving to close the digital gap in higher education. A year after the launch of a EUR17 million (US$22 million) programme to develop the 'digitised university', the number of wireless terminals in institutions has doubled, 30,000 hours of courses are available on podcast and 95% of students have access to a 'digital working environment', said Valérie Pécresse, Minister of Higher Education and Research.

Presenting results of the programme after its first year, Pécresse said: "For universities to remain attractive to students, to improve their image in the world of education, it is essential for them to be equipped with innovatory digital tools and services."

The Wi-fi, podcast, digital environment for all programme was launched in July last year in response to a 2008 report by Henri Isaac, a lecturer at Paris-Dauphine University.

Isaac had warned that France was lagging behind in information and communication technologies in higher education and urgently needed to catch up to satisfy the demands of the new generation of 'digitally native' students.

According to the ministry's figures, investment of EUR10 million in wi-fi has doubled the number of free 'hotspots' in universities to 20,000 compared with a year ago, and 95% of students have access to a 'digital working environment, up from 80%. At least 80% of campus buildings now have coverage.

The programme has accelerated access to online educational resources, with EUR6 million spent on developing podcasts and equipping lecture halls and classrooms to pick up and broadcast lectures.

There are now 30,000 hours of courses available in the form of podcasts, compared with 12,000 in 2009. The number of students covered is 105,000, against 20,000 a year ago - though still low compared with the total of over two million students in France.

The website Universités numériques has been updated to provide students with 20,000 free online resources in 35 disciplines, including 6,700 course videos, lectures and interviews, 9,000 complete courses, 1,200 exercises and self-evaluations as well as simulations, case studies and experiments.

Nearly EUR1 million has been devoted to setting up new mobile applications. Mon Université Numérique Mobile enables students to access their universities' information and services digitally through web mobile and iPhone. From this academic year four Paris universities have been connected under a pilot scheme; the target is for all universities in the Ile-de-France region surrounding the capital to follow suit from 2011-12.

Another mobile service is ADELE, for students looking for accommodation. The application gives them access to a base of 300,000 lets, and allows them to reserve online.

From October, through Open Video Education accessible on iPhone, students will be able to follow about 30 hours of online courses, planned for expansion to 100 hours by the end of the year. Four engineering grandes écoles - but as yet no universities - are set to be the first to use the new application.

In another mobile innovation, the Collège de France is making its publications available online on iBookStore.

Pécresse also outlined the next stages planned for the 'digital university'.

A future annual budget of EUR8.5 million will give priority in 2011 to teacher training and the development of new, especially mobile, usages. Publicly funded university buildings, such as 'learning centres' in new campuses and new university housing, will systematically be equipped with high-speed broadband.

A call for applications will be launched before December under the 'Innovatory digital solutions for education' project, which will seek to develop educational materials for online courses, and sites for use by teachers, pupils and students in domains such as serious games, video, tools for creating teaching resources and social networking.