Distant health and social workers discover sense of community identity in computer-mediated communication

Stirling 18 February 2000Five universities and one international school of public health in Scotland, Germany, Finland and Sweden are partners since early 1998 in a 30-month-project which aims to design multimedia telematics in a client-server architecture, and to assess their use in training modules for health, education and welfare workers in remote areas. SCHEMA which stands for


Social Cohesion through Higher Education in Marginal Areas is funded by the European Commission under the Joint Call orchestrated by the Educational Multimedia Taskforce (EMTF). The team will also investigate the role of computer-mediated communication (CMC) and simulation tools to enhance group interaction and encourage the sense of community identity.

As the SCHEMA project co-ordinator, the University of Stirling has planned five overlapping sets of activities to meet the objectives of user needs analysis, technical and educational specification and evaluation, the development and deployment of training modules, analysis of user findings, dissemination of results and the drawing-up of plans for future exploitation. Together with the Finnish University of Oulu, it will take prime responsibility for the implementation of an innovative and "intelligent" Network Computers (NC) infrastructure, which is based on client-server topology and Euro-ISDN connectivity. The advantage of NCs is that information is stored remotely rather than on the desktop and management of applications can be handled on the central server instead of on each machine separately.

Stirling and Oulu will also design and evaluate the Euro-ISDN interface, as a balance between cost and bandwidth availability, and the synchronous CMC tools, with a special interest for video-conferencing. The task of analysing the relationship between electronic and social networks will be shared between the Universities of Stuttgart and Stirling. The first open distance learning (ODL) courses to be developed and delivered by Stirling will concentrate on training in applied social research methods. The specific training modules on care in the community will be developed in the German and Nordic sites. As such, the University of Lapland will focus the interests of a wide range of health and welfare professionals working in small and scattered populations and the University of Oulu will stress the continuing educational needs of all secondary level teachers.

The Baltic International School of Public Health in Sweden has identified the areas of community nursing and health economics, while Stuttgart will meet unmet training needs among speech therapists and nurses. The partners at University of Örebro will work on the community development needs in areas undergoing economic restructuring and Stirling will answer the needs of nurses and teachers in further education colleges and of social workers in the Scottish Highlands and Islands. The partners equally plan on employing simulation techniques to create learning microworlds. Simulations facilitate the process of experimental problem-solving activities for nurses, educators, and social workers. Groups can either attempt to unanimously produce one single solution or allow individual members to propose separate alternatives.

The SCHEMA architecture enables the target groups to synchronously have moderated discussions on the results to assist their situated learning effort. The simulations are mounted in a Web-based environment, protected from outside access through Smart Cards and passwords, thus allowing the rapid evolution of simulations which reflect the everyday, real life situation of the participants. The SCHEMA partners intend to assess the learning processes by analysing their quality in using telematics-based educational multimedia as well as the extent to which these processes lead to the development of a sense of community in scattered populations. This will involve a very critical evaluation of the users' interaction with the applied technology, with course materials, with tutors and with each other.

The SCHEMA partners stress that their project is based on the strong belief in learning as a social process, which amounts to learners interacting with each other as well as with teachers. Up till now, the majority of applications using communications and information technology in teaching and learning has been passive, with the Internet limited to nothing more than a source of material. In order to utilise computers to support the interactive nature of learning, greater use needs to be made of their communicative abilities. The development of synchronous communications, especially video-conferencing and the sharing of applications, results in high demands. The ability of the NC infrastructure to run applications locally should make it ideally adapted to explore these possibilities.

More information on the project is available at the SCHEMA home page. Please, also read the VMW article on the related DISCUS project: European care takers soon to discuss their professional experiences over the Internet.

Leslie Versweyveld

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