In front of a packed auditorium in the Imax theatre in Munich, and with high commissioners from Brussels present to bless the event, DeutscheTelekoms Global Learning Service was born.
This long-foretold lusty infant brings together a wide range of products and service offerings within a general framework of "TeleLearning". TeleLearning in turn sits within a wider sphere of DeutscheTelekom offerings including TeleWorking, TeleMedecine,TelePublishing and TeleCommerce.
In accordance with this image of spheres, the images used for the TeleLearning service focus on a globe of the Earth, surrounded by seven satellites representing the various aspects of TeleLearning - schools, work-based training and so on.
The introductory presentation was by Dr Herbert May, member of the Supervisory Board of DT. He introduced the role of DT as that of a "moderator", or an "intelligent intermediary".
He stated that this range of DT services had been launched to carry us forward to an era, which he saw as perhaps around 2010, when the PC/pupil ratio in schools was 1:1 and the difference between business and private use of PCs had vanished. He said that TeleLearning had to be global, to cope with a world in which time-to-market was the key business differentiator, and which required round-the-clock product development teams spread across time zones.
Dr Martin Bangemann, the European Commissioner for IT, spoke next. He needs no introduction to this readership. He pointed out that progress towards equipping all schools with IT and Internet access varied widely between EU members - and, not surprisingly in this setting, he picked out Germany as one of the leaders. He mused whether it was now coming to the point when the Commission should set member countries a date by which all schools should be on Internet, rather in the way that they had set dates for telecom deregulation.
Dr Bangemann saw no need for a "cultural conflict" between books and the new technologies. He also speculated that perhaps the main market forTeleLearning services would be young people and older citizens, with perhaps those in between being often too busy to take up the learning opportunities offered. He praised the DT offering as "convincing", pointed out that TeleLearning had to have a global dimension, and that one could learn from the Americans that running a "service" did not mean "being a servant". He stressed that courseware was likely to come from many small companies or even individuals, and that this should be fostered.
This was all perhaps pretty standard stuff but Dr Bangemann surprised a number of technocrats in the audience by suggesting that there was no need now, in his view, in these days of cross-media collaboration, for telephone companies to divest themselves of cable networks. (Since DT own many cable networks, it is likely that this point was added for home consumption - the classical EU position on cable networks has been that PTTs should divest themselves of cable holdings.)
Following Bangemann was Dr GŁnther the Manager of the TeleLearning Division of DeutscheTelekom. He gave details of the Global Learning Web site - http://www.globallearning.de and pointed out that there were now 1.4 million users of DTs "T-Online" Internet service. He then described the graphic imagery of the site - in terms of the seven "worlds of learning" circling the Earth. He then gave an excellent summary of the current thinking on how TeleLearning changes roles in schools and universities. In schools, he pointed out that teachers had to become moderators. As for universities, he quoted the German Minister for Education that "the need for reform is evident" and that the Rectors had recently agreed that online media are important to the future of universities.
The most interesting part of Dr GŁnthers talk was on the "Global Learning Institute". This seemed as if it would be part of DeutscheTelekom Multimedia Systemhouse, not a separate university department. However, it would operate rather like a Virtual Faculty of TeleLearning Technology. The Institute was planned to become the "first point of contact" for information on TeleLearning. It would aim at "providing advice for companies" and other types of organisation, using "experts from all over the world". It would offer courses and seminars from internationally renowned TeleLearning experts - these would in many cases operate via virtual teams. In this area, but no others, he said, "Deutsche Telekom would be a content provider."
Dr GŁnther then described the "Schools on the Net" programme. This is run by Dr Detlief Garbe, whom many know from his work on DELTA projects in the Third Framework era. (Indeed, there was something of the atmosphere of a DELTA "revival meeting" at the launch - several other of the "heavy mob" from DELTA days were there, including Dick Davies and Raymond Benders - as well as Leo Reif, of course, who now occupies a key international position in DTs TeleLearning and Multimedia initiatives.)
Schools on the Net intend to connect all of Germanys 30,000 schools to the Internet. They have just over 10% connected already - about 3400 by Easter, they said. They are using various technologies for connection - ISDN, B-ISDN, ATM or satellite Internet access. For those schools using dial-up access, there is a special local-call tariff with a discount of 40% on the normal rates. Several large publishers have now joined the Schools on the Net programme.
This first part of the presentation was followed by a much-needed coffee-break and then by an impressive series of demonstrations from major and minor companies. These included Deutsche Telekom Training -"FUNLINE" - Robert Bosch, Mercedes-Benz, Siemens, Berlitz, Springer Publishing, and several others, including, to some peoples surprise (given that Microsoft have their own plans for world online training), Microsoft Germany.
There was also a presentation from the EU-TACIS project on training Air Traffic Controllers across Russia using TeleLearning. The project manager of this turned out to be Raymond Benders, another famous name from the DELTA era. The sharp-eyed among the audience noticed that the online network for this was currently being supplied by Hughes Olivetti Telecom, the "DirecPC" satellite Internet service provider - another sign of DTs "new pragmatism" in terms of what networks can do for one.
It was announced during these presentations that around another 14 providers would launch their TeleLearning services at Cebit in March.
The air of intellectual, network and organisational power was overwhelming, so much so that one person was heard to remark in awe that there seemed more good educational projects here than in the whole of the Fourth Framework programme.
Both the presentations and the technical support were flawless, but the schedule was not adhered to, partly because extra late-breaking presentations had been factored in. Consequently lunch was rushed - this was a pity, because DT had mounted an impressive exhibition which we had no time to see.
After lunch there was a panel session. This was in a sense an anticlimax because of the impact of the morning - however, a lot of interesting further details emerged - but details, not strategic things.
DT also handed out an arm-stretching amount of documentation. This was mostly in German. It included a book of articles on "TeleLearning" edited by Dr GŁnther and Professor Mandl. This contained a very interesting article, in English, called "TeleLearning - current scenarios" by Betty Collis of Twente. Will we see her as one of the founding visiting faculty of the Global Learning Institute? Time will tell.....
This launch of TeleLearning by Deutsche Telecom is much more impressive than anything done by any other PTT, in Europe or indeed elsewhere. Other European PTTs have talked, or carried out minor activities, often with an R&D rather than an implementation focus. Not once did DT say that implementation would have to wait on further R&D - contrast that view with what BT, the European Commission and many European academics always trot out.
Nevertheless, a good start may fade out if momentum is not maintained by DeutscheTelekom. It will be important for DT to keep up the technical momentum (one interesting aspect was the routine use of small Java applets to liven up pages). On the network side, there was virtually no mention of the obvious (to me) link between the Global Learning Service and the use of Global One, DTsrecent "world network" service, run in conjunction with France Telecom and others (including perhaps others not yet decided, it was rumoured at the meeting).
On the pedagogy side, it will also be important for DT to put some flesh on the bones of the Global Learning Institute, including the appointment of the best visiting faculty on a Europe-wide or even world-wide basis. From day one, as the menus show, the Global Learning Network will be running in English as well as German, so that one has a right to expect an international feel for the Global Learning Institute.