Meeting report

Computing and teaching microsymposia at ECM20

[Gun] Controversial session on software solutions at ECM20.
A Mycrosymposia on the contemporary topic of Computing and Teaching featured six speakers who delighted the audience with a wide range of topics on using the Internet for distance learning, virtual courses in crystallography and various models for delivery of curriculum. Some key issues regarding the pace of introducing new technologies, the role of government in delivering mass education and the pressures on institutions in responding to the novel methods of education was raised during the talks.

Y. Epelboin (CNRS, Paris) [1] in the opening address asked, 'What can we learn from actual experience?' and compared the US experience with the European paradigm. He projected that the world education market [2] by 2002 would be worth an estimated 90 billion US dollars. Distance learning would open up the accessibility to virtual documents and libraries facilitating politicians to contain the budget for education. However, the case was argued that the rich diverse tapestry of language and traditions that is European culture could not so easily be swayed by an economic model. Cooperation via Brussels would ensure that the 'Revolution would go marching on.' Was the idiosyncratic Gallic rally.

At the heart of G. Chapuis' talk (Lausanne, Switzerland) was the 'nuts and bolts' of implementing interactive web applications of Java applets to provide simulation of some key crystallographic concepts. He listed the ingredients for a virtual course in crystallography concentrating on the tools for simulation and provided a number of real time demonstrations of the Ewald sphere, Laue pattern diagrams and Fourier transforms. The didactic road is long to a complete course on the Internet although within a Java environment using a web browser simulations can be performed, directly independent of the computer platform being used. This time the baton was passed on to the IUCr to promote and establish structured learning modules for potential crystallography students. C. Sansom (Birbeck, London) described at length the Masters level distance learning courses in Structural Biology offered by Birbeck College since 1996. She gave an overview profile of the average student taking the course as mature with demanding professional careers quipping 'that there were no typical students'. The communication links between students and teachers were maintained using a purpose built Internet chat room or MUD for short (multi-user Dimension). Much of the material is written in simple HTML, which can be run on a low specification computer, course material being made available at regular intervals throughout the year. It was stressed that fees were kept low to encourage wide student participation in the Advanced certificate on the Principles of Protein Structure (PPS) [4].

The first of two talks on powder diffraction commenced with A. Le Bail (U. du Maine, France) who challenged the audience to think 'where is all the knowledge.' And reminded us that distance learning was in its centenary. The dangers of online education are well established [5] with the automation of Higher Education likened to creating 'Digital diploma mills' as the pervasive new information technologies advance. The provision of a powder diffraction course was inspired by the Birbeck model and the speaker emphasized the deliberation in choosing between a synchrotronous and asynchrotronous mode of learning. The course material with pedagogic exercises is available on Structure Determination by Powder Diffractometry (SSPD) [6] and can be viewed on the web. Caution was advised that expert systems could kill the interest of deep learning and that an explosion of software diversity could pose a nightmare for student and teacher alike.

The compatibility of the Powder Diffraction on the Web course [7] with both Netscape and Internet Explorer 3 was mentioned as well as being Java/Java script free. As it is easy 'to get lost in hyperspace' the material makes extensive use of course navigation buttons on the web pages. The material itself is organized into three areas; experimental methods covering basic crystallography, diffraction and symmetry, data analysis covering both quantitive and qualitive aspects and a project on Rietveld refinement.

[3] Chapuis G. & Hardaker W., J. Appl. Cryst. (1999) 32, 1164-1168
[5] Nobel D. –

Jim Kelly, Industrial Materials Group, School of Crystallography, Birkbeck College