This is the first in a series of four articles that will look at the emerging phenomenon of "virtual universities."
It seems that 1996 is the year of Virtual Universities. There are already over 200 hits on the World Wide Web matching the phrase "Virtual University". At a recent workshop at the EdMedia/EdTelecom conference in Boston in June, organised at short notice by myself and Dr Robin Mason of the Open University, the room was packed out.
There was a virtual universities discussion group on the Internet run by several of us under the auspices of the Teleteaching conference in Canberra, Australia in September this year.
And there will be a workshop on Virtual Universities at Online Educa at Berlin in November and the topic will feature largely in the Sheffield conference "Flexible Learning on the Information SuperHighway" in May 1997 (LearnTel is one of the sponsors).
How do they differ from other plans to re-engineer universities - electronic universities (or was that three years ago?), telematic universities (last year or this year?), multimedia universities (the EU says this is next year)?
Is it an attempt by traditional campus universities to give themselves a face-lift without really changing anything?
Or an equally feeble attempt by correspondence-based distance teaching universities to modernise their image?
Is it the latest strategy by national governments and international agencies to avoid paying real money to solve real problems? "Never mind - you wont get a campus for the University of Loamshire - but well give you a Virtual Campus. Our experts Professors Ironlard and Bacon say thats just as good nowadays!"
Is it just the latest hype by academics rationalising running away from research into teaching? "Im not just running an online course - its part of a new Virtual University!"
Is it a way of university vice-chancellors paying lip-service to governmental drives towards collaboration while not doing any?
Is it a ploy by various kinds of "arriviste" colleges to bypass the normal lengthy procedures to become universities?
In short, is it just a con-trick?
This series of articles attempt to answer these questions, and more.
There are examples (but not yet many) of projects which call themselves Virtual Universities with some plausibility :-
The World Bank are proudly proclaiming an African Virtual University as the solution to Africas higher education problems: http://www.worldbank.org/html/emc/documents/afvirtual.html.
Spectrum Virtual University offers a wide range of courses on the Internet: http://horizons.org/campus.html.
as does the Virtual Online University: http://www.athena.edu/.
The state governors of several of the USAs Western States want to set up the Western Virtual University to help solve their states industrial retraining problems: http://www.concerto.com/smart/vu/vu.html.
So far we have been spared the following, but they cannot be far off :-
The vision of the University for Industry proposed by the UK Labour Party: http://www.labour.org.uk/speeches/blaireng.htm could, under election pressures, soon become the Virtual University for Industry. Warning! The recent report from the EUs Task Force on Multimedia uses the similar term "University of Industry". What the EU christens has a habit of coming into life, or at least quasi-life.
Speaking of the EU, EVE - the "European Virtual University" - cannot be far away. One might joke - who is ADAM? "Asynchronous Distance Access and Mentoring"? (Mentors might be cheaper than professors. A new role for the ranks of the early retired academics?)
Interestingly, a number of agencies do not use the term :-
The University of Highlands and Islands: http://www.uhi.ac.uk/ still just a project but has a vision of using telematics and multimedia in conjunction with existing campuses.
So why dont these canny Highlands folk use the word "Virtual"? Is it because the term is still thought of as too new to impress civil servants in the Scottish Education Department? The term is known in Scotland - around Glasgow recently the Clyde Virtual University has leapt onto the Net: http://cvu.strath.ac.uk/campus.html.
Even BT, normally prone to "telematicise" things if it turns them a profit, have not used the term "Virtual" in the description of the East Anglian electronic university scheme that they sponsor.
The Open University, which has probably spent more than any other European university recently on re-positioning itself for the new era of multimedia telematics has not changed its name: http://kmi/open.ac.uk.
Despite many internal enthusiasts, high- and low-born in the OU system, there still is no "Electronic Open University". Is this just because of the desire to keep the OU brand name "shining through"? Even the BBC, from whom it might be argued the OU copies many of its attitudes, does not shrink from new names for new parts of its operations. (Warning! The "Virtual Open University" that can be found on the Web is nothing to do with the UK Open University.)
Can one find deeper reasons behind these choices of names?
To me, virtuality in a university is a matter of degree, not kind. At the workshop in Summer 1996 in Boston I proposed the following "five dimensions of virtuality":
To what extent are students not physically present on campus?
To what extent are staff used in non-conventional modes and contracts? (Part-timers, consultants, teleworkers, etc.)
To what extent is computer and network support outsourced?
To what extent has physical infrastructure begun to be reduced?
To these five I am minded to add a sixth:
In the spirit of modern physics, each of these dimensions has its own sub-dimensions. So for example, dimension 2 might split into the areas of teaching staff, administrative staff and research staff. In the Open University, teaching staff are considerably outsourced, administrative staff hardly at all.
Dimension 3 splits neatly into computer and network support - and network support sub-splits into Local Area and Wide Area. In most universities in Europe, Wide Area Network support is outsourced largely to the national academic Internet provider. The Open University is unique in having its own dial-up national network. (But in the US, this is more common.) Computing support in UK universities is often outsourced at the hardware maintenance level but not (yet) for the other sub-sub-dimension of software support.
The other dimensions could also be split up.
In the next part of this opus, I shall look at examples of virtual-seeming universities around the world, and classify them in terms of the dimensions of virtuality I have outlined. My examples will include all the ones already mentioned in this article.
I would be very interested in hearing from other virtual universities - please contact me via email at: email@example.com.