Virtual Universities - Part 1

by Prof. Paul Bacsich,
Chairman of LearnTel

This is the first in a series of four articles that will look at the emerging phenomenon of "virtual universities."

Setting the Scene and the dimensions of Virtuality

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).

But what are Virtual Universities?

This series of articles attempt to answer these questions, and more.

Examples

There are examples (but not yet many) of projects which call themselves Virtual Universities with some plausibility :-

So far we have been spared the following, but they cannot be far off :-

Interestingly, a number of agencies do not use the term :-

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?

Dimensions of virtuality

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":

  1. To what extent are students not physically present on campus?

  2. To what extent are staff used in non-conventional modes and contracts? (Part-timers, consultants, teleworkers, etc.)

  3. To what extent is computer and network support outsourced?

  4. To what extent has physical infrastructure begun to be reduced?

  5. To what extent has the legal and institutional strength been reduced? (By use of devolution, consortia, ad-hoc collaborations, etc.)

To these five I am minded to add a sixth:

  1. To what extent has the degree structure begun to dissolve into ever-smaller modules studied in an ever more flexible pattern?

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: p.bacsich@shu.ac.uk.

Issue 10 "Learning in a Global Information Society" 2 September 1996