This is the second in a series of four articles that will look at the emerging phenomenon of "virtual universities." (Read part 1 first)
CyberEd is the online distance learning programme at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. For details see http://www.umassd.edu/cybered/distlearninghome.html.
Currently they offer six online courses for credit and around 10 non-credit courses (many on Web-related practical topics). The programme is run by a small team under a charismatic individual.
CU-Online is the Online courses division of the University of Colorado. They have generated a massive amount of interest in the distance learning community, in part by unequivocally describing themselves as the "worlds first complete online university". They offer more than 20 courses offered in their entirety over the Internet.
The Global Learning Network of Deutsche Telekom will shortly be offering university-level courses. It is expected that it will operate as a kind of consortium, perhaps rather in the mode of EADTU or EuroPACE, but with Deutsche Telekom operating as a kind of "glue".
Many of the existing open universities are beginning to creep down the path of online activity. In the previous LIGIS (LIGIS 11, October 1996) there were articles about the FernUniversitšts Virtual Campus and about how the Dutch Open universiteit was positioning itself for the online era. Athabasca University is another traditional open university (in Canada) that has started substantial online activity.
In my view serious operational services in the Virtual University era will come from three main sources:
The stronger and/or more far-seeing of the open universities who see their traditional market slipping away - examples include Open University, Athabasca, and perhaps the FernUniversitšt.
University consortia led or extensively influenced by a telecom or major software supplier - such as the Global Learning Network is likely to become under Deutsche Telekoms guidance. In this context, and contrary to predictions made (including by me) around 18 months ago, Microsoft is the "dog that didnt bark in the night" - but it could be unwise to assume that Microsoft have abandoned ambitions in this sector, if only because rivals such as Sun, Oracle and Hewlett Packard have shown unseemly interest in it from time to time.
Mid-level but reasonably wealthy state (US) or city (UK) universities with a strong interest and capability in data communications - it is in that sense no surprise that the University of Colorado has made a strong showing.
I consider it much less likely that the top-tier universities of the Ivy League (US), "Russell Group" (UK) or Coimbra Group (Europe) will make a major showing. They are not hungry enough, nor do they understand that research (exciting) is not needed, whereas implementation (boring) is; and how little money (relatively speaking in terms of a large university budget) is required to make a splash.
Nor will the small players, in the long run, but they may make a lot of noise for a while. Fortunately for individuals careers, this is still an area where one person can attain world visibility.
With the help of colleagues and seminar delegates, I have filled in scores for the institutions as shown in Table 1.
|Sheffield Hallam Univ.||2||2||6||1||1||7|
|Open University (UK)||9||6||4||5||2||7|
|African Virtual Univ.||5||5||7||5||7||3|
|Univ. of Highlands & Islands||5||5||7||5||7||7|
|Virtual Online Univ.||10||7||9||9||1||8|
|Global Learning Network||9||9||4||7||7||5|
Email me if you disagree, and please give your reasons. Remember that a high score means "very virtual", a low score means "very concrete". Thus at my own university, Sheffield Hallam University, most students are campus-based, but a significant percentage (40% in my Faculty, less in others) are not.
The main reason for a university to start going down the "virtual path" is to respond to a set of challenges facing many universities in the developed world. These challenges include:
A decrease in government grants
Increased competition - from other universities, from non-university colleges, and in the distance teaching sector, from universities outside the home country
A perceived reduction in the relative value of the qualifications
A desire to escape from the restrictions of the undergraduate programme into new markets
An alleviation to staff morale problems by giving staff a new challenge.
One of the prime motivators is the desire to escape into new markets. These markets fall into four categories:
Masters degrees are increasingly popular, because fees can be more realistic - not just the MBA and in computer science, but in a wide range of areas including the topic of distance education itself
Non-degree courses for local firms are of interest, although in some universities there is a degree of snobbery about such courses.
Distance education is spreading fast - open universities face competition in many areas from other UK universities, many of whom can take a more minimalist and pragmatic approach than the open universities can.
World-wide education is the dream of several organisations, but remains hard to achieve in reality; forays into Europe from the US have been less successful than expected - cultural and language barriers are still strong - but the rate of attack is increasing.
Several of these market sectors can be attacked only by going virtual, others can be facilitated by going virtual.
In my view, the main reason to go virtual should not be to cut costs - cutting costs is necessary but it should be a consequence of re-engineering the process of teaching in universities, not its prime focus.
I argue that going virtual (or a little bit virtual) is a logical consequence of re-engineering the teaching process, and in that re-engineering it is more than likely that elements of outsourcing, de-layering and the other normal consequences of re-engineering will take place. Thus I think that all universities will go along the virtual dimensions. Those interested in world-wide presence will go further along the dimensions - in some cases much further.
How to go far along this path is the topic of Part 3.
Paul Bacsich can be contacted via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org