Virtual Universities - Part 2

by Paul Bacsich,
Professor of Telematics, Electronic Campus Project,
Sheffield Hallam University, United Kingdom

This is the second in a series of four articles that will look at the emerging phenomenon of "virtual universities." (Read part 1 first)

Some new examples

CyberEd is the online distance learning programme at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. For details see

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 "world’s 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 FernUniversitšt’s 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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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 Telekom’s guidance. In this context, and contrary to predictions made (including by me) around 18 months ago, Microsoft is the "dog that didn’t 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.

  3. 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.

Dimensions of Virtuality

With the help of colleagues and seminar delegates, I have filled in scores for the institutions as shown in Table 1.

Table 1 Dimensions of Virtuality
Name Students Staff Network Buildings Legal Modules
Sheffield Hallam Univ. 2 2 6 1 1 7
Open University (UK) 9 6 4 5 2 7
Dutch OU 9 7 5 3 3 7
FernUniversitat 9 8 4 4 3 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
EADTU 5 5 7 5 8 5
CyberEd 10 3 9 9 4 7
CU-Online 10 3 9 9 4 7
Global Learning Network 9 9 4 7 7 5
Athabasca Univ. 9 6 9 9 2 7

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.

Why go virtual?

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:

One of the prime motivators is the desire to escape into new markets. These markets fall into four categories:

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.

Should all universities go virtual?

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:

Issue 12 "Learning in a Global InformationSociety" 22 February 1997