Re-Engineering the Campus with Web and Related Technology for the Virtual University

Insights from my work in Europe analysed in the context of developments in the US - Part 1

by Prof. Paul Bacsich,
Sheffield Hallam University, UK

This is the first part of a two-part article based on a presentation given at FLISH97. It is a retrospective look at my approach to "re-engineering the campus" analysed in the light of my European experiences over the last 15 years and my studies of the North American situation. Part two in the next issue of this newsletter will look at what is happening at Sheffield Hallam University and how to become an Internet University!

(This is the third in a series of four articles on "virtual universities." Read part 1 first.)

The Needs of Learners

I have learned enough from educators over the years to know to start with the learner. So what can we say in summary terms about the needs of learners in the last few years of the millennium?

Obviously some of the issues are culturally determined, but most of them are constants across the developed world. I apologise for any UK biases that creep unannounced into my paper.

Students have many wants:

Challenges for Universities

As if dealing with students was not bad enough, universities in many developed countries face a number of challenges in these final years of the 1990s:

The new markets that universities are looking at fall into four categories:

Making the Changes Required

So what are universities actually doing, faced with these threats? In contrast to the US, where there is much activity and even more agonising, in Europe, in many cases, very little is happening. Many universities, especially the older ones, are still hoping that the threats will go away or that they will find some other way of coping (a favourite approach is to launch an appeal for funds from former graduates). But in some countries, notably the UK, and to some extent more in the "new universities" (the former polytechnics) than in the old, there is much activity.

In addition in the UK the Open University has made great strides in modernising its image and to some extent its approach; but there is not much evidence that the other European open universities are yet taking a similar route in any serious, institution-wide way.


What these approaches, and lack of approaches, all have in common is the lack of any theoretical basis in terms of management. (Though they often claim to have a theoretical basis of educational theory, or in some occasions, of computer science.)

My approach is based on the discipline of business process re-engineering. Better minds than mine have defined this as:

"the fundamental rethinking and radical redesign of work processes"

"to achieve substantial improvements in performance - cost, quality, service and time-to-market"

It is important to note that re-engineering is not about small percentage improvements in performance. Thus,

"re-engineering is not about small percentage improvements in performance"

though this is hotly disputed by some, it is quite different in scope and scale from such disciplines as Total Quality Management. To put it crudely, if your car is broken down, you don’t waste time trying to find slightly faster ways of polishing it.

It is also important to stress that re-engineering is not just about downsizing; however it is true that re-engineering has in the past, certainly in the hands of ultra-enthusiasts, led to considerable slimming down of work forces. It is interesting to note that some of the early enthusiasts are now publicly repenting of their early zeal.

To give a homely example of re-engineering, I will use one that is often given in business studies courses - washing the car. All across England every Sunday one can see people engaged in this chore. How we all hate it! So how could one re-engineer the process? Here are some ideas (in re-engineering, often the wilder the initial ideas the better):

As an interesting exercise in the cultural aspects of re-engineering, I leave to the reader the challenge of re-engineering the second most hated chore of English people, mowing the lawn.

Re-engineering Universities

Re-engineering has swept through the Anglo-Saxon business world like a storm; and has begun to move on into other organisational cultures such as the much cosier business culture of continental Europe, and into the non-profit sector (Hammer and Stanton). Thus there is no reason to suppose that universities would be immune to the process. After all, every other profession has in recent years been affected by the changes in business norms and technologies - even doctors and lawyers, if slowly. So why should professors and teachers be the unique exception? Of course they will not be, but they mostly believe as if they are - even in business schools!

Thus there will be pressure over the next few years from stakeholders in the university system (perhaps other than the staff) to re-engineer the teaching process at universities. This has already started some time ago in the UK although it was usually (and I think, naively) articulated by the government as cost-cutting rather than organisational transformation. One can see the Dearing review as part of this process.

Re-Engineering Objectives

In the university system, I hold that the main objectives are the following:

IT as an Enabling Technology

The use of information technology in re-engineering is usually quite different from that in the classical systems design process. IT is seen as an "enabling technology" which will aid in the solution of a large number of business problems, rather than being the specific human-free solution for one business problem.

Curiously, many people used to criticise university computing centres for being obsessed with installing infrastructure rather than "doing what the academics want" - but it turns out that they may have been doing the right thing all along!

However, my view is that several may have been doing the right kind of thing, but were wrong in details - too late into microcomputers, too late into the Internet - but perhaps too early into broadband? As a manager in a computer centre (and I was one of these also once), one has to listen to the academics, and the administrators, and intuit the technological changes - then make one’s own decision.

Thus IT is a servant to the re-engineering process but not its master, even in the areas of teaching computing. Similarly, and much harder for academics to swallow, educational technology, cognitive psychology and computer science may suggest (part of) the answer, but not how to achieve it. Management techniques are the overarching requirement. (I know this sounds like the traditional English civil service cry of "experts on tap but not on top".)

The IT Armamentarium

There are several IT tools that one can use to re-engineer universities. In my earlier work I tended to concentrate on telematics tools (network-based systems) rather than multimedia (computer-based training, CD-ROM, etc); but now I see them as much more just points on an axis rather than opposites, now that multimedia can be on WWW or CD-ROM depending on the application or the market.

"Using CD-ROM is a late binding decision", said one of my colleagues, showing off his knowledge of computing science. Indeed, it is not clear that one can make a meaningful distinction any more in the era of audio and video on the net, so much so that the European Commission, always quick to pick up on trends, now talk about "multimedia telematics" in the same indivisible way that they used to talk about "education & training".

In as much as there is still a distinction, in this paper I concentrate on telematics. This is because it is my view that at university level, telematics has more to offer than multimedia. This is because many (but not all) universities lack the economies of scale necessary to make multimedia cost-effective. I am aware that this view is contrary to the interests of many academics and the outcome of several reports. However, most of these reports did not seriously engage with the economic aspects.

What to Attack

Re-engineering the campus, in my view, starts by looking at the following key components of the teaching situation on campus. This is not to say that there are not other components, but re-engineers learn fast to focus on those areas where gains will come most easily (or rather, least hard) and will be most substantial.

"a tradition of just tinkering in universities"

There is also a tradition of tinkering with the situation in universities which avoids attacking the redoubts of academia, concentrating instead on peripheral aspects. I may have been dreaming but I think I read an article on re-engineering in universities where the case study was on re-engineering the gardening function! I am not saying that such a case study was pointless, only that it did not attack the key difficulty in universities, namely academic productivity.

So cutting a swathe through a metre-thick chunk of literature, let us agree for this paper that the three key aspects of teaching are:

How to Attack it

The following attack methodology is generally accepted. Indeed, the third is so over-accepted as to raise doubts about its validity!

I have no real problems with the second and third of these strategies. I consider that the first is flawed, in a way that I shall come to later. This has not stopped it being widely applied across North America and Australia.

In the real-world situation one’s strategy is likely to consist of a mixture of three, but so far the best results have been obtained by those who focus on one or at most two of the strategies.

What Have I Missed Out?

Though the above analysis has been widely promulgated over the last year, I now consider that there is a major flaw in it. This is the position of what I call "para-teaching".

Para-teaching is those aspects of the teaching process which are not covered by the three categories above. Cynically, they are all the dissatisfying things that conspire to get in the way of doing actual teaching. These things include:

Para-teaching is an area where I consider that other tools can be deployed additional to those cited above; such as quiz/question-generating systems for assessment, groupware for course administration.

Nevertheless I still feel that it is a mistake to focus re-engineering efforts first on para-teaching. It is tempting, because it skirts the problem of engaging with the core business of academics, but not wise. Just possibly, an easy gain in a para-teaching front might be beneficial if one immediately pressed home the attack on one of the core areas, but the temptation of most academics and academic managers to relax after one gain could be hard to resist.

The Tools

Now I will look at the three tools in turn. The next few sections can be brief because the use of these tools is well documented. I shall concentrate only on those less well-known or more surprising aspects, and those where I feel that "conventional wisdom" is wrong.

I am sure people will forgive me if I start with computer conferencing, my favourite over many years.

Tool 1 - Computer Conferencing for Tutoring

In technical terms computer conferencing is like electronic mail, but with the difference that messages can be sent to topics as well as to actual people; thus computer conferencing is nowadays virtually synonymous with "bulletin board" system.

It was not always thus - but after many years of fruitless argument between the devotees of "advanced" computer conferencing and the enthusiasts for what our enemies called "simple-minded" systems, the market solved the problem by making bankrupt or marginal all the so-called advanced systems, leaving the field wide open to bulletin board systems from mainstream vendors. (Those of our colleagues spending much time developing their own WWW-based conferencing systems do not seem to be aware of these facts.)

Computer conferencing is now getting quite popular with the UK Open University and several universities in the "traditional" sector. Apart from its similarity to electronic mail, it has the further features of being:

The economic cost-benefit arguments are simple in theory: Students can be taught at or near home, so travel less; but have to pay telecoms bills. However, in reality it is hard to prove any convincing cost-effectiveness (or lack of it) for computer conferencing - so much depends on the "secondary" assumptions (such as whether the value of student time is included in the equation).

There have been many evaluations of computer conferencing over the last 15 years. The traditional ones (those more than a few years old) are in my view not worth reading, since in general terms they focus on technical difficulties and wider social issues not relevant to the world of today. The more recent ones, of which many were carried out under the auspices of the many trials at the UK Open University and its European partners (supported by European and internal funds), have conclusions that can be distilled down to the following:

Tool 2 - World Wide Web for Replacing Books

There is an extensive literature on World Wide Web, so that I shall just give a summary of its pedagogic characteristics. However, I feel that World Wide Web is perhaps the most hard to understand of the telematic technologies key to re-engineering. I see its features as the following:

In economic terms WWW replaces libraries by cyberspace; or bricks and mortar with silicon. The financial engine driving such a change should be powerful given that building costs are rising and computer costs are falling fast; but the engine has not been started up yet.

As an example, several universities have built, and some are still building, new Libraries, or rather, Learning Centres. The cost of the building for such a Learning Centre might buy a lot of PCs, maybe one for every student on the campus. Would that be a wise trade-off? Maybe not yet - but I wonder how many universities will build a second Learning Centre now.

Tool 3 - Video-conferencing for Lecturing

The pedagogic mode for video-conferencing is often said to be "lecturing at a distance". In US (or Australian) practice, several "remote" lecture rooms are linked (via ISDN or leased digital lines, or in some areas, ATM broadband networks). This provides a distributed lecture room.

The model is much less prevalent in Europe. This seems to be partly due to a less developed infrastructure, partly to a more traditional university system.

The cost-benefits of video-conferencing are very simple to formulate: one replaces teacher travelling by institutional use of telecoms. The systems can be very cost-effective, in the situation of use over longer distances and at high utilisation factors.

Where video-conferencing trials fail it is usually because of neglect of the underlying pedagogy or institutional factors, or because there was no thought given to the need to scale up to attain economic benefits. In a nutshell, there is no point in installing a multi-point video-conferencing system round one city and then using it for only a few hours per week, yet in several cases this has been done, in the UK and elsewhere.

"video conferencing lectures a discredited technology for a discredited pedagogy?"

Cynics (often drawn from computer conferencing or Internet circles) often describe the methodology of video-conferencing lectures as "a discredited technology for a discredited pedagogy". That is too harsh, but contains a germ of truth. A traditional lecture is largely a one-way process - indeed, that is one of its economic benefits. There is a limited reverse channel (asking questions), but as long as students feel that they could ask a question, they can end up satisfied. It would be cacophony, and inefficient, if they all did ask questions. A lecture is much more than transmission of information - it is a performance.

One of the secrets of being a good lecturer is to spin the illusion of understanding (hoping the reality will follow - true understanding requires study, not just listening) and allow a limited number of questions but spin the illusion to me as a student that "my" question was answered.

Video-conferencing is actually a symmetric two-way system, thus mapping that onto a lecture produces a pedagogic-technical mismatch - either one does not use the full reverse channel or one changes the lecture into a tutorial, which is of course quite a different thing.

Thus I favour a different kind of model for video-conferencing Again it is not a new idea, indeed it is found widely in the US (Bacsich and Mason 1995) - that is the idea of a video broadcast with simpler return channel (audio or email). This simpler model has been taken up quite widely in Europe now, especially by the EuroPACE consortium and by a number of the satellite education projects within the previous EUROSTEP programme. Audio return channels (audio conferencing) have a rather "period flavour" in Europe in the age of the Internet (the concept was never popular in Europe, whereas in the US a large rural market was socialised into using it before the Internet was available); thus I favour models where the feedback channel is email (or computer conferencing).

Although Europe came to satellites in education much later than the US, there have been several years experimentation with such models now. But the age of the Internet has updated the technology within the last couple of years. First it became possible to transmit audio broadcasting over the Internet - the "ordinary" Internet, that is, without using specialised sub-networks (such as the MBone) or broadband networks.

Although there are other firms and technologies, the name of RealAudio from Progressive Networks became well known. In the last few months the same has happened to video when Progressive Networks announced RealVideo. (They were not the first, but their entry validated the market.) Broadcasting purists are right to object to calling what happens "video" - As Captain Kirk might have said, "It’s video, but not as we know it". As my daughter says (or does), it’s good enough to watch pop videos, especially of live events, even if to BBC purists the picture is a "Blur".

There have been some interesting "pre-operational" interactive educational services using RealAudio. The best known in Europe is the "Knowledge Radio" series of broadcasts from the Knowledge Media Institute. This was later enhanced by further research work into a system called the "KMI Stadium" where audio broadcasting was enhanced by presentation graphics, and a panoply of interaction styles were added, to simulate applause, voting and so on.

Though some vendors are interested, this seems to remain a research project, rather than being absorbed (so far anyway) into the operational envelope of the Open University. As so often, operational advance in this area is coming from the US, where for example the self-styled "full-service" CU-Online based on the University of Colorado is making full use of RealAudio (and now RealVideo).

Thus I foresee (Bacsich, 1996) that future interactive video services targeted at widespread home-based audiences will use technology fusions such as RealVideo with email feedback, rather than either the CU-SeeMe type of system favoured by computer nerds, or the ISDN (or broadband) video-conferencing systems favoured by PTT fantasists. Neither of the rivals to streaming video has the correct pedagogico-economic aspects.

(Now read part 2)


Bacsich and Mason (1995)
"Telematics for Distance Education in North America: Report of a Study Visit Summer 1995", KMI TechReport KMI/EMRG/95/1.
See especially the report on George Washington University.

Bacsich (1996)
"The Future of Educational Television", KMI TechReport KMI/EMRG/96/1.
Talk given at the launch of the Finnish Open University television service - see especially the concluding section.


Paul Bacsich (C) 1997. A version of this paper was first created for the Social Sciences Research Centre of Hong Kong University.

The author assigns to educational and non-profit institutions (including Sheffield Hallam University, Hong Kong University and LearnTel) a non-exclusive licence to use this document for personal use and in courses of instruction provided that the article is used in full and this copyright statement is reproduced.

For further information Paul Bacsich can be contacted at:

Sheffield Hallam University
School of Computing and Management Sciences
City Campus, Pond Street,
Sheffield, United Kingdom S1 8HD

Tel: +44 0114 2253795
Fax: +44 0114 225 3161

Issue 14&15 "Learning in a Global Information Society" 31 January 1998