Virtue in Virtuality?

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The role of the virtual university in higher education will be neither that of savior nor of subversive. While some advocates warn that higher education must get on-line or wither away, and critics claim the Internet will destroy our campuses and even scholarship itself, I wish to propose another scenario: a future at once more modest and more interesting. In order to describe this future, however, we need to be clear about what the term "virtual university" means.

The true Virtual University (VU) is a true university and is truly virtual. That is, it is made up of multiple colleges embracing at a minimum the humanities, social sciences, science, and the fine arts, granting advanced degrees in each. It is truly virtual when it has no residency requirements—no campus—and all teaching is done on-line. This is a fairly strict definition that leaves out entities such as the Western Governors University or Phoenix University. These have their place on the Net, but they represent no direct competition with existing universities. Training, even advanced training, can be done over the Net, but training is not at the heart of higher education. Specialized colleges and professional programs can be offered over the Net, [Can a college be offered over the Net?  Does the author mean courses? - L] but these again are not what constitutes a university. It [this refers to ...? - L]also leaves aside the distributed learning initiatives of campus-based universities, which initiatives [this seems a bit awkward - L] have a different purpose and role.

Within this narrow definition, can a true virtual university exist? And what would be the role of such an entity in higher education?

Without doubt individual courses can be taught over the Internet. Equally, certain subjects clearly cannot be taught over the Internet. Are there enough viable courses to manage a four-year degree? In some subjects, yes. The Net lends itself well to text-based disciplines, so many of the humanities would prosper. The sheer physicality of experimental science is at odds with the virtual universe, and physical experimentation is deeply imbedded in scientific research. Still, with careful selection and some non-traditional approaches, enough could be offered to merit degrees in the hard sciences. Social sciences probably fall somewhere in between, as would the fine arts. We would not have the usual university curriculum, but there would be enough to warrant the name.

Can we find students for VU? Yes, they’re already on the Internet. Some students at a campus-based school (let’s call it CU) might pick up a class or two from VU, but the core of VU’s student body will be from elsewhere—students with more money than time; students who are probably professionals, many retired, who want a formal education and not just a class or two "for fun", and who are willing to pay for it. This is not a big market, but remember that VU can pull from a very large population—everyone who is on the Internet. This market of older students is served only imperfectly by CU in the form of summer classes and workshops.

Assuming, therefore, that we can find a few thousand students out of the millions who populate the Internet, can we find the teachers to teach them? Again yes, but the models will be non-traditional. The VU faculty may well work semester by semester on contract. They will teach small classes, as on-line education does not work well for large groups, and students will sign up for classes based on the teacher. As a stubborn traditionalist when it comes to academic traditions, the idea that tenure might not exist at VU makes me more than a little nervous. Trying to find something positive about this, perhaps VU will provide employment for some of the many PhDs currently working in other jobs. Academic freedom might be preserved because teachers will teach at the VU that treats them best, and moving to a new institution would be trivial (assuming multiple VUs). Then again, I see no reason why tenure could not be extended to the VU either; I’m merely speculating that it might not.[This tenure discussion seems disjointed and incomplete. What is it about losing tenure that disturbs the author? What is it that seems necessary in this new virtual environment? This doesn't seem well thought out. - L]

The curriculum may well be unorthodox. I can see at least the possibility of student cohorts, moving through a subject area together in units of time determined by the instructor, for there will be no semester system at VU. In contrast with the CU, where each class is a more or less random collection of individuals, classes at VU will be comprised of people who have a common interest and common goals. They might enter a class that extends over the course of many months, learning to work with one another in meaningful ways. Those same students (twenty or so) might stay together for another course or might disperse to join other cohorts for other courses. A degree program would be made up of a collection of these. Certain non-traditional CUs may have something to teach us here.[In what ways would this "unorthodox" curriculum be beneficial or detrimental? - L]

Students will be able to return to VU over and over again throughout their lives, creating a truly meaningful alumni community. Because the campus will always be only a few mouse-clicks away, the VU campus experience will be a lifelong experience, visited occasionally by some students, often by others—a life-long habit, like reading novels, with much the same rewards. VU would function like a club, with a core of active members and a periphery of occasional participants all contributing to create an atmosphere and experience unique to each college.[An interesting point. - L]

So, we have a body of serious students who, along with grants and donations, provide enough money to pay our contract faculty. Because we are going to run VU right [is this a given?! - L], there will gradually be alumni who will aid in funding. [What about the technological costs?  The VU will certainly not have the same infrastructure problems as a physical campus, but it will have technological infrastructure and service costs.  Paying the faculty will probably be only 1/2 the expense.  What about administration, marketing, and finance costs? - L] The degrees granted will be a somewhat eclectic mix, but they will be academically respectable.[What will the role of accreditation be in this virtual landscape?  How will standards be the same or different?  What makes for a quality virtual education? - L]

A university, any university, real or virtual, is a living community, and is more than just the sum of its classes. This, ultimately, is why alumni contribute to the alma mater, because of a sense of identity with a community. Traditionally, we have thought of community as having a specific, localized, physical existence, but the Internet has shown that virtual communities can also create a strong sense of identity. The goal of VU will be to create a virtual community. It can do so by hosting guest lectures, real-time events, and so on. Even things like student government or a student newspaper can be virtualized. Probably more important will be the creation of discussion areas, as these seem to be key to the creation of virtual communities elsewhere on the Net. Just as CU can offer experiences VU cannot, so virtuality will offer experiences difficult or impossible for the physical world. The special benefits of multi-threaded asynchronous communication is one such.
CU plays the vital social role of educating our youth. I know the mantra about lifelong learning (by which is really meant lifelong re-training), but the plain fact is that educating young adults is an extremely important social function. It is around college age that a young person fully develops a sense of ethics and citizenship and tests them out in the world. CU provides a rich context for that maturation. Such considerations are less relevant to older students. In our society, we have two institutions for the education of young adults: the military, and the university.

VU will not play this role. Education of the youth is the specialty of CU, for its very physicality is key in this respect. Virtuality cannot do this. I see a bright future for those colleges that understand this and promote themselves as a physical, synchronous experience for young adults.

What role, then, might VU play in the general scheme of higher education? Quite simply, the education of those people who sincerely want a college education but who cannot abandon their jobs, those who already have a degree but who want another, and those who simply love learning. Given the nature of our student body, VU will pose no competetive threat to CU at all. It will occupy a quiet but important niche in higher education. The legislatures and corporate America and the media will be uninterested in VU because it will not be a training school and it will not be saving states money. And it will be hopelessly academic. [Interesting point. - L]

VU has the potential of creating a community out of relatively isolated individuals, to the enrichment of the larger society. It can become the driving force in nurturing the "educated layman," much as the public library has for generations. And it can nurture the traditions and standards of scholarship, critical analysis and freedom of thought that have largely been confined to the ivory tower of the CU. I do not know from what quarter VU will spring, but I keep watching for it. I intend to be among its first faculty.

A good conclusion. There are some interesting points made in this essay.  I believe that more detail is needed in some of the above points because they are either incomplete or leave too many questions unanswered.   The writing also doesn't flow well in points.  Otherwise though, the essay raises some good issues and should be published with changes. - L


Critical Reviews


The author might accomplish his/her objective by focusing on an in-depth, SINGLE vision of the virtual university—copyright; sources of students; are all distracting and major topics in their own right.

While the author may be well grounded in the literature, the piece avoids any references which would strengthen credibility. For example, " the death of the university" articles --Internet II's power--why learning is enhanced in a virtual environment--etc.


I like the aim of this submission, but it needs more substance. As is, it's too abstract. Without concrete examples of existing virtual classes or programs, the article is simply a mix of ideas that are neither new nor fresh. With up-to-date references to specific courses, colleges, teachers, etc., this could be an effective summary of where the VU is today.