Illinois Virtual Campus:  FOCUS ON student support

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What does a virtual university look like? It's not easy to describe the Illinois Virtual Campus (IVC) to anyone who hasn't been involved in a virtual university.  When I got my new job, my dad, an educator, knowledgeable about higher education but with no computer or Internet experience, could never understand what my position entailed.  He gave up trying to come up with a title with which to introduce me to his friends and finally said, "All I can think of is that you're the director of a fantasy university!" 

Many of today's innovations were probably considered fantasies at one time; there was no reference point that one could use to better understand them.  But what sounded like a fantasy a few years ago can now be described in enough detail to be understood by the average person who watches advertisements on TV.  This article introduces the IVC and describes several components that illustrate how the organization fits into the virtual university design.

What the IVC Is and Isn't

It seems easier to describe the IVC by what it isn't rather than what it is.  Guests to IVC's headquarters won't find a student union or Registrar's office--there are no students or instructors.  Business would look the same even if this office weren't located on a university campus.

Comparing statewide virtual universities is risky, because each is based on a different ideology and organizational structure.  Nomenclature is deceptive, as some virtual universities don't conduct the same business as traditional institutions of higher education.  But perhaps comparisons are one way to begin looking at what the IVC is and isn't.  Kentucky Commonwealth Virtual University (KCVU), featured in a recent Technology Source article,is a good source of comparison to the IVC.  

Unlike KCVU, an agency of the Council on Postsecondary education, or the Michigan Virtual University, a private, not-for-profit corporation, the IVC is funded through a Higher Education Cooperation Act grant that is renewed through a yearly RFP process.Also unlike KCVU, the IVC doesn't have a faculty development and training mission—that is left up to individual colleges and universities.  Furthermore, we don't host courseware; each providing institution does business with vendors locally.  The IVC leaves transfer credit policy up to the providers of content, and most virtual colleges use the same policy that applies to traditional courses and programs.  Additionally, students don't apply for admission to the IVC.  Like KCVU, the IVC does not plan to be an accredited institution; accreditation and course quality reside with Illinois colleges and universities providing the curriculum.    In the taxonomy of virtual universities, the IVC fits in the category of an online catalog that brings together related and unrelated campuses.

The IVC has two distinct missions:  to provide access to distance courses and programs through an online catalog and to provide local support to all Illinois online students through Student Support Centers.  The online catalog makes the IVC appear like a catalog description of a traditional college campus, and the network of over 40 Student Support Centers makes the IVC different from most other statewide virtual entities.

Online Catalog

By spring 2000, the IVC online catalog had listed over 1,500 courses in the searchable web-based database, 800 of which were web-based, with the rest delivered by interactive TV and other media.  Forty online certificate and degree programs were listed.

A scan of the IVC database indicates that not all students find courses or programs in which they are most interested. The IVC catalog could be described as a collection of courses based on individual faculty interest and not on high-demand markets.  In fiscal year 2001, an online program development initiative by the Illinois Board of Higher Education (IBHE) will provide funding which will enable colleges and universities to develop new online courses and programs in high-demand market areas.   Market analysis conducted by the IVC coupled with program development funding by the IBHE will allow the IVC to see an increase in high-demand online certificate and degree programs.


The IVC virtual ribbon cutting didn't take place until August 24, 1999, so it is conceivable that most of the students from the fall of 1999 may not have selected courses through the IVC catalog.  Enrollment information reported by 38 out of 51 providing institutions indicated that 5,647 students enrolled in 485 Internet courses in the IVC's inaugural semester, Fall 1999 (Could you please provide a citation for this statistic?).  At present, there is no one body that collects and reports assessment data regarding online courses from IVC's participating colleges and universities.  It is important to note that the IVC relies on the goodwill of over 50 institutions (community colleges, private, public, and proprietary universities) to report on data that has previously not been compiled.  Collection of demographic data began in the spring of 2000.  Future enrollment data and marketing analyses will reveal more about Illinois' online students as the IVC refines its role in this kind of assessment relative to other Illinois colleges and universities.

Student Support Centers

One important feature of the IVC is its Student Support Centers.  Fifteen community colleges tested the support center concept during the project's first year and established six essential criteria: 

This year, all forty community college districts, covering the entire state of Illinois, serve as Student Support Centers. Other centers are under development (e.g., graduate centers, multi-university centers, businesses, libraries) and may provide different combinations of the services listed above.

Student Example

How might a student use an IVC Student Support Center?   Imagine Mary, an associate degree candidate from Waubonsee Community College, who uses the IVC database to locate an online humanities course.  She finds several, but in comparing course descriptions and tuition rates, she chooses a course from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign  (UIUC).  A link from the course page takes her to UIUC's transition page, where she finds information on how to enroll and register for the course, pay tuition, and order textbooks.  She checks with her Waubonsee advisor and discovers that the course will transfer toward her degree since it has been approved through an Illinois Articulation Initiative agreement.  Mary has difficulty emailing her first assignment to her instructor, but she notices on the course syllabus a link to the IVC's Student Support Center web page. This page provides contact information for someone at her local community college from whom she can get technical help.  The page also includes information about taking a proctored test.  Like Mary, every student in Illinois has access to these "high touch" services, increasing the opportunity for a successful online learning experience.


This article briefly describes the IVC as an organization.  Though we don't need to compare one virtual campus to another to determine organizational health, it would be helpful to the IVC to acquire more information about how other virtual campuses do business.    While the taxonomy of virtual universities is wide and varied, each has the common goal of serving students, and there are numerous issues and concerns that face the virtual university world as a whole.  A face-to-face organizational meeting of virtual university directors will convene in April 2000 in Lexington, KY, which should provide wonderful opportunities for collaboration on these issues.  The Technology Source is another vehicle with which to engage in this kind of collaboration. We at the IVC look forward to future articles.