Welcome to the Virtual University

February 1999

Western Governors Open University. Southern Regional Electronic Campus. Colorado Community College Online. National Technological University. Michigan Virtual University. These names don’t bring back fond memories of campus days but they represent a critical element of higher education’s future. They are all part of the fast growing movement toward the creation of virtual universities. These institutions come in many shapes and sizes and pursue wildly divergent strategies. But they share the belief that higher education must be transformed to meet the challenges of educating people in the next century and that distributed learning—learning which takes place via the Internet and other communications technologies—will be a major driving force behind that transformation.

This new section of the Technology Source will track the virtual university movement from its current state of infancy into the uncharted waters ahead. Technology Source contributors have built an excellent track record assessing the technologies, processes, people, and pitfalls of integrating technology in education. Their focus has often been on how to incorporate a single technology into teaching, how the teaching of a particular subject can be enhanced using information technologies, or how an institution has dealt with its technology problems. This section seeks to complement this focus by prodding potential Technology Source contributors to ask similar questions but from another vantage point: What happens when we start with the technology integrated with the education process? Virtual universities may, in a sense, have bypassed some of the tortured decision making processes of their brick and mortar cousins by simply betting the farm on new technologies from the beginning. But by no means have virtual universities solved the problems engaged and discussed in the Technology Source. If anything, they have encountered just as dizzying an array of new issues.

Below is a brief look at just a handful of the many critical issues this section will explore:

Content is King

As with all universities, the bread and butter of virtual universities is their academic content. However, unlike existing universities with entrenched departments, schools, and committees, many virtual universities have an opportunity to build their curricula from the ground up. What should these curricula look like and why? Though some virtual universities may enjoy greater freedom in defining their curricula, most of them at some point must rely on external content providers with their own agendas. On the surface, this dependence on outsiders to develop their core products looks like a significant challenge for most virtual universities. How will they answer the challenge? Will virtual universities indeed be the testbed for new educational initiatives and for the use of technology in education? What impact will variations in academic focus have on the ability of a virtual university to attract students, to become accredited, to take advantage of technology, or to bring in sufficient revenues to thrive?

Just as importantly, how will virtual universities engage and impact the debate over the quality of technologically mediated education? Despite reams of "no significant differences" research, even educators remain locked in battle over the appropriate manner in which to incorporate technology into the educational process. Questions remain about the viability of distributed learning, particularly in certain fields. Any qualms among potential students about quality could spell disaster for the virtual university that fails to address the issue head on. Even for those virtual universities that do not themselves teach courses or offer degrees, questions about technical and pedagogical standards loom large.

The economics of the virtual university

Virtual universities have been touted as a response to the increasing costs of higher education, both from an institutional and individual perspective. Many colleges and universities have been intrigued by the prospect of teaching more students with the same number or fewer faculty. For individuals, virtual universities hold the promise of a less expensive alternative to living on or commuting to campus and paying for the services required by campus dwellers. But however attractive the economics may seem on paper, more evidence is needed to prove that virtual universities will be able to provide the hoped-for savings.

Perhaps even more problematic for virtual universities themselves is the fact that few can boast that they have discovered the winning business model for providing distributed learning on a large scale. Gerald Heeger, New York University’s dean of continuing and professional studies and CEO of NYU Online, Inc., recently admitted to the New York Times that "The dirty little secret is that nobody’s making any money." Clearly if virtual universities are to transform higher education, or even just give it a good nudge, they must create sustainable financial strategies. This becomes all the more important for those projects that are not housed in and financed by a "mother university." As a result, many virtual university projects straddle the fence between the academic and private spheres. Heeger and NYU Online, Inc., a for-profit subsidiary created to take the lead in distributed learning for NYU, are an example of a trend toward the blending of academic content and private sector business models.


The virtual university movement emerges amidst a wild corporate scramble for partnerships and collaborations that will define the Internet, the mass media, and the marketplace of the future. Like all firms facing this chaotic environment, virtual universities seek to establish partnerships that will bring multiple strengths under one roof in the hopes that doing so will draw students and make financial sense. Online textbook sellers, publishing companies, technology firms, and private education and training firms are among those sought out by virtual universities in their attempt to find the winning combination of products and services. Will these partnerships strengthen education or merely make it more attractive to potential "customers?" Will close relationships with business create an incentive for faculty or make working with virtual universities less attractive to those in academia?


Virtual universities begin and end with technology. Every major process and decision rests in part on a multi-pronged analysis of the technological issues. What is technically possible must be filtered through what is practically feasible at the faculty and student level. In many ways, virtual universities are still out ahead of the curve. The potential market for their products and services is still limited by the fact that most Americans do not yet have a computer at home hooked up to the Internet. Moreover, the necessary assumption that students will be using a 28.8k modem (in the case of Internet based courses, for instance) limits the ability of faculty and instructional designers to develop truly effective and appealing online courses. And yet the advances in what can be sent to the desktop in recent years have been truly staggering. For virtual universities the trick will be to tread carefully through the transition era, not getting too far out ahead of the pack, but still leading the way to the new world. The most successful will blend the right mix of old and new technologies. What comprises the appropriate mix, however, has yet to be determined.

A Call for Manuscripts

I end this introductory column with an invitation to submit manuscripts for consideration for publication. I am willing to wager that the vast majority of the readers of Technology Source have had experience working on a virtual university project, have witnessed one in action at close range, or have strong opinions on them one way or another. If I am correct and you have and/or do, I ask that you submit a concise, thoughtful manuscript on any virtual university theme of interest to your fellow readers. With your help Technology Source can become a key source of analysis of a fascinating and important trend in higher education.