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Virtual-U: Results and Challenges of a Unique Field Trial [In the article, you say that the research team conducted field trials (plural). If this is correct, then we need to change the singular reference in the title.]

by Milton Campos and Linda Harasim

The Virtual-U Research Project being conducted from Simon Fraser University (Canada) is part of the Canadian TeleLearning Network of Centres of Excellence (TLNCE). The goal of TeleLearningNCE is to research and develop learning models, methods, technologies, and social practices that support the development of a knowledge economy and learning society in Canada. This national effort to advance telelearning theory and practice involves approximately 130 researchers from 30 Canadian universities; it is funded by public- and private-sector organizations (its major funding source is Industry Canada). One of the four major technologies that TeleLearningNCE is developing is Virtual-U.

Virtual-U is a Web-based learning environment that is customized for the delivery of online education; it supports active, collaborative learning and cross-disciplinary knowledge-building. Knowledge-building is the intentional process of solving problems progressively, encouraging inventiveness, and developing and acquiring expertise (Scardamalia & Bereiter, 1994; Bereiter & Scardamalia, 1993). Virtual-U features a flexible framework and an integrated learning environment that links its conferencing system (VGroups) to pedagogical resources. These resources include a personal workspace in which users can manage their online learning tasks and activities, a course editor for designing and editing curriculum, a course viewer for course navigation, a file manager, a sophisticated grade book, instructional tools, examples of how to teach and learn online, and online help and support.

Research on Virtual-U directly informs and influences the ongoing development of the software; this is not the case with most commercial educational software.  In 1996, TLNCE launched Virtual-U field trials in order to: (1) develop and study state-of-the-art Web-based technology for post-secondary online course delivery; (2) conceptualize teaching and learning models that are applicable to Virtual-U; and (3) highlight effective pedagogical models and methods for instructors interested in utilizing Web-based instruction. These field trials are considered [by whom? if you cannot verify that they are the largest, then we could just say they "are among the largest"] to be the largest in the world to date; data has been collected and analyzed from universities, colleges, and public and private institutions in Canada, the United States, the Caribbean, Latin America, and Europe.

Data Collection and Analysis 

Using a multi-methodological strategy, the Virtual-U research team examined a number of factors related to online learning in order to assess knowledge-building and collaborative learning.  These factors include:

The team collected data through questionnaires, interviews, case studies, analysis of computer log files, studies of co-occurrence of words [I don't understand this], and transcript analyses.  They then used the collected information to inform the conceptualization and design of  Virtual-U's tools. [Could you provide an example here of something that was developed because of research results?] Virtual-U researchers are committed to ensuring that effective teaching and learning remain central to, and drive the design of, the software environment.

Studies analyzing textual discourse (online discussions) to examine how to better support knowledge-building both in terms of learning & environment design. [This is not a complete sentence.] For example, one study based on the activity theory (Engestrom, 1990), where structures of interaction were categorized as "acts of meaning-making" and "interactive moves," suggested new tools and collaborative processes that might help to better support a network of interrelated meanings and knowledge-building (Bakardjieva & Harasim, 1998). Another study, based on Piagetian theory, demonstrated that customizable conferencing systems be developed with multiple ways of threading conference discourse notes and that pedagogical techniques and tools for formulating hypotheses be developed (Campos, 1998).   [This is essentially the same paragraph you had in the last draft.  It is still confusing and full of jargon.  If it cannot be simplified, we will have to eliminate it.  Perhaps your best bet is to elaborate--with examples--on how research has influenced the development of Virtual-U.]

Indications of Success from Research

By 1998, the Virtual-U research team had studied approximately 230 Virtual-U courses from 16 post-secondary institutions in Canada, the United States, and Europe. More than 150 professors have taught courses using Virtual-U. Seventy-five percent of these accomplished educators are well advanced in their teaching careers; 47% are full or associate professors; 16% are workplace trainers; and 12% are college or distance education faculty ["College faculty" could include full or associate professors.  Do you mean part-time staff?].  All reported that Virtual-U positively affected student learning processes and outcomes; their testimony is a significant indication of Virtual-U's effectiveness in online education. [If this info is taken from Harasim's report, you can just add a citation: (Harasim, year?).]

Of the more than 7,000 students who have used the Virtual-U software, a majority (84%) are satisfied with their online education. Most students (55%) prefer mixed-mode courses—those taught with a combination of face-to-face and online activities—to those conducted entirely face-to-face. Seventy-two percent of all courses taught to date using Virtual-U have been mixed-mode (Harasim, year?)

[A full report, authored by Linda Harasim and entitled "What are We Learning About Teaching & Learning Online, and So What?: Lessons from the Virtual-U Field Trials" is available by request; write to This information should be a citation--hence the parenthetical citation added above. The APA stylebook includes guidelines for unpublished data; so if this report is indeed unpublished, that's OK.  Just supply the year that Harasim wrote it.  We can indicate in the reference section that the report is available by request.  I have added an entry there.]

Educators from over 30 disciplines—from different artistic, scientific, and human knowledge domains—have used Virtual-U. To-date, most Virtual-U courses have been offered in the arts and humanities (53%) and education (23%) disciplines; because they are discourse-based, these two areas are best able to support online course delivery.  Instructors in other fields, however, increasingly are adopting Virtual-U.  Most notably, science course offerings (11% of the total courses studied) increased 17-fold between 1996 and 1998. Courses as varied as movie production, dance in cyberspace, cognitive science, physics, justice and law enforcement, sexuality, and statistics now are being offered online. Moreover, disciplines such as health sciences and workplace training progressively are increasing their online offerings.

Collaborative learning is the dominant instructional method adopted by instructors using Virtual-U. Each of the 230 courses studied involved an online collaborative discussion component [e.g.: listserv? discussion forums? what are you talking about?]. Twenty-six percent of these courses were offered by discussion only; 11% included group project work; 30% included individual work; and 33% included group and individual work.

Challenges and Next Steps

The Virtual-U researchers remain committed to working interactively with faculty and students to design [how about "produce"? it's already been designed] an online learning environment that advances learning effectiveness and outcomes (Breuleux, Laferrière, & Bracewell, 1998; Silva & Breuleux, 1994) [are these folks among the Virtual-U researchers?]. As Virtual-U begins to be adopted worldwide, researchers face new challenges, such as ensuring that the design has global relevance and usability. Virtual-U is now available in three languages (English, French and Spanish) and accommodates Canadian, European, and South American users. Moreover, researchers currently have a critical opportunity to engage with Jamaican educators while further redesigning Virtual-U features and tools. Representatives of  the Jamaican Teacher Colleges, the Caribbean Boards of Study, and the Institute of Education at the University of the West Indies [are what? providing feedback on how to enhance the program for their country? I had to change this sentence because you intimated that Jamaica is a third-world nation, which I don't think is correct.] (Harasim, 1999). The Virtual-U research team consistently aims to create instructional tools and strategies that fulfill real needs (Feenberg, 1999), to ensure that Virtual-U remains user-friendly, and to advance research excellence through knowledge work processes. Both new and enhanced comprehensive tools are under continued conceptualization, development, and testing. 

Assuredly, significant challenges still face researchers. Virtual-U is a state-of-the-art online learning environment; consequently, field testing requires accessibility that those without updated computers or telecommunications bandwidth obviously lack. An additional complication is the fact that educational institutions around the world use multiple computing platforms. These challenges bring new opportunities to the Virtual-U-developers to: (1) provide an online learning environment that is usable across multiple platforms and telecommunication capabilities; and (2) explore the possibility of creating of "virtual labs" to meet the needs of global online teaching and learning.  


TLNCE funding for the Virtual-U project extends to the year 2002. Over the next three years, the Virtual-U team intends to further its research into advanced learning models and technologies. As the TLNCE incorporates research findings into the development of both technology and pedagogy, it creates notably effective telelearning modelsmodels that will prepare Canada to lead in the twenty-first century knowledge society and that will establish the Virtual-U learning environment as a standard of excellence for worldwide online education.

Relevant Links

TeleLearning Network of Centres of Excellence
Virtual-U Research Project
Virtual Learning Environments Inc.
Interacting in Hyperspace: Developing Collaborative Learning Environments on the WWW
Tips for Creating Virtual Learning Spaces

References [Again, questions are in red here so that you can distinguish them from links]

Bakardjieva, M., & Harasim, L. (1998, June). Collaborative meaning-making in computer conferences: A socio-cultural perspective. In proceedings from the Ed-Media & Ed-Telecom '98 conference in Freiburg, Germany. Charlottesville, VA: Association for the Advance [not Advancement?] of Computing in Education.

Bereiter, C., & Scardamalia, M. (1993). Surpassing ourselves: An inquiry into the nature and implications of expertise. Chicago: Open Court.

Breuleux, A., Laferrière, T., & Bracewell, R. (1998). Network learning communities in teacher education. Retrieved [need specific day; estimate if you need to] February 1999 from the World Wide Web:

Campos, M. N. (1998). Conditional reasoning: A key to assessing computer-based knowledge-building communication processes. Journal of Universal Computer Science 4(4), 404-2 [404-20? There is obviously a number missing here].  Retrieved [need specific day; estimate if you need to] February 1999 from the World Wide Web:

Engestrom, Y. (1990). Learning, working and imagining: Twelve studies in activity theory. Helsinki: Orienta-Konsultit Oi.

Feenberg, A. (1999, Winter). Distance learning: Promise or threat? Retrieved [need specific day; estimate if you need to] January 1999 from the World Wide Web:

Harasim, L. (1999, May). Network learning for Caribbean development: A framework for the next century. Paper presented at the JCSEF Expo/CCEA [what do those acroynms stand for? spell out ] '99 conference, Ocho Rios, Jamaica.

Harasim, L. (year? if it is the same as above, then it becomes 1999a). What are we learning about teaching and learning online—and so what?: Lessons from the Virtual-U field trials. Unpublished raw data [is it indeed unpublished?]. Available by request; write to

Scardamalia, M., & Bereiter, C. (1994). Computer support for knowledge-building communities. The Journal of the Learning Sciences 3(3), 265-83.

Silva, M., & Breuleux, A. (1994). The use of participatory design in the implementation of internet-based collaborative learning activities in K-12 classrooms. Interpersonal Computing and Technology 2(3), 1-11. Retrieved [need specific day; estimate if you need to] January 1999 from the World Wide Web: