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Virtual-U: Results and Challenges of a Unique Field Trial
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 (TLoNCE). The goal of TeleLearningoNCE 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 TeleLearningoNCE is developing is Virtual-U.

Virtual-U is a Web-based learning environment that is customized for delivery of online education through intended support of pedagogy-based principles of 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 and Bereiter, 1994; Bereiter and Scardamalia, 1993). Virtual-U features a flexible framework and an integrated learning environment that links its conferencing system (VGroups) to tools.  These tools include: a personal workspace in which users can manage their online learning tasks & activities; a course editor for designing & editing curriculum; a course viewer for course navigation; a file manager, a sophisticated grade book, instructional tools & exemplars on how to teach and learn online, online help & support, and many other resources.

This project presents unique advanced education research because, unlike most commercial educational software available on the market, the research results directly inform and influence the ongoing development of Virtual-U.  In 1996, the research project launched field trials to meet the following objectives: (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) illuminate effective pedagogical models and methods for instructors interested in utilizing Web-based instruction. The Virtual-U field trials are considered to be the largest in the world to date; with data being collected and analyzed from universities, colleges, and public and private institutions in Canada, the United States, the Caribbean, Latin America, and Europe.

Data Collection & Analysis

To better understand the basis of the research and the significance of results obtained, the following is a brief summary of the research methodology strategy used.  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 such as:
* relationship of instructional design with user satisfaction and practice
* patterns of interaction
* quality of discourse or dialogue

Data were collected through questionnaires, interviews, case studies, analysis of computer log files, studies of co-occurrence of words, and transcript analyses.  In addition to contributing knowledge of the field to inform learning science and to improve educational practice, the results also serve to impact the design of the online learning environment.  Using an iterative design, research results feed into the conceptualization and design of Virtual-U tools and frameworks for the continued support of effective teaching and learning processes and outcomes.  Virtual-U research is committed to ensuring that the educational goals 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. 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 and 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).  

Indications of Success from Research

By 1998, the Virtual-U research team had studied over 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: 75% of these educators are well advanced in their teaching careers, 47% percent are full or associate professors, 16% are workplace trainers, and 12% are college or distance education faculty.  These accomplished educators have reported positive effects on student learning processes and outcomes through the use of Virtual-U and are a significant indication of Virtual-U's effectiveness in online education. [Can you provide a citation? Note to Linda:  I will take quote from University Affairs - Stanley Shapiro article].

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.  A full paper authored by Linda Harasim, Ph.D. entitled "What Are We Learning About Teaching & Learning Online Í And So What?: Lessons from the Virtual-U Field Trials" documenting data gathered and lessons learned is available by request to

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

Collaborative learning is the dominant instructional method adopted by instructors using Virtual-U; 100% of the 230 courses studied involve a collaborative component.  Twenty-six percent of these courses were exclusively on conference discussions; 11% included discussion and group project work; 30% include discussion and individual work; and 33% included discussion, group, and individual work.

Challenges and Next Steps

The Virtual-U researchers remain committed to working interactively with faculty and students to design an online learning environment that advances learning effectiveness and outcomes (Breuleux, LaferriŔre, & Bracewell, 1998; Silva & Breuleux, 1994). Challenges such as ensuring that the design has global relevance and usability emerge as Virtual-U is increasingly adopted worldwide  It is now available in three languages (English, French and Spanish) to respond to Canadian, European and South American adoptors.  The adoption of Virtual-U by the Institute of Education (University of the West Indies), the Jamaican Teacher Colleges and the Caribbean Boards of Study offered a critical opportunity to engage with Jamaican educators in the further redesign of Virtual-U features and tools, to better serve third world and rural conditions (Harasim, 1999). The goal is to create instructional tools and strategies that will fulfill real needs (Feenberg, 1999)ˇ continuing 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, continued challenges remain for this research project. While Virtual-U is a state-of-the-art online learning environment, field testing requires accessibility that those without modern-day computers or lack of telecommunications bandwidth.  An additional complication lies within the fact that educational institutions around the world use multiple computing platforms.  These challenges bring new opportunities to the Virtual-U-developers to provide an online learning environment that is usable across multiple computer platforms and varied telecommunication capabilities, as well as exploring the creation of "virtual labs" to meet the needs of global online teaching & learning.


Funding for this research project through the TeleLearning Network of Centres of Excellence 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 TLoNCE incorporates research findings into the NetworkÝs process of developing both technology and pedagogy, it creates notably effective telelearning modelsˇmodels which will prepare Canada to lead in the twenty-first century knowledge society and establish the Virtual-U learning environment as a standard of excellence for worldwide online education.


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


Bakardjieva, M., & Harasim, L. (1998, June). Collaborative meaning-making in computer conferences: A socio-cultural perspective. Proceedings from the Ed-Media & Ed-Telecom '98 annual conference, Freiburg, Germany.  Association for the Advance of Computing in Education, Charlottesville, VA.

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

Breuleux, A., LaferriŔre, T., & Bracewell, R. (1998). Network learning communities in teacher education. Retrieved 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.  Retrieved 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? The National Center for Public Policy & Higher Education's "National Crosstalk", Winter 1999, 7(1). Retrieved January 1999 from the World Wide Web:

Harasim, L. (1999) Network learning for caribbean development: A framework for the next century. Paper presented at JCSEF Expo/CCEA '99 Conference, Ocho Rios, Jamaica, May 1999.

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 January 1999 from the World Wide Web: