Academic Cybermalls
by James L. Morrison

[Note: This is a re-formatted manuscript that was originally published in On the Horizon, 1997, 5(2), 2-3. It is posted here with permission from Jossey Bass Publishers.]

The Web rush is on. The number of Web users is projected to jump from 30 million in January 1996 to over 250 million by the year 2000, or a daily average increase of 150,000 users. In 1994 there were fewer than 1,000 companies on the Internet; in April 1996 an estimated 316,000 companies were marketing their wares on the Web (“Top Internet Experts,” 1996). As a consequence, cyberpreneurs are now making their presence known on the World Wide Web through cybermalls that offer one-stop virtual shopping.

The cybermall trend is also emerging in education via virtual conference centers that, because of the linking and bulletin board capabilities of the Web, now allow conferences to take place over a designated period electronically in the manner of distance education courses. For example, the Center @ Hamline is a virtual conference center located at Hamline University, in St. Paul, Minnesota. Fully accessible via the Internet, it hosts seminars, workshops, and academic classes for Hamline and for other colleges and universities. In addition, it serves the local community by hosting seminars and meetings for community, government, and private sector organizations.

How does the Center @ Hamline operate? It sets up controlled-access conferences. Currently, the Center is sponsoring open conferences on such topics as multimedia use in higher education and the future of education. The latter conference is a multidimensional virtual fair space with permanent exhibits and seminars. The Center offers these conferences as a public service, without charge, as demonstration projects. If you want to participate, go to the Center’s URL ( and complete a form to obtain a signon name and a password. You are encouraged to post an introductory statement about your background and particular interest in the topic. You can review such statements from other participants, look over discussion that has taken place thus far, and add your contribution. The next time you log on to a conference, you can see both the introductions and postings you have already reviewed and whatever messages have been posted since you last logged on.

But this is not all that goes on at the Center. Tom Abeles, center director, and John Vinton, conference administrator, have set up a shopping mall of academic cyberstores called the Crossing. For example, Baxters Books in Minneapolis has a cyberstore called (appropriately enough) Baxters at the Crossing. Here you can purchase books on-line via credit card and, during announced four- to eight-week periods, you can go to a special conference room where you can meet an author whose book is featured by Baxters.

How? You click on a link (for example, the author’s name or book title) in the Baxters at the Crossing page that takes you to the author's introduction and opening statement. You can type a response, a question, or a statement to which other visitors and the author can respond. In effect, this feature offers an opportunity to interact over time with authors and other people who enter the room in an asynchronous seminar. Moreover, you can link to other Web sites in your discussion (by simply typing in the URL, which instantly becomes "hot"), so other participants can review the material you reference in your statement by clicking on the addresses you provide. This is the same manner in which distance education courses are now being offered via the Web.

Virtual conference centers offer the opportunity to participate in focused discussions at participants' convenience and pace, thereby providing time for reflective thought and analysis in discussions. Indeed, by being asynchronous, conferences allow participants time to add materials and to integrate their ideas in a more substantive fashion before responding to questions or starting a new discussion stream, thereby improving the quality of the discussion. Because anyone with Internet access and a browser can participate, virtual conferences offer the opportunity to learn from colleagues from different cultures while focusing on global topics.

We are exploring the concept of the cybermall to enhance the value of an On the Horizon subscription by allowing you to access and download all issues of On the Horizon. As soon as an issue went to the printer, it would be available to you. Moreover, we would have a “room” where draft articles being considered for publication would be available for your review, downloading, and comment. We would request our authors to respond to your comments and questions about their articles (both draft and published). I hope to give you the details of this enhancement in the next issue.


"Top Internet Experts Reveal New Ways People Are Making Money on the NET." Raleigh News & Observer, Dec. 29, 1996, p. 5B.

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