Copyright 1997 CAUSE. From CAUSE/EFFECT Volume 20, Number 2, Summer 1997, pp. 55-57, 65. Permission to copy or disseminate all or part of this material is granted provided that the copies are not made or distributed for commercial advantage, the CAUSE copyright and its date appear, and notice is given that copying is by permission of CAUSE, the association for managing and using information resources in higher education. To disseminate otherwise, or to republish, requires written permission. For further information, contact Julia Rudy at CAUSE, 4840 Pearl East Circle, Suite 302E, Boulder, CO 80301 USA; 303-939-0308; e-mail: [email protected]

Seven Points to Overcome to Make the Virtual University Viable

by G. D. Bothun

Hurdles Graphic

The emergence of the virtual university (VU), an electronic world where students can take courses without physical instruction, seems to be a foregone conclusion. Whether this new kind of university assumes the form of an Internet correspondence school or is composed of intensely interactive courseware that can effectively duplicate the mentoring process is completely unclear at this time. However, as in all true learning environments, no matter what the delivery mechanism or educational interface is, content and student engagement with the material remain key. Without that, there is no quality, and without quality no university, virtual or physical, has any purpose.

Much of the motivation for the VU stems from the perceived demographic need to accommodate more students at a time when public university budgets are squeezed to the point that constructing new facilities (or even modernizing extant buildings) is simply out of the question. Many states as well as individual universities are taking both small and large steps towards real implementation of virtual classes for credit. The University of Oregon (UO), for instance, has been offering a few Web-based classes over the Internet for UO credit since January 1996. Minnesota has produced a 150-million-dollar initiative towards their implementation of the VU. Many of the western governors have pledged to support a western states VU (which they call the Western Governors University -- WGU). Software companies such as have arisen to meet the need for electronic curriculum development.

In all these initiatives, there is a clear perceived demand for new course content and curriculum. As emphasized below, this is the critical issue with respect to the success of the VU, but it is also the one in which economic competition comes into play. This leads to one prediction -- the VU initiative will set up a battleground between the commercial sector offering to provide content and university faculty, who are the real content experts. Success with the VU endeavor, therefore, requires merging these two entities to form a productive collaboration.

To date, the various VU initiatives are all "top down" -- that is, the idea of electronic courseware and distance learning is largely being "imposed" on the collective faculty at the respective institutions by the administration or state officials. At best this is problematical, at worst, foolhardy. Successful changes in pedagogy need to originate from the bottom up, from professors who are actually involved with the daily aspect of using instructional technology in their on-campus classes. The advisory board membership for many of these VU initiatives is an admixture of university administrators, legislative liaisons, and corporate executives. While such a diverse partnership is necessary to make the vision a reality, it is not sufficient. Without strong guidance and design from the true content providers -- the individual faculty members -- the VU may well be dominated by the commercial sector acting as content provider. From the perspective of the individual faculty member this is both a threat to job security and a serious undermining of the institution itself. Hence, this is not a time for the typical faculty response of ignoring the potential problem. Instead, it is a time for faculty to take the initiative in the VU and to formulate clear and practical goals, with the emphasis on the correctness of the curriculum products. This will help to promote a seamless transition to the distance learning environment with no loss of quality in the curriculum.

As a practical guide, I offer the following seven issues that must be solved to make the VU a viable educational medium. These issues are listed below in alphabetical order, but all should be weighted equally in evaluating the probability of success with the VU concept. Some of these issues are standard ones, already under the charge of various task forces to address, while others are not so obvious. Each issue listed represents an obstacle or point of failure that could prevent the VU from duplicating the on-campus experience and hence impact the quality of its educational product. Again, from the faculty perspective, loss of quality is not an acceptable outcome. What follows then is a set of issues that arise not from faculty whining, but from thinking about the problem and from actual implementation, development, and delivery of electronic courseware

1. Access

The issue of access seems to have everyone's attention. There are two forms of access: access to the curriculum products and access to curriculum experts who can provide feedback to the student. As an example of the first form of access, we consider the case at the UO where on-campus students are able to access the available courseware at a data transfer speed of 200 kb/second on average. Off-campus access via 28.8 modem is limited to about 2.5 kb/sec -- almost 100 times slower. Electronic courseware that is rich in graphics, sound, and animation can be quite data intensive. For instance, one lecture in my Cosmology and Origin of Life class has approximately 50 MB (50,000 kb) of material (there are several animations) and my typical lectures have about 10 MB of material. Full download times are then from 4,000­20,000 seconds. This means the distance-ed student cannot access the whole curriculum product. While new technologies such as ISDN and HDSL will increase the bandwidth to the individual household, it is also clear that scientific visualization will be increasingly used as an educational tool.

The bandwidth problem, of course, is solved if we deliver the material to the distance-ed student via a CD-ROM. This is the digital equivalent of the traditional correspondence course, and like that course, the curriculum is not easily updated nor very interactive. This mode of learning is passive, and the distance-ed student remains a detached learner. This leads to the second access problem, as these students will never have the opportunity to ask questions in class or even come to office hours. Their counterpart on-campus students at least have the option of a full-duplex interaction with the professor. While the use of e-mail is very good for the basic exchange of information and answering questions, that medium alone does not produce the kind of spontaneous discussion that can lead to effective learning. Video conferencing over the Internet is not a practical substitute for this facility, and of course would be enormously taxing on the professor's time if done asynchronously.

2. Accreditation

When Microsoft University becomes a player, will they be properly accreditated? Does outsourcing of content development, as in the case of the University of Colorado partnership with, produce a curriculum that can be accredited by other schools? What happens when several universities contribute to curriculum for one large VU (e.g., the WGU)? Where do the credits go? How are the finances done? What is the reward system for individual faculty contributions to electronic curriculum, and how can intellectual property rights be maintained and respected? These questions are all serious challenges from the administrative point of view. Each question must be resolved so that a clear structure emerges in advance of the implementation of the VU. Faculty control over content and curriculum is the foundation of the typical physical classroom. How will this foundation be preserved in the VU?

3. Curriculum Development

Will the Internet evolve like television -- a content-free, ubiquitous-access network? Programming the curriculum for the VU is the biggest of the issues raised here. Who does that, and what will the interface be? Will it be truly interactive courseware that is better than can be done on campus, or will it be passive materials that render the VU little more than a digital correspondence school? Interactive multimedia courseware development is a labor intensive operation. There are great things that can be done, but a true quality educational project is going to require a synergy between faculty expert, programmers, and digital artists, as well as the time to do the project. This is what is worrisome about the top-down edicts. It would be much better if faculty develop this project for improving the on-campus educational experience and then let the institution search for the channel to deliver it remotely.

Creating the VU without a solid curriculum core strongly compromises its integrity. While the organizers of the VU enterprise certainly do not intend this, at the same time they must realize that a solid curriculum core requires an institutional investment in faculty expertise to program in this new content medium. If content development is outsourced to software companies, with or without faculty consulting, why would individual faculty members endorse the VU? This begs the question, is the VU sufficiently removed from the real university that such an endorsement is not required?

4. Evaluation

The quality and rigor of an undergraduate class is highly dependent on the kinds of examinations and assignments that can be given. "Mickey Mouse" courses are largely such because trivial assignments and examinations are given. Constructing a rigorous, fair, and comprehensive exam is not an easy process. It is clear that standard exams cannot be given to a remote audience unless proctoring is arranged, and that can be an obstacle that removes much of the flexibility of distance education. More to the point, if the distance-ed students take a separate curriculum from the on-campus class, there will be no adequate baseline from which to determine grades, if indeed grading becomes part of the VU standard.

At the UO, I have solved the examination problem by developing a Java exam applet that ensures authentication and prevents cheating. This, however, was a very time-consuming effort and not all students can use it, since they are not accessing the material with a Java-aware browser. I have tried interactive testing via e-mail or even online discussion, but that has proven to be limited. The Java exam applet allows me to deliver to the remote student the same test that the in-class students take, in the same amount of time. When designing electronic curriculum for distance education, it is very important to build in a robust and reliable testing infrastructure. The lessons learned to date indicate that if this is done, the distribution of grades between the distance education students and the on-campus students are identical. This should be the outcome and is an important consistency check on the quality of the curriculum and the distance-ed learning process.

5. Marketing

The creation of a VU presupposes a clientele. From the last eighteen months of distance education at the UO, it is our experience that this clientele is very limited. Real market research must be done to properly identify the target audience. Is the target audience really the over-25 student who can't come to campus? Is it the employee in business or industry who wants some form of continuing education to comply with job requirements? Is it the traditional 18- and 19-year-olds who otherwise would be socializing on campus? Is it the 16- or 17-year-old in high school who seeks to obtain real university credit in order to decrease time to degree once s/he enters the university? Is it the lifelong learner whose curiosity and desire to learn will be piqued by the course offerings of the VU? The UO experience to date is that it is all of these, with about equal mixtures, that is, there is no one model that successfully reproduces the distance-ed clientele. This makes it difficult for the UO to directly respond to individual learner needs for curriculum, as they are many and varied. The fallback position of building a curriculum and hoping they will come seems risky at best. Whatever the target audience turns out to be, it seems clear that it needs to be identified.

6. Mentoring

Part of the discussion around the VU involves full-degree programs. How is it possible to offer a full-degree program entirely via electrons? Certainly it is possible and maybe even desirable to offer the basic core course foundation in this manner, but every degree program I have ever been associated with ultimately involves a one-to-one mentoring relationship with an individual faculty member. Indeed, the very quality of the degree depends on the depth and scope of this mentoring program. In my fields of physics, astrophysics, and environmental science, I can't imagine conferring a degree on a student who only took courses remotely. Even if it were possible, the interactive aspect of the mentoring process, if duplicated electronically, would require an enormous investment of faculty time. While the concept of network is great-no place and time restrictions-the converse of students having interactive access to the professor in a manner not bound by time or place is utterly undesirable. Few professors, I think, would be willing to commit to a teaching endeavor that required them to spend more time than the time they currently spend in on-campus teaching. My experience with distance education to date clearly shows that the mentoring/interactive aspects that I think are necessary to ensure quality are also quite time consuming. With any more than a few students, the process of balancing one's time between teaching the physical classes, doing research, performing endless committee service, and having to be available at any time to the distance education audience is taxing at best and insane at worst.

7. Pricing

This last issue deserves just a brief comment. Obviously, electronic courseware and credit granting must be priced at a sensible level. In fact, one can argue that reduced cost per credit hour is the main incentive for the student to take virtual classes. At the same time, if this endeavor is seen as a real revenue stream for the university, then it is very likely that competition among different universities will result, and the distance-ed student buys the "cheapest" educational product instead of the best distance-ed curriculum product. Certainly we do not set our tuition rates entirely by market-driven factors, but instead the tuition price is supposed to reflect the total quality of the on-campus educational experience. The bottom line is that if a purely business or market model is applied to the VU, then scholarship will be sacrificed. We are already sacrificing scholarship as our budget shrinks; why make this situation worse?

In sum, this article has raised serious issues about the quality of the curriculum product that the VU can offer as well as the role of faculty in the enterprise. To be sure, many large survey courses could probably be done equally well electronically, as such classes are often vacuous assemblages of students trying to satisfy some distribution requirement. These information-oriented classes are likely the most conducive to electronic duplication. But to date, no one has succeeded in the electronic duplication of the mentoring process, arguably the one attribute which has let the university stand as an academy for 1,000 years. While I welcome the coming of a new form for this academy in the next millennium, issues of quality and scholarship must remain the foundation, even in the digital world. If not, then we will continue to cultivate a climate of entertainment instead of education and continue our slow slide to ignorance.

The virtual university has tremendous potential to improve the way that faculty teach and students learn, but it must be a cooperative venture of content providers and instructional designers with clear goals in mind and a willingness to engage in the kind of altruistic sacrifice that marks today's quality university faculty. Anything short of this may well reduce the virtual university to the standard of television.

Related resources:

Teaching with Electrons: The Development of Networked Courseware at the UO (

Networked Instruction in Physics (

Western Governors University (http://www.westgov. org/smart/vu/vu.html)

Oregon Community College Distance Education offerings (

The IBM Global Campus (

The Minnesota Initiative (

Real Education (

Silicon Campus: Silicon Graphics (

Greg Bothun ([email protected]) is a Professor of Physics at the University of Oregon. He also serves as the Director of the Pine Mountain Observatory, which is in the process of being transformed into a public education Internet digital observatory. the table of contents

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