The Virtual

By Carol A. Twigg and Diana G. Oblinger

A Report from a Joint Educom/IBM Roundtable, Washington, D.C.
November 5-6, 1996



Educators and policy leaders are envisioning new approaches to instruction based on communications and computer technology using learning-on-demand and learner-centered instruction. An immense opportunity exists for institutions to establish new forms of electronic-based collaboration--from the student level to the institutional level--that can bring about major improvements in both access and learning while meeting legitimate public and institutional concerns about cost and quality. There is also an opportunity for new levels of multi-institutional, multistate, and multinational collaboration to provide postsecondary education and training through existing and emerging global networks. Collaborating institutions can deliver modules, courses, and degrees to individuals and groups of learners who interact with faculty and with organized learning materials, in both real-time and delayed-time (asynchronous) modes. This enriched educational environment envisioned by many academic leaders is captured in the phrase the virtual university.

The most likely future is one that accommodates more options for learners. Even today students receive their education in three kinds of campus settings:

Communication, computing, and networking technologies expand the reach and range of traditional residential colleges and universities and enable students to synthesize on-campus with online experiences. Some learners seek a mixture of face-to-face experiences and network-based education. For example, the on-campus student who wishes a more individualized, self-paced, self-directed learning experience finds that technology helps achieve that desire. With the goal of reducing the time to degree, some students choose to complete courses in residence while simultaneously fulfilling other graduation requirements online. The network expands the number of options for interaction among faculty and students; external experts are more easily accessed; and the opportunity for faculty to individualize and personalize contact with students is increased.

Other students, especially working adults, are opting entirely for online educational experiences that provide them with the education and flexibility they need. The online experience enables colleges and universities to project themselves far beyond their physical locations. Already, hundreds of institutions offer courses online. Those experiences offer educational opportunities to millions of learners constrained by time, location, or other factors. The online experience is well suited to learners who cannot or do not wish to access education through traditional means. The online format can significantly expand the availability of continuing education programs and offerings for recreational learners as well.

This does not suggest that technology-based learning will replace face-to-face pedagogy entirely; this is not an either-or proposition. Computer-assisted, self-directed, electronically mediated learning will work for some institutions but not for others, and for many students in many fields but not for all students in all fields. As institutions move toward the creation of the campus of the future, they will need to recognize when networked learning is the most appropriate alternative or supplement to traditional residential education and how it can best be implemented (Oblinger and Rush, 1997).

It was an awareness of that set of opportunities and issues that prompted Educom's National Learning Infrastructure Initiative (NLII) and IBM to convene a roundtable of 45 knowledgeable, higher education leaders to discuss the virtual university. Rather than starting with our existing structures and layering on new ideas and new capabilities, our intention was to begin with a vision of what higher education might be like in the future--especially as influenced by the virtual university--and to determine how to position ourselves for that future. Our premise is that there will not be a virtual university but rather an exciting educational environment--a web--of virtual learning opportunities and organizations. Meeting in Washington on November 5 and 6, 1996, the roundtable helped test an initial statement of the issues and contributed its own sense of what was possible and not possible. This paper reflects the results of those deliberations. We hope it will be useful in helping institutions, corporations, policy makers, and others decide how to differentiate their preferred futures in this rapidly emerging environment.

The paper is organized as follows:




Changes within higher education occur in response to shifts in both the external and internal environments, and the context in which higher education functions today is changing dramatically. As institutional leaders and policy makers examine the current and potential roles of virtual learning environments, they need to take into account those dramatic changes and consider the possible futures that will be available. What follows are descriptions of some of the major trends occurring in the workplace, in technology, and in higher education that are likely to influence the development of the virtual university along with some questions designed to stimulate further thinking.

Workplace Trends

Lifelong learning. Due to rapid changes taking place in business and industry, in addition to the rightsizing of corporations, the average worker can anticipate having six or seven different careers in the course of a lifetime. Reskilling is becoming a requirement for employees. Companies are reengineering themselves and revamping fundamental work processes, resulting in fewer people left to do more things (Forman, 1995). According to the American Society for Training and Development, by the year 2000, 75 percent of the current workforce will need to be retrained just to keep up. Lifelong learning is becoming a necessity.

Furthermore, it is estimated that the shelf life of a technical degree today is less than five years. Although many of the critical skills required in the high-performance workplace have not changed--such as science, engineering, finance, and law--the pace of knowledge advancement requires constant updating (Verville, 1995). Increasingly, students who already possess a degree are looking for learning opportunities that will improve job or career skills.

Will these workplace trends result in a disaggregation of the structure of the higher education curriculum, moving from an emphasis on degree programs to an emphasis on acquired competencies, modularized packages of learning, and so on?

New competencies. Proficiency in using technology is now, for all practical purposes, a required competency in the workforce; it is becoming another basic skill. Sixty-five percent of all workers use some type of information technology in their jobs. By the year 2000, this will increase to 95 percent.

The capacity for individuals to use technology both independently and collaboratively in their work is increasingly required. No one person has all the competencies needed in today's high-performance workplace; collaboration is essential. Is higher education staying abreast of these new competencies?

What impact do these and other new requirements have on the ways we deliver higher education and on the content of the curriculum?

Telecommuting. In 1994, 39 million employees worked from a home office--29 million of them in home-based businesses, according to the National Home Business Association. By the year 2000, 50 percent of the working population of the United States will be employed in home-based businesses. Telecommuting is becoming a way of life.

Increasingly, we are experiencing the permeation of network use throughout society. Entering students will arrive on campus network-savvy, and graduates will move into a world increasingly reliant on networked communications. Even in many traditional institutions, most students live off campus and, in part, telecommute to their campuses.

Does this trend suggest a shift in the primary location of higher education activity from site-based delivery of education--such as the campus--to more flexible, learner-selected options--such as the home or workplace?


Key Trends in Technology

Digitization. Digital technology will continue its rapid ascent as analog technologies continue to decline. Microprocessor performance has been increasing at a relatively constant rate, doubling approximately every 18 months. That trend is expected to continue. Its impact, however, is a perceived time compression, which will cause a change in the business model of computing (Tuller, 1997). In addition, the rate at which new technologies are penetrating business and the home can be expected to increase.

The Internet is predicted to grow at a com-pound user growth rate of 62 percent between 1994 and 2000. Conservative estimates put the number of today's Internet users at 50 million. Predictions are for more than a billion users before the end of the decade; network traffic will exceed telephone traffic (Tapscott, 1996).

Bandwidth will see the most revolutionary change in the next decade. While computing power is estimated to increase 100-fold between 1990 and 2000, bandwidth expansion is anticipated to be between 800 and 1,000 times. The expansion in bandwidth will allow, for example, the delivery of multimedia directly to the home.

What impact will these trends have on the technology of choice for the virtual university?

Maturation. As technology matures, evolution in its use occurs. When a new technology is introduced, its early uses are likely to be found in niche areas. The second phase of technology use is characterized by a migration to general purpose uses. Personal computers are in that phase today. They are used for many purposes: word processing, electronic communications, spreadsheets, graphics, and multimedia. During the next few years, the PC will move into the third phase of evolution, that of being an appliance (Tuller, 1997).

What are the comparative advantages of basing the development of the virtual university on PCs versus television?

Disintermediation. Information technology places pressure on the middleman. Computer networks offer the possibility of the consumer's accessing services and information directly rather than going through an intermediary such as automatic teller machines, travel information, or stock transactions. In higher education, some institutions are finding, for example, that perhaps 60 percent of student inquiries for information such as financial aid or overdue park-ing tickets can be handled by an information system; only a modest number require human intervention.

What is the impact of disintermediation on the role of the professor and the design of new learning environments? What is the impact of disintermediation on student services?


The Impact of These Trends on Higher Education

Changing demographics. The changing demographics of higher education are placing new demands on institutions. Five million working adults are currently enrolled part-time in American colleges and universities. That number masks an even larger adult population that would like to pursue a college education but cannot attend a traditional college due to inconvenient class hours, campus inaccessibility, family responsibilities, business travel, or physical disabilities (Vigilante, 1994).

Working adult students must balance other life and career priorities; consequently, they prefer to attend college part-time. Longer lives, longer workdays, larger urban areas, more diverse populations--all of them affect higher education. Individuals expect to have greater access to educational resources and alternatives, especially from beyond the campus.

Governors and other policy makers are pressing to make higher education more affordable and accessible to older, working students and to make institutions more responsive to the changing workplace, in which many jobs now require continual retraining (Blumenstyk, 1995).

Will higher education institutions respond to and benefit from those trends by increasing flexibility for students (e.g., calendar, residency requirements, assessment of prior learning for credit)?

Increasing demand. Based on demographics alone, an increase of some 2 million traditional-age college students is expected in the next 10 years--a growth of 14 percent in just one decade. Add to that the increase in older and employed students seeking skills enhancement and continuing education, and the numbers go much higher. Michael Dolence and Donald Norris project that new learners coming from the workforce will add more than 20 million full-time-equivalent students by the year 2000 in the United States and 100 million worldwide. This explosive demand is forcing higher education to look for new educational systems and new delivery mechanisms.

How can the virtual university help serve this explosive growth in ways that society can afford?

Knowledge explosion. The world's volume of new information is increasing at such a rapid pace that the class of 2000 will be exposed to more new data in a year than their grandparents encountered in a lifetime. Knowledge doubles every seven years. Ten thousand scientific articles are published every day (Forman, 1995).

Higher education's response to the growth in knowledge has been to expand its institutions: more disciplines, more departments, more faculty specialization, more courses, and, of course, ever larger faculties, libraries, and facilities. Given today's constrained resources and those likely to be available to higher education for the foreseeable future, it is clear that the era of this type of growth has ended.

What are the implications of the knowledge explosion for the virtual university's curricula and pedagogies? How can we engage students in becoming active learners? Can we teach students how to learn rather than specific subject matters?

Globalization. Globalization of the world's economies is leading to increased emphasis on internationalization of the curriculum. It is also contributing to opportunities for new partnerships in research and teaching with agencies and institutions across the globe. Although internationalizing the curriculum has been discussed for the past decade, it has taken on increasing relevance in the past few years, especially in light of the explosion of the Internet and the increased permeability of international boundaries.

What are the implications of globalization for the virtual university's student markets and for its intellectual resources? Will globalization be a source of new students for our institutions, or will it contribute to the loss of international students whom we have traditionally attracted?

Productivity. With declining budgets and increasing enrollments in higher education, there is a continuing push to find ways to get more scholar for the dollar. Demands for greater productivity in higher education continue to be heard with greater frequency than anytime in the past. Institutions need to find new ways to accomplish their missions while competing with other institutions for a limited pool of funds. Along with the focus on accountability comes pressure to adopt the business model, with greater emphasis on the bottom line.

Educational institutions will continue to be affected by such pressures. Control of costs, elimination of duplication--and in some cases, unique options perceived to be too costly--and evidence of other efficiencies will continue to receive a lot of attention from legislatures and higher education regulating agencies.

Most institutions share concerns about maintaining or enhancing quality while pursuing improved productivity. Maintaining quality will require great attention to an institution's academic and social values.

Although faculty productivity is part of the issue, increasingly there will be more concern for student productivity and with it pressures to change such measures as contact hours and seat time in favor of assessment of learning outcomes.

How does our vision of the virtual university take into account new demands for productivity? How do we increase productivity without losing the academic and social character of our institutions? Are we trying to be all things to all people, or are we learning to tailor our programs based on market needs or our particular strengths?

New definitions of quality. Students expect to participate in a learning environment that fosters measurable improvement in their skill development not just during college but also throughout their careers. Students are increasingly selecting curricula that enhance their chances of both initial and sustained employment.

Higher education's consumers are becoming much more sophisticated. They seek both accountability and quality. As Patricia Kovel-Jarboe has pointed out, they are likely to define quality more in the language of the quality--improvement movement-that is, satisfaction of customer needs--than in the traditional measures of quality used in higher education--that is, rich resources as represented by the size of libraries, student-faculty ratios, and the number and size of grants and contracts won by the faculty. They expect that increased competition among higher education providers will work to their advantage as consumers. They expect a market bounded by competitive pricing (tuition) and differentiation (quality).

How does our vision of the virtual university respond to new definitions of quality?

A more competitive environment. Students are using their purchasing power to be more selective about which institutions they attend. Colleges challenge each other's strategic positions for funds and students. It is expected that competition among both traditional and nontraditional institutions will intensify. Institutions are seeking a competitive edge in a student-based--or consumer-driven--market.

New developments in technologies and the explosive growth of networks will continue to erode the geographic hegemony of higher education. Students will be likely to select educational institutions based more on offerings, convenience, and price than on geography. This competition will not be limited to the United States or North America; it will be global.

There is also increased interest in partnerships between the business world and the academy and among education entities. Distance education consortia and K­12/university partnerships are good examples.

How will institutions determine their comparative advantages in a new, networked world, especially as some of their former competitive advantages disappear? Is higher education missing opportunities to serve society in the information age by maintaining traditional structures and approaches?

Creation of new enterprises. When some businesses have been unable to achieve appropriate partnerships with educators, they have formed their own degree-granting or credentialing units, some of which serve nonemployees as well. Higher education institutions are being called upon to more clearly define their roles in training and credentialing as well as in education and learning.

In addition, there have been experiments with academic credit banks--agencies that offer no courses or student services but that provide a repository for students to deposit credits and, when certain requirements have been met, earn an accredited degree. Institutions without campuses--but with a discrete faculty--and institutions with neither campus nor faculty have also emerged.

As higher education encounters a more competitive era, administrations and boards are examining administrative structures and decision-making practices to determine whether changes can provide a competitive advantage. Total quality management, consolidated colleges and departments, and new approaches to literally hundreds of practices are some of the ways those concerns are being addressed within institutions.

In what new ways can we conduct the business of higher education?




The system of American higher education that we know today has been in place for more than a hundred years. Historically, undergraduate education has operated on thepremise that a student spends four years living on a campus, insulated from home, work, and social environments outside the campus. George Connick has characterized it as a campus-centric system that is both place constrained--in the form of the campus or the classroom--and time constrained--delivered according to an academic calendar and a specific course schedule controlled by the provider. The campus-centric model assumes that students will choose from a campus-established set of courses and curricula. Control over the content is in the hands of the provider: the faculty or the institution. Administrative functions such as admissions, financial aid, and registrarial processes are set up for the convenience of the institution, with minimal regard for the needs of the consumer.

The combination of new communications technologies, changing student demographics, the rising costs of a residential experience, and the need for continuing education throughout a lifetime is eroding the foundation of that century-old system. Relationships among learners, instructors, and information resources are shifting. Will those who cannot or will not adapt lose their place at the table? The rapid proliferation of information and communications technologies is making it possible for the control of delivery to be removed from the hands of traditional providers--higher education institutions and faculty--and placed in the hands of consumers. The impact of those changes is to increase student choice.

The place of higher education is shifting from the classroom and the campus to the workplace, the home, the library, and even the network. Students can learn independent of time and place. Communications technologies enable a shift toward learning experiences that are asynchronous (at different times) rather than synchronous (at the same time), making learning available seven days a week, 24 hours a day. Learners are using networks to interact with their peers, their instructors, external experts, and information resources, and they are doing it when it is convenient, not just during scheduled class times.

Courses are becoming different as well. Content has moved beyond books and blackboards to include moving images, text, and audio. Networks and interactive multimedia are changing both how we think about content providers and who we regard as providers. Learning resources once only available through educational institutions are becoming retail commodities available in stores as multimedia software and other computer-based courseware. Consumers can purchase learning products independently and learn at their convenience. Distance-learning technologies--the Internet and, to a lesser extent, cable- and satellite-based systems--are enabling learners to access education whenever and wherever they want. Collectively, consumers now spend millions of dollars each year on education. Such buying power will affect those who currently control learning.

At the same time, traditional academic and administrative services are changing to accommodate this consumer-focused environment. Policy makers are questioning whether the salaries spent on duplicative administrative and student services add commensurate value to the educational experience. University systems can use computer technology to streamline financial aid offices and admissions procedures. Students on islands off the coast of Maine, for example, never visit a campus yet have all of those services provided for them via technology. As better examples of providing services at lower costs emerge, state governing bodies and other policy-making organizations are envisioning new ways to cooperate, to share resources, and to reduce risk.

The change from a campus-centric to a consumer-centric learning model is accelerating. By expanding the number of potential providers--for content, courses, and curricula--consumer choice is expanded. Geographic, social, and political boundaries will become less relevant, thereby weakening the grip of traditional institutions and opening opportunities for more customer responsive providers. New kinds of organizations such as the Western Governors University (WGU) and the Education Network of Maine (ENM) are emerging as brokers for consumers, helping consumers understand the choices available to them. In this new era, the higher education system must adjust to accommodate learners. Consumers will exert their inexorable influence on higher education. The era of a campus-centric model is ending.




Most experts agree that the way higher education will look and operate in the year 2007 is distinctly different from the way it has existed for more than a hundred years. Increasingly, both the content and the delivery of education will be defined by external groups: consumers and employers. Providers will compete for perpetual learners, or lifelong learners, those who need to be educated, trained, and retrained throughout their working lives. Greater competition in the learning marketplace has the potential to benefit learners by offering more choices, more delivery options, lower costs, and increased flexibility.

How do experts think learning environments in higher education will look in the year 2007? Here are some of their ideas about the ways institutions, academic programs, financing, and public policy decisions will be affected as a consequence of the trends identified earlier.


Institutions in 2007


DISCUSSION: Can Higher Education Change?

With the demand for higher education worldwide expected to exceed 100 million by the year 2007, education is a growth industry. But many companies that rely on skilled, technologically adept employees are dissatisfied with the level of competence of the nation's graduates. They are becoming less interested in degrees and more interested in certification of competencies. For example, the Minnesota Business Partnership has publicly stated that higher education is not meeting the partnership's needs. Boeing is considering offering engineering degrees. Employers are making significant investments in on-demand learning programs, believing that such investments are essential to their success.

The most aggressive competition facing traditional institutions today is not from within higher education but from new providers of postsecondary educational services. These include an increasing number of proprietary institutions--some of which are modeled on the traditional construct--such as the University of Phoenix, whereas others are more reminiscent of training institutes--such as the DeVry Institute or Motorola University. Will their more nimble structures and market-oriented cultures enable them to dominate nontraditional, postsecondary education? As today's colleges and universities wrestle with new demands and competitors, the following are some of the questions being asked by educators.

In the debate over the changes higher education must make to respond to the needs of 21st-century learners, two distinct viewpoints dominate. One view is that the role of the university should not be lost in an effort to compete with nontraditional providers such as training institutes. Advocates argue there is more to education than learning specific job-related skills. For instance, students may not know what they want or need, and the traditional institution provides guidance, structure, and organization. The United States, advocates would argue, offers the best system of higher education in the world. Rather than radically change the system, they would identify, preserve, and extend those qualities that make American higher education great.

Others would contend that higher education is rooted in a tradition that is decreasingly relevant. External forces--such as student needs, market demands, the expense of classroom-based education, and the pervasiveness of communications technologies--are already eroding higher education's dominance. The core market for traditional undergraduate education--18- to 22-year-old, residential students--is shrinking. Educators need to accept that it is appropriate for universities to train students, to confer skills, and to prepare them for the changing world of work. As students become more savvy consumers of learning resources, adherents to this view predict that the value of degrees will erode. To meet the needs and lifestyles of learners, higher education will be delivered just-in-time and at the convenience of the consumer. Higher education, they say, must compete in the nontraditional environment if it is to survive (Twigg, 1995).

Whether or not traditional colleges and universities will be supplemented by the network delivery of education by for-profit providers depends in large part on the response of the traditionalists. Higher education has been responsive to societal needs in the past, and some educators are inclined to believe it will continue to respond. Citing increased interest in distance learning and incorporation of instructional technology into the curriculum, they assert that change is afoot in many traditional institutions. The situation is analogous to the late 1970s, when significant enrollment declines were projected due to declining high school populations. Those projections were wrong. Higher education became market driven as it sought to increase participation rates among older students, women, and minorities. Those believing in the responsiveness of the system suggest that change will be incremental and will come from within the system.


Academic Programs in 2007


DISCUSSION: The Changing Role of Intermediaries in a Disaggregated Higher Education Environment

The concept of disaggregation is new to higher education, which has long controlled the place, the content, the delivery, and the quality of education. By separating instruction from assessment, teaching fromdegree granting, content development from content delivery, and service from compliance, traditional roles are redefined and new ones emerge. In a disaggregated model of higher education, how is quality defined and who will determine it?

Traditionally, accreditation has ensured a measure of quality by controlling the providers of education. However, accreditation has also served as a barrier to fundamental change because accrediting standards have been input oriented--number of books, number of seats, number of Ph.D.s and entrance scores of students--and have been created by those with a strong vested interest in preserving the existing system. In a disaggregated higher education environment, accreditation will either change or collapse in the face of new quality-control mechanisms.

Although the figures vary, some estimate the higher education market is worth between $165 billion and $250 billion a year. New providers are entering the market, and colleges and universities are working to make themselves more attractive to nontraditional students. The result is that shopping for classes, training, certification, or even degrees is becoming a much more complex and confusing task. As higher education moves toward disaggregation, there will be an emerging role for intermediaries who can help both students and providers create order out of potential educational chaos. Without them, trying to choose a suitable educational program from the thousands of options available will be nearly impossible.

In a disaggregated learning environment, some institutions and other providers function as brokers. For example, the Education Network of Maine (ENM), a unit of the University of Maine system, serves that role for students in Maine. Maine students can now earn a Master of Library and Information Sciences degree from the University of South Carolina through ENM's electronic delivery network. In addition, other systems are emerging: the Western Governors University and other regional counterparts will not serve as control mechanisms, but as clearinghouses. They will define quality based on specific criteria; for example, 90 percent of the graduates of the program pass national exams.

Other players will enter the education marketplace as intermediaries. New professionals will help students evaluate educational options and institutions, others will define and package content, and a completely different group may be responsible for presentation and delivery systems. Institutions that function as intermediaries will assess the quality of programs as Maine did with the University of South Carolina's degree in library and information sciences. Those same institutions may also broker those programs without incurring the costs of developing or owning them. Many regard this as an opportunity to expand the depth, breadth, and quality of programs without the concomitant resource commitment. At a time when many institutions--especially smaller, regional colleges--are facing severe budget shortages, this may be the opportunity to decouple revenue from program cost.


Financing in 2007


DISCUSSION: Financing Models for a New Higher Education

In the 50 years following World War II, public support for higher education has become inextricably linked with the financing of higher education degrees. If the virtual university realizes its projections, will public support expand to meet it? Some experts argue that because much of the projected demand for modularized work-, home-, or technology-based learning is expected to be greatest among adults, those adults' education need not be subsidized by public funds. The argument asserts that if the benefit accrues to the individual, then the funding of that person's education should be the obligation of the person or the employer. Carried to its conclusion, that financial strategy could lead to the privatization of graduate-level programs in fields like engineering, business, health, and, possibly, education.

Current financial investments in education do not view it as a lifelong enterprise encompassing all levels of employment. As Rick Heydinger has noted, today the largest amount of federal money earmarked for education and training is spent on those seeking employment--a small portion of the population. Corporations tend to spend their money on high-level executives, which again represents only a small portion of the working population. The least amount of money is spent on the largest segment of the population: those working in middle management, lower-management, or entry-level positions. These are key target groups to be served by the virtual university.

In considering other financial options that might emerge during the next decade, it is possible that public support will shift from public institutions to private and proprietary institutions. That shift would be stimulated by the current negative impressions of the responsiveness of public education, but also as a consequence of new funding mechanisms. At the state level, student-carried vouchers may substitute for today's territorial franchises. In the virtual university environment, in which there are no geographic or time boundaries, today's system of funding the institution rather than the individual will make less and less sense. Proprietary and corporate institutions--with their willingness to rethink the general education component, with their greater employment and pay-scale flexibility, and with their less diffuse governance model--may be more competitive. Even if public institutions respond in kind, simple mathematics suggests that the increasingly constrained state dollars will continue to be divided among more organizations.

Those most interested in serving the learner or consumer advocate abandoning the traditional subsidy of higher education's institutions in favor of funding students directly through vouchers. Such an approach allows funding to be market driven rather than the result of politics. When the market is unwilling to pay for an activity, it is jettisoned and costs decrease; this is a possible outcome for unsponsored research and general education, which are not always supported by consumers. Overall, the result may be a more streamlined, cost-effective, responsive higher education system delivering just-in-time, outcomes-based education.


Public Policy in 2007


DISCUSSION: Authorizing the Marketplace

As Jim Mingle has noted, the dominant decision-making and allocation paradigm for American higher education is public policy. Whether through direct appropriations from states for public institutions, tax exemption and federal grants for private institutions, or need-based aid for proprietary organizations, public subsidies have long been the lifeblood of higher education. Any change in public support will have a dramatic impact on education's decision-making process and on the ability of many institutions to survive.

The increasing power of the consumer in addition to technology's ability to transcend space, time, and political boundaries is causing a shift in the decision-making process away from public policy and toward market-driven mechanisms. Content and mode of delivery are increasingly defined by external groups: students as well as employers. Communications technologies will contribute to both the increase in the number of providers and the choices for consumers, resulting in a more open higher education marketplace.

Geographic and political boundaries, once the foundation of American higher education, are increasingly less relevant. The power of traditional providers is weakening, thus creating greater opportunity for more customer-responsive institutions and providers to emerge. Policy makers are beginning to believe that good mechanisms to stimulate quality and responsiveness in education may be to increase competition and to redefine certification and regional accreditation.

This vision is compelling to many, both within and outside higher education. It is particularly attractive to those who believe the current system is ossified and unreformable; they view this trend as an important catalyst for change in higher education. Others view technology with alarm, fearing the corporatization of American higher education and the loss of professorial autonomy.

Rick Heydinger has suggested that there may be a new role for government in this more competitive, disaggregated education marketplace. The most appropriate role of government may be to authorize the marketplace. Education is too important to exist without controls, without licensing, or without credentials. Government's role should be to hold providers accountable for educational results. Means are superfluous: it is results that count. However, defining how to measure and reward the effectiveness of education or to penalize its ineffectiveness will require debate. Another class of intermediaries that may develop in this environment will consist of those who provide information on how well the educational marketplace is functioning--information that is easily understood by prospective students. More than just collecting information, an authorizer's job would be to stimulate this marketplace to work effectively irrespective of who is the provider.




The main question facing educators and policy leaders is not whether higher education will change as a result of the proliferation of information technologies, new market demands, and a dramatically different set of student demographics, but rather, how do we position our institutions to operate successfully in this future environment? What do we do to get from here to there?

As institutions contemplate their roles in the future, answering the following questions may help to create a framework for navigating the transition.









Collaboration and Partnerships

Educators and policy makers have been challenged to meet society's need to educate its workforce. That need has not been met. A future predicated on extending the past will not be effective. New challenges--such as the changing student market, technology-supported learning options, and stronger competition--will cause us to reexamine all of the aspects of traditional higher education. Institutional responses to the forces described in this paper will vary based on the particular institution and the perceived competitive advantage it holds. All will need to embrace new and dynamic roles as students make decisions regarding learning guided by a much wider range of options than has previously existed. The concept of the virtual university represents a multifaceted response to consumer demand for increased access, improved quality, and reduced cost of higher education.




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Kovel-Jarboe, Patricia. 1994. "Distance Education Futures" (unpublished paper).

Massy, William. 1997. "Life on the Wired Campus: How Information Technology Will Shape Institutional Futures." In The Learning Revolution, Diana Oblinger and Sean Rush, editors. Anker Publishing, Bolton, MA.

Oblinger, Diana, and Sean Rush. 1997. "Challenges of the Learning Revolution" In The Learning Revolution, Diana Oblinger and Sean Rush, editors. Anker Publishing, Bolton, MA.

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Tapscott, Don. 1996. The Digital Economy. McGraw Hill, New York.

Tuller, Charlie. 1997. "Another Paradigm Shift." In The Learning Revolution, Diana Oblinger and Sean Rush, editors. Anker Publishing, Bolton, MA.

Twigg, Carol A. 1995. The Need for a National Learning Infrastructure. Educom, Washington, DC.

Verville, Anne-Lee. 1995. "What Business Needs from Higher Education." Educational Record 76(4): 46-50.

Vigilante, Richard. 1994. The Virtual College. New York University, New York.




Robert Albrecht, Interim Chief Academic Officer, Western Governors University

Lee Alley, Associate Vice President, Learning Technologies, University of Wisconsin System Administration

John Anderson, Vice President, Finance and Administration, Wake Forest University

Warren Baker, President, California Polytechnic State University

Jan Baltzer, Vice President, Information Services, Apollo Group, Inc.

David Brown, Provost and Professor of Economics, Wake Forest University

George Connick, President, Education Network of Maine

Gordon Davies, Director, State Council of Higher Education for Virginia

Thomas Eakman, Executive Assistant Vice President, University of Illinois

Russell Edgerton, Director, Education Program, The Pew Charitable Trust

William Ferrero, Vice President, Administration, SUNY Empire State College

William Geoghegan, Academic Consultant, IBM Corporation

Lawrence Gold, Director, American Federation of Teachers

Michael Goldstein, Partner, Dow, Lohnes & Albertson

William Graves, Chief Information Officer­Interim, University of North Carolina­Chapel Hill

James Hall, President, SUNY Empire State College

Mark Hass, Director, Program Development, University of Michigan

Robert Heterick, President, Educom

Richard Heydinger, Senior Partner,Public Strategies Group

Richard Hezel, President, Hezel Associates

Carolyn Jarmon, Visiting Fellow, Educom

Gerry Johnson, Academic Vice President, National Technological University

David Lassner, Director, Information Technology, University of Hawaii

Jeffrey Livingston, Interim Chief Executive Officer, Western Governors University

Clara Lovett, President, Northern Arizona University

Mark Luker, Program Director, NSFNET, National Science Foundation

Frank Mayadas, Program Officer, Sloan Foundation

Roy McTarnaghan, President, Florida Gulf Coast University

David Mertes, President, International Community College

James Mingle, Executive Director, State Higher Education Executive Officers

Diana Oblinger, Manager, Academic Programs and Strategy, IBM Corporation

Janet Poley, President, A*DEC

George Pruitt, President, Thomas Edison State College

Donald Riley, Associate Vice President and Acting Chief Information Officer, University of Minnesota

Peter Rothstein, Director, R&D Programs, Lotus Institute

Sean Rush, General Manager, Higher Education IBM Corporation

Mary Beth Susman, Executive Director, Colorado Electronic Community College

Robert Threlkeld, Dean, Learning and Technology, California State University, Fresno

Carol Twigg, Vice President, Educom

Thomas West, Assistant Vice Chancellor, Information Resources and Technology, California State University

Lyle Wilcox, Vice Chancellor,Technology, State College and University Systems of West Virginia

Jack Wilson, Dean, Undergraduate and Continuing Education, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Richard Wright, President, Bakersfield College


Patricia Bartscherer, Administrative Assistant, Educom

Wendy Rickard Bollentin, President, The Rickard Group, Inc.


The Virtual University
by Carol A. Twigg and Diana G. Oblinger with contributions by George Connick, Richard Heydinger, James Mingle, and Wendy Rickard Bollentin
©Educom®1997, Interuniversity Communications Council, Inc.
©IBM Corporation 1997

Suite 600, 1112 16th Street NW, Washington, DC 20036
Phone: 202-872-4200 / Fax: 202-872-4318

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