The Vision, Summer 1995

Learning in the New Millennium:
Towards the ‘Virtual University’

1. Rushing to the technology

An edited and abridged version of this paper appeared in the Multimedia section of the Times Higher Education Supplement, 12 April 1996.

Education is entering a new era. The writing is on the wall. Or, at least, it is there in the technology pages of the quality newspapers, the Internet magazines and education journals, the computer shows and exhibitions, and the education conferences such as ETL and ALT-C, all of whom have been waxing lyrical about telematics-based learning for a year or more. Just as mountaineers climb mountains because they’re there so, in large part because the technology is there to enable it, we have seen a flurry over recent months on the part of universities to create online distance learning programmes of one form or another as proselytising zealots, abetted by their mesmerized deans, scramble to get their Web pages of course notes out to a waiting world. At the same time, the political and industrial climate is now, in the aftermath of the European DELTA programme, nurturing further exploratory forays into telematics-based open and distance learning. Responding to the Delors White Paper on Growth, Competitiveness, and Employment (December 1993) with its stress on “life long learning for a changing society”, for example, the Europe and the Global Information Society report (May 1994) from the Bangemann group seeks through Application Area Two to “promote distance learning centres providing courseware, training and tuition services tailored for SMEs, large companies and public administrations” as well as to “extend advanced distance learning techniques into schools and colleges.” The same message is echoed in the CCTA report Information Superhighways: Opportunities for public sector applications in the UK, May 1994, in the CEC communication Europe’s Way to the Information Society, July 1994, in the CEC White Paper on Education and Training, November 1995, and in numerous other public documents before and since.

And so numerous ‘global colleges’, ‘virtual classrooms’, ‘electronic campuses’, and other such provocatively named ventures, have emerged over the last two or three years in the US and Europe, ranging from large-scale and often publicly-funded programmes embracing high-cost technologies such as interactive television (Berlitz European Projects’ MTS, University of Maine, University College Dublin’s ‘Virtual Classroom’, …) to targeted low budget Internet-based projects such as the trans-European ‘ICP OnLine’. I’ve probably counted more than one hundred institutions offering everything from single module or single discipline programmes to complete ‘virtual universities’ of one kind or another.

At the risk of seeming a killjoy, I must admit to having an uneasy feeling that in many cases we’re getting it wrong, not least because we’re too often beguiled by the glorious technologies to take the time to seriously think through the social and pedagogic implications. I want to suggest not that we don’t need our ‘virtual universities’ but that we need to think more clearly about what we’re doing if we’re going to get them right.

2. ‘The Idea of a University’

What are universities for? What does it mean, in 1995, to receive a university education? What is the value to the individual and to society of such an education? Although many of us who work in the profession are prone in those ever more frequent moments of stress to succumb to Cartesian doubt over what we what we are doing and why, few are motivated to re-examine the most basic assumptions underpinning higher education. There is, on reflection, nothing natural about the traditional residential university; there is nothing natural about taking 18-year olds out of the world for three years into the cloistered halls of academia; there is nothing in the nature of history or physics or economics or whatever else, as disciplines, that determines that they can be neatly bounded and bundled up in three-year packages, or that specific topics can be uniformly packaged in one-hour timetable blocks. Indeed, there is an almost perverse unnaturalness in believing that, once a residential course of study is complete, one knows all that one needs to know about a discipline for a lifetime in work; and yet typically, although employment-based training or specialised evening classes may continue for some on (characteristically) an ad hoc basis, few adults ever think of ‘education’ or ‘learning’ as an open-ended process.

It was in part the purely physical restrictions on access to scholarly authority, whether medieval monk or Oxbridge don, and to the written and printed word — the library as a physical repository of knowledge—that necessitated the creation of bricks-and-mortar centres of learning: a subject expert could only ever be in one place at one time, and if you wanted to benefit from his knowledge and expertise you had no choice but to be where he (or, rarely, she) was. As important was the pastoral function, “the moral side of education, for which the socializing experience of residence was thought indispensible. Universities were to be communities, where the intangible benefits of character formation and the personal influence of teachers were as important as the lecture room” (R.D. Anderson, Universities and Elites in Britain since 1800).

A third reason argued for prolonged quasi-monastic retreat to the ivy-covered halls of academia: the ideal of a ‘liberal education’. Up until the early decades of the 19th century, universities in England—and that meant Oxford and Cambridge — remained the preserve of the landowning and aristocratic élite, valued as much as social ‘finishing schools’ as centres of intellectual endeavour, ‘vocational’ only in supplying the clergy of the anglican church. And although the middle years of the last century saw, in response to growing demand from a rising industrial and merchant nouveau riche, an expansion of higher education through the establishment of the new ‘civic’ universities — University College and King’s College London, Durham University, Queen’s College Birmingham, Owens College Manchester—with curricula diversifying to meet the bureaucratic, scientific, and engineering needs of an industrial, entrepreneurial society, the notion of the university as a training school for a skilled professional class serving the direct needs of the economy probably took second place, for entrants as for their parents, to the sense they had of now being admitted to an exclusive gentleman’s club. Universities were otherwise largely irrelevant in a pragmatic culture that still favoured learning through personal experience and apprenticeship to established practitioners, and in a scholastic tradition that still clung to John Newman’s ideal, expatiated in The Idea of a University (1852), and Matthew Arnold’s in Culture and Anarchy (1869), of ‘liberal education’ against utilitarian and vocational learning.

With the rapid expansion of the university sector across the middle years of the present century, the growing dependence of professional status upon formal qualifications through a public examination system, the decline of traditional apprenticeship, the professionalisation of learning, and now the massification of higher education in the 1990s, the university has taken on a new set of functions. While the ‘gentleman’s club’ snobbery persists to some extent (as Jimmy Porter testified in the 50s), Disraeli’s vision of the university as “a place of light, of liberty and of learning” has given way to a model of higher education institutions as partners with government and industry in vocational training for first employment. “Manpower planning”, as one pundit has bluntly phrased it. As has been pointed out many times, if a course is called ‘BSc Urban Estate Management’ or a ‘BA Accounting and Finance’, you know what its students will do on graduation.

The emergence of the standard course textbook in the post-war years has further contributed to a redefinition of what a university education is all about, and what the function of the lecturer is. A MBA student, in an article in the Education section of The Independent of 31st August 1995, writes to complain that some lecturers

seem to think that providing lecture notes that have been copied verbatim from textbooks and then simply going through them in class is called ‘teaching’. Some of them try to disguise this fact by copying the notes from obscure textbooks or by using an amalgam of such sources. These lecturers don’t add any value, and I can study their subjects from home using the same textbooks without attending their lectures. Indeed, I have noticed several classes always have no more than 50 per cent attendance rate for this very reason.

But with the massive increase in student numbers, the concomitant decline of the tutorial system, and the standardisation of curricula, this is unsurprisingly what the business of lecturing is in large part bound to become, our best intentions and personal quirks notwithstanding.

Finally, it may turn out that traditional universities are not simply becoming anachronistic but are also becoming incapable of fulfilling their historical functions as repositories and transmitters of knowledge. For example, Eli Noam, writing recently in Science (13th October 1995), observes that:

Most branches of science show an exponential growth of about 4 to 8% annually, with a doubling period of 10 to 15 years. … As the body of knowledge grows, fields of expertise evolve into ever narrower slices.

The inexorable specialization of scholars means that even research universities cannot maintain coverage of all subject areas in the face of the expanding universe of knowledge, unless their research staff grows the same rate as scholarly output, doubling every 5 to 10 years. This is not sustainable either economically or organizationally …

He goes on to note that university libraries can no longer afford to maintain, let alone expand, their holdings. But clearly the costs overall are unsustainable. Not simply is it a matter, for example, of the cost of university accommodation (administrative offices, lecture theatres, teaching rooms, student halls, libraries, toilets and cloakrooms, car parks, restaurants, sports and recreational facilities, …) and other overheads as against the cost of a personal computer and modem to the home learner. One of the most costly resources to a university is its teachers. And yet resources are dissipated in the traditional residential universities, where lectures and hard resources may be reduplicated across a number of different campuses. Essentially the same lecture in any discipline may, for example, be delivered in the course of a week by as many lecturers as there are universities which offer the subject. There is consequently a wasteful reduplication of both human and material resources, but one which is necessitated by the large number of geographically dispersed student groups. Consider, too, that of all lecturers delivering classes in some subject area, only some subset may truly be considered subject experts. Consequently, across a number of student groups, only a subset are able to benefit from tuition by an expert in the discipline. At the same time, much of a lecturer’s time is wasted on routine teaching that, as our MBA student observed, is effectively merely the regurgitation of textbooks.

All of which leads one to re-examine the role of the university and the continued need for residential teaching. It is, after all (and mercifully), no longer the finishing school of a privileged social élite, and its attendant moral function is long a thing of the past. If the face-to-face lecture is to become little more than a filter for textbook learning, then the dissemination of human knowledge through electronic copy may speak to a far wider audience. Similarly, the ideal of a liberal education, no longer tied to a élitist and exclusive value system, may be far better served by the growing volume of electronic materials freely accessible on the Internet. With new technologies relentlessly redefining the way we work and live in the so-called Information Society, it may not merely be a costly anachronism to continue to embrace the model of the traditional residential university as the primary locus of learning — it may arguably be an impediment to appropriate learning and ultimately a threat to growth, both economic and personal. The school, college, and university, as physical locations for the dissemination of knowledge and the support of learning, will increasingly be seen as a product of the now waning print culture, the ‘Gutenberg galaxy’.

The scene is set, then, for the emergence of the ‘virtual university’. If structured high quality learning materials, with appropriate and effective tutorial support, can be made available online to whoever has access to a computer and modem, without other constraints of time and place, then the traditional residential teaching university would seem to become largely redundant.

3. Goodbye Gutenberg: Towards the ‘Virtual University’

Two possible scenarios suggest themselves. In the first, existing universities create online electronic resources to serve both their residential and their enrolled distance-learning students. This is broadly in line with ODL actions under the EC Impact programme: Train-Train, Train-NFP, and Train-Educ, for example, were launched to stimulate universities into incorporating training for electronic information provision into their normal curricula. Universities might even, in deference to their ‘Mission Statements’ invariably stressing their role as higher education providers to the local region, seek to offer educational and information services to the surrounding community through electronic links to local businesses, schools and libraries, for example. I suggest that this strategy, if it amounts to no more than the established residential universities simply publishing their home-grown course notes on the Web for consumption as supplementary materials by their students and locality alone, will, while well-meaning and in the short term probably useful to both staff and students, in the long run turn out to be a dead end, a waste of investment, a minor monument to institutional timidity.

For while the catchment area for existing universities is shrinking as students come increasingly from the local community, that for the ‘virtual university’ is broadening to, quite literally, the world. So let’s now look at an alternative, and more ambitious, scenario. Here, for what it’s worth, I shall outline my own vision of further and higher education in the early 21st century, unabashedly pointing where appropriate to some features of the VITC and Circle projects with which I am involved. To begin with, the university, in its electronic form, will no longer be either the locus of learning nor the determining agent of what will be studied and when: Circle—‘whose centre is everywhere, its circumference nowhere’, in the words of St Thomas Aquinas—instead places the learner at the centre of the learning experience. Inspired originally by the Community Memory project in Berkeley in the early 1970s, the Community Learning Resource Centre (CLRC)—multimedia workstations located in homes, in adult education centres, public libraries, Internet cafés, company training rooms, hospitals, prisons, and other residential care centres, as well as within the existing universities — will be the physical node and access point for the virtual university. A ‘have laptop, will travel’ culture will bring the university to the learner, wherever he or she happens to be.

What will the ‘virtual university’ have to offer that the traditional residential university does not? Many of the benefits are well understood, and need no more than brief mention here. That, for example, it overcomes the major constraints of time and space. Or that it will support ‘learning-on-demand’ with the additional benefits of continual student monitoring (you can log who’s accessing your Web site and for how long) and rapid student feedback. Or that it increases student choice by being able to offer topics for study that for single institutions—locked in a neo-Fordist mass production of learners more characteristic of the first industrial age—it would not be cost-effective to offer. Or that, in thus enabling the ‘mass-customisation’ of learning, it can better accommodate a wide age range, wide variations in the pace of learning, and different student backgrounds and prior experience.

But what will we be able to study? Surely it is unrealistic to expect any organisation to generate in the short term sufficient high-quality electronic materials across a broad enough subject range to boast itself a ‘university’? Surely no organisation can, in any case, draw on that breadth of expertise? Aren’t we looking many years ahead? The answer lies in separating the facility itself from courseware provision. Effectively anyone could be a course provider, marketing their learning materials through the virtual university, on a pay-by-hit basis: the more one’s materials are accessed, the more cyberbucks (in all likelihood) one earns. Competition between course providers in the same subject areas gives additonal incentive to ensure that the learning materials offered are of the highest possible quality and value to the learner, just as competition between the virtual universities for students should in turn drive a pursuit of excellence.

Well, yes, you say, this is fine for the liberal studies student interested in learning for its own sake. But what if I want to gain at the end of it a respectable university degree with professional recognition? Essentially the same principle applies. Courseware from a wide range of independent course providers — these might be commercial organisations (e.g., Berlitz, Pitmans, …), traditional universities as well as traditional distance learning universities, commercial colleges and private schools, and possibly even academic publishers—may be funneled into cohesive modular courses and independently validated by existing universities, by public examining bodies, and by professional societies such as the Royal Society of Arts, the British Computer Society, the Institute of Linguists, the British Psychological Society, and others as appropriate to the discipline (as already happens in traditional universities, where external subject experts advise validation panels). As in the traditional university, award-earning programmes of study would be formally structured — essential if the learner is to be formally credited for successfully completed courses. While an independent advisory board for each disciplinary area would be responsible for ensuring the quality and global coherence of the whole, the distributed nature of the resource would ensure that individual contributors would be able to update and add further materials reflecting their native expertise, as well as being responsible, as subject experts, for assessment and for conformity with national and international standards.

But surely students would benefit from tutorial support? Provision of tutorial supervision—teletutoring—would be managed in much the same way as courseware provision: freelance tutors, anywhere in the world, might advertise their services through university bulletin boards, negotiating directly with individual students. The university would provide electronic ‘rooms’ for synchronous conferencing, while the conduct and content of tutorials would be left to the individuals concerned. The use of remote lecturers, tutors, and perhaps industrial mentors, online would enable a customisation of learning unthinkable in the traditional university.

Monitored online self-assessment for rapid feedback together with submission and assessment of coursework to tutors via electronic mail would form the hub of the student evaluation process. Where appropriate, accreditation would be given (as for course review and validation) by professional societies, by participating terrestrial universities, and by other course providers. Online student testing (including self-assessment) creates the possibility to control and assess learning progress, with results of tests automatically relayed to spreadsheets and forwarded to tutors.

There are clear benefits with regard to resourcing issues. The number of students admitted to a course in the traditional residential university is constrained by the resources available (equipment, lecturers, library provisions, size of teaching rooms, …). Most resource issues become irrelevant in the virtual university. The cost of paper handouts increases as student numbers increase; the cost of electronic copy doesn’t. The teaching and resource materials may be updated, extended or otherwise modified regularly at minimal cost since only a single electronic copy—rather than multiple paper copies—need be changed. An increase in staff-student ratio in the traditional residential university means that feedback to students is slow. Students need fast feedback, and online (self-) assessment in the virtual university is able to deliver that.

But the most significant changes will be cultural. We shall witness, and will have to manage the conceptual and pedagogic implications of, a climacteric shift from seeing telematics-based learning as a CBT add-on to traditional teaching to being the primary medium of study. We shall witness a transition from the classroom and lecture theatre as a locus of learning to Community Learning Resource Centres, with the traditional university becoming, from the student perspective, just one of many possible physical nodes to the virtual university. With the waning of the ‘Gutenberg prejudice’ — its conception of learning an essentially text-based intellectual activity that takes place in specifically designated locations (schools, colleges, universities)—we shall witness a shift from a predominantly print culture to a sensory, experiential culture, the ‘conduit’ metaphor of transmission from mentor to novice giving way to a quasi-organic metaphor of personal and intellectual growth through action and exploration in virtual worlds.

It has been said that written exams test no more than one’s ability to pass written exams, or at least that by their very nature they test the acquisition of only those kinds of knowledge which can be expressed in written form. Whatever the truth of that, there are unarguably skills and types of knowledge that cannot be appropriately examined in the classical three-hour unseen paper, just as they cannot be properly taught by a formal lecture alone. The artificial setting of the written examination—just as did the lecture and the textbooks through which the examined subject was probably taught — abstracts the verbalisable intellectual content out of a ‘context-of-doing’: it’s one thing to talk about how to squine a flidget, for example, another to actually do it. We have known since Aristotle (in the Ethics) that effective experiential learning of a complex and content-rich cognitive skill takes place most effectively through its rehearsal in an environment that, as closely as possible, simulates the real-world environment in which that skill would be put into practical use (hence, for example, flight simulators for trainee pilots). Networked virtual reality and interactive hypermedia that can model such environments, as well as present manipulable three-dimensional visualisations of abstract concepts that have no physical counterpart, empower the learner not merely to observe simulated real-world problems but to actively participate in their solution, thus re-aligning the focus onto the process of learning rather than the result (the classical examination paper).

4. ‘Information wants to be free’

How will the virtual university be financed? Eli Noam observes (not altogether approvingly) of “electronic forms of instruction” that “the point is not that they are superior to face-to-face teaching …, but that they can be provided at dramatically lower cost”. Separating out course provision from administration means that the utility itself, together with its lesser accommodation needs than the physical university and a greater number of students passing through its virtual doors, will be able to operate at smaller costs. Income will ultimately come from individual students and CLRCs through enrolment fees, while the public CLRCs themselves may continue to be funded as the museums, libraries, hospitals, prisons, and such like, that they are now.

What will it cost the learner? I’ve heard the pay-as-you-learn ‘jukebox’ model proposed, with the learner paying per time unit of access. While the idea of information as an on-tap, on-demand, utility on a par with electricity, gas and water has a certain appeal, it seems clear to me that ‘slot-machine learning’ will tempt learners—especially those on low incomes—to cut corners. Just as our current generation of students lose out in often being unable to spend money on every more expensive course books, online learners will ‘cut classes’ if they are having to constantly watch the meter. And in both cases the cost finally may be passed on to the employer and to society as a whole in the form of an under-trained, under-motivated entry-level workforce. In an Information Age that is seeing already a uncoupling of cost from distance in telephony, and where time is becoming less relevant, it would be a retrograde step to charge by the minute.

In the Circle model, the only variable cost to learners is connection time. A fixed flat-rate enrolment fee with low-cost flat-rate public access through CLRCs should bring education within the budgets of a greater number of learners than can afford to attend the traditional university.

5. The hidden cost: the demise of the university

A telematics-based distance learning utility offering fully accredited courses would have considerable impact on the future of higher education, the traditional universities unable to offer a comparable degree of flexibility and customisation of learning. What then will become of the traditional universities? Probably very little in the short term — say, the next three to five years.

Those that survive and thrive will do so only by redefining their functions in relation to, and complementary to, the new electronic universities. First, they will themselves become CLRCs, public points of presence providing community access to the online learning environments. Therefore, secondly, they will as CLRCs also become access centres, for on-site use or — in the longer term — by tele-operation from remote sites, for costly research facilities such as high-cost hardware in manual skills-based workshops.

They will no longer have their ‘own’ students, any more than they will award their own degrees — who in his right mind will take a full degree from Swindon Polytechnical University when he can pick and mix accredited modules from MIT, Edinburgh, Berlin, and Harvard? They may nonetheless find they can still generate income from leasing space and equipment to, and providing tutorial guidance and mentorship for, post-graduate and industrial researchers. They will also have the opportunity to focus their resources as research centres for their own and visiting academics.

Finally, they will become courseware developers and course providers to the virtual universities, their curricula competing for custom with those of other terrestrial universities as well as with commercial course providers. Lecturers will increasingly become ‘instructional designers’, spending considerably less time in face-to-face contact with learners (though many will become tutors and facilitators for CLRC-users) as more of their effort is channeled into writing courseware. As academic institutions, they will also have a role in the validation of both their own courses and those from independent course providers.

Where does all this leave our 18-year-old school leaver? I’m not sure. But I’m also not sure there will, twenty years hence, be any 18-year-old school leavers who will have been through a traditional schooling. For, although I’ve been concerned in this article only with higher education, it is clear that schools too will go through similar changes. Clearly the transition from classroom to cyberclass will not happen overnight, but it will be sufficiently rapid to force us to think very seriously right now about what we are doing. And we can’t afford mistakes.

There are clearly many potential dangers: for example, that the creation of the cyber-universities be technology-driven with too little prior thought for the pedagogic issues, that education be trivialised to ‘sound bite’ edutainment as deregulated virtual learning environments succumb to the commercial imperative. Or that there will, after all, be too few learners in this mode to make the whole venture viable. The Circle project has for its aim the creation of an integrated learning environment embracing all the key academic functions and services of a traditional university, yet separate from and independent of the traditional universities. Earlier, I expressed scepticism; and to many, I will perhaps have sketched a dystopic vision in this article. Therefore, while I am personally exhilirated at the prospect of virtual learning utilities, we clearly cannot simply go ahead and build. As a Europe-wide distributed Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Collaborative Learning Environments, we are making it our concern to look closely not only at the beguiling technologies but also, and perhaps more importantly, at the strategic, pedagogic, social, economic, and cultural issues that will ultimately determine the human success or failure of the enterprise. We owe that to the future.


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