July/August 2000 // Virtual University
Illinois Virtual Campus:
Focusing on Student Support
by Cathy Gunn
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source (http://ts.mivu.org/) as: Cathy Gunn "Illinois Virtual Campus:
Focusing on Student Support" The Technology Source, July/August 2000. Available online at http://ts.mivu.org/default.asp?show=article&id=1034. The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

What does a virtual university look like? It is not easy to describe the Illinois Virtual Campus (IVC) to anyone who has not been involved in a virtual university. When I started working for the IVC, my dad, an educator who is knowledgeable about higher education but has no computer or Internet experience, did not understand what my position entailed. He gave up trying to find a title with which to introduce me to his friends and finally said, "All I can think of is that you're the director of a fantasy university!"

Many of today's innovations probably were considered fantasies at one time; what sounded like a dream a few years ago, however, can now be described in enough detail to be understood by the average person who watches dot-com advertisements on television. Such is the case with the IVC, a statewide project created in September 1998 by four Illinois institutions of higher education. In the taxonomy of virtual universities, the IVC is considered an online catalog; it lists the distance education offerings of colleges and universities across the state and provides support for students who elect to take distance courses. This article introduces the IVC and some of its more interesting components.

What the IVC Is and Isn't

Comparing statewide virtual universities is risky, because each is based on a different ideology and organizational structure. Nomenclature is deceptive, as some virtual universities do not conduct the same business as traditional institutions of higher education. But perhaps comparisons are one way to begin looking at what the IVC is and is not. Kentucky Commonwealth Virtual University (KCVU), featured in a recent Technology Source article, provides a good source of comparison for the IVC.

Unlike KCVU, an agency of the Council on Postsecondary education—or Michigan Virtual University, a private, not-for-profit corporation—the IVC is funded through a Higher Education Cooperation Act grant that is renewed yearly. Also unlike KCVU, the IVC does not have a faculty development and training mission; that is left up to individual colleges and universities. Participating institutions must do business with courseware vendors locally (the IVC does not host courseware) and establish their own transfer credit policies; most virtual colleges use the same policy that applies to traditional courses and programs. Students do not apply for admission to the IVC. Like KCVU, the IVC does not plan to be an accredited institution; accreditation and course quality are the responsibility of the Illinois colleges and universities providing the curriculum.

The IVC has two distinct missions: to provide access to distance courses and programs through an online catalog and to provide local support to all Illinois distance education students through Student Support Centers. The network of more than 40 Centers distinguishes the IVC from most other statewide virtual entities.

Online Catalog

The virtual ribbon cutting for the IVC online catalog took place August 24, 1999. Currently the catalog lists more than 1,700 courses in the searchable database; more than half of these courses are Web-based, while the rest are delivered by interactive TV and other media. Almost 50 online certificate and degree programs are listed.

A scan of the database indicates that not all students find courses or programs of primary interest to them through the IVC. The catalog offerings represent the interests of individual faculty, not high-demand markets. In fiscal year 2001, however, an online program development initiative by the Illinois Board of Higher Education (IBHE) will provide funding that will enable colleges and universities to develop new courses and programs in high-demand market areas. Market analyses conducted by the IVC, coupled with program development funding by the IBHE, will allow the IVC to increase its listing of high-demand online certificate and degree programs.


Information reported to the IVC by 38 of 51 providing institutions indicates that 5,647 students enrolled in 485 Internet courses for the IVC's inaugural semester, fall 1999 (The IVC, 2000).

At present, there is no one body that collects and reports assessment data regarding online courses offered by the IVC's participating colleges and universities. It is important to note that the IVC relies on the goodwill of more than 50 institutions (community colleges and private, public, and proprietary universities) to report data that they previously did not compile. The IVC will begin surveying students in fall 2000 to gather demographic information. Future enrollment trends and marketing analyses will reveal more about Illinois' online students as the IVC refines its role, relative to other Illinois colleges and universities, in assessing student interest in distance education.

Student Support Centers

One important feature of the IVC is its Student Support Centers. Fifteen community colleges tested the support center concept during the project's first year and established the following six essential criteria that now define all forty-plus Centers:

  • Access to computers and the Internet. Any Illinois resident can access, at little or no cost, a computer with Web capabilities in order to take an online course.
  • Access to technical support. Contact information at each center provides online students with local resources for technical support, such as help uploading a homework assignment to an instructor. This support can take place by phone or in person at the local college's computer lab. Various support techniques are in development as participating institutions evaluate student requests.
  • Access to libraries. While it remains the responsibility of providing institutions to meet their online students' library needs, community college libraries in the students' districts may also offer general library support.
  • Test proctoring. Each center provides test proctoring services to residents of its district at minimal or no charge.
  • Advising. Support Centers are not advising centers for participating institutions, but as a preliminary step in a larger process outside of the center, online students may receive general advising help there from an academic advisor or career counselor.
  • Marketing. Each Student Support Center is involved in promoting the IVC.

This year, all 40 community college districts, covering the entire state of Illinois, serve as Student Support Centers (see map). Each college uses existing physical spaces—such as academic advising centers, computer labs, libraries, and testing centers—to serve the needs of students who take classes through the IVC. Additional centers are under development and may provide different combinations of the services listed above.

Student Example

How might a student use an IVC Student Support Center? Imagine that Mary, an associate degree candidate from Waubonsee Community College, uses the IVC database to locate an online humanities course. She finds several; after comparing course descriptions and tuition rates, she chooses a course from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). A link from the course page takes her to UIUC's transition page, where she finds information on how to enroll and register for the course, pay tuition, and order textbooks. Mary checks with her Waubonsee advisor and discovers that the course will transfer toward her degree since it has been approved through an Illinois Articulation Initiative agreement. Mary has difficulty emailing her first assignment to her instructor, but she notices on the course syllabus a link to the IVC's Student Support Center Web page. From there, Mary accesses pages that provide contact information for someone at her local community college from whom she can get technical help as well as information about taking a proctored test. Like Mary, every student in Illinois has access to these "high touch" services that increase the opportunity for a successful online learning experience.


Although we need not compare one virtual campus to another to determine organizational health, the IVC looks forward to acquiring more information about how other virtual campuses operate. The taxonomy of virtual universities is wide and varied, but all have in common the goal of serving students and the need to investigate issues germane to online education. A face-to-face organizational meeting of virtual university directors convened in Lexington, Kentucky, in April 2000. That meeting provided wonderful opportunities for online educators and administrators to share their expertise and resulted in continuing discussions and collaborations. We at the IVC look forward to future Technology Source articles on the unique ways in which virtual universities meet 21st-century students' needs.


The Illinois Virtual Campus: A class connection. (2000). Urbana: Illinois Virtual Campus. Retrieved 9 June 2000 from the World Wide Web: http://www.ivc.illinois.edu/AboutIVC/Reports.htm.

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