April 1999 // Virtual University
Lessons for Developing a Partnership-Based Virtual University
by Scott G. Rosevear
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source (http://ts.mivu.org/) as: Scott G. Rosevear "Lessons for Developing a Partnership-Based Virtual University" The Technology Source, April 1999. Available online at http://ts.mivu.org/default.asp?show=article&id=1034. The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

Recent news about the closing of the California Virtual University and the slow growth of Western Governors University prompts questions about the formation of virtual learning organizations. In a recent study, I examined the formation of a state-sponsored virtual university that depends upon the active participation of public and private sector partners (Rosevear, 1999). The governor's education and economic development agendas drove the launch of the university; the state provided start-up funding and encouraged public higher education institutions and industries to cooperate in the delivery of virtual education programs through interactive technologies. Although it has been operational for nearly three years, this organization continues to struggle with marketing, technology, and management issues. As a result, it has had only limited success in meeting the significant human resource needs of the virtual education industry.

My research involved a comparative case study of eight organizations from higher education, industry, and state government. I conducted nearly 40 interviews with key representatives from these organizations, including university and college presidents, industry executives, and state officials. Though the virtual university I studied is a unique project in many ways, the implications of inter-institutional alliances and cooperation will help determine the success of virtual universities everywhere. No virtual university can hope to succeed without answering these basic questions: How can/should it work with conventional educational institutions? What are the benefits and drawbacks of working with the private sector? How can alliances between education and industry best be managed? How do political pressures influence the development of a state-funded virtual university?

In this article, I attempt to address these questions with a series of recommendations for current and future virtual university projects. The suggestions are based on lessons I learned from two years of research on, and firsthand observation of, the formation and operation of the aforementioned state virtual university.

1. Technology is Not the Answer

Less savvy organizational leaders believe that information technology alone will solve their problems. This is a dangerous presumption. Technology is a necessary component of the virtual university, but people also matter. At the outset, technology should be regarded as a vehicle for establishing the virtual university alliance. However, it is people, and the ways in which they use technology, that ultimately determine whether an alliance succeeds or fails.

2. Assess Readiness

Before asking institutions and government agencies to develop a virtual university, state officials should learn how prepared the state is to support such a venture. In the case I researched, the initiative was announced prior to broad discussions with the higher education and business communities; it is likely that the same has happened in the development of other virtual colleges. Before committing to the establishment of a virtual university, planners should answer these questions: What is the state's technological infrastructure? How prepared are the traditional colleges and universities to support virtual learning environments? Do they all have equal technological capabilities? What is a reasonable prediction for how long it will take before the virtual university is operational? What are the resources gaps, and how will they be filled? Such questions could be studied by an outside consultant or by a group comprised of individuals from several academic institutions, industry, and the state. The answers to these questions will eliminate, before the formation of the alliance, many uncertainties and potentially make the participants more comfortable with the business of building a virtual university.

3. Have a Plan

Prior to any public announcements, those leading the virtual university project should establish a plan for developing the supporting alliance. Partners from higher education, industry, and the state already should be identified and asked to commit to the project. Together these partners should decide what type of unit or team will manage the development of the alliance and how it will proceed; they should also come to a consensus about timelines, responsibilities, resource requirements, and other details related to planning. Having a plan makes the partners more accountable, and it eliminates such potential distractions as turf battles.

4. Communicate

Even the best-laid plans will suffer unless there is strong communication between the alliance partners. This includes communication between and within organizations. Leaders need to clearly communicate to all partners the intentions of the alliance and how it will affect their organizations. The members of participating organizations should be clear about future plans that could impact the alliance. Moreover, it is crucial that the staff responsible for working with the alliance be well-informed. Many times organization presidents commit their institutions to the formation of an alliance without effectively explaining the project to staff members. As a result, some staff members do not enthusiastically participate in the alliance formation because they are suspicious about what impact it will have on their institution.

5. Beware of Competition

Although the virtual university will be based on alliances, managers should beware of the participants' competitive tendencies. Each organization—whether a university or college, industry, or state agency—will protect and promote its own interests during the alliance formation. (In the case that I studied, for example, the two major universities participating in the virtual university did not cooperate with each other during the early stages of its formation.) Furthermore, the virtual university will be challenged to convince other institutions that it will not compete against them. Community colleges are especially sensitive to this possibility. Limiting competitive tensions will foster cooperation between participants.

6. Expect the Unexpected

Because so many different organizations will be involved, it is likely that surprise events will occur and impact the alliance. For example, political winds may change and alter the state's goals for the alliance. Key supporters, such a university president, may step down and thus change the dynamics of the alliance. As organizations respond to change, momentum in the alliance may shift.

7. Remember Industry

Companies will participate in the virtual university alliance only if it makes good business sense to do so. Unlike state agencies and institutions, companies typically are not motivated by strong institutional pressures to stay in the project. Thus it is critical that managers remain aware of the business needs of industry. If company representatives are not impressed by the progress of the initiative, they will lose interest in it. Some industry participants in my study considered the virtual university to be simply another layer of bureaucracy between them and education providers. These participants eventually lost interest in the virtual university and sought alternative means for more quickly meeting their business needs. That kind of dissatisfaction clearly would have a negative impact on any virtual university's performance.

8. Manage Expectations

Governors and other key leaders should manage carefully the expectations placed on the virtual university. In the case that I studied, representatives of the state predicted that the alliance would be operational and self-supporting within 12 months. This was a politically driven statement, and, given the complexities involved in the alliance's formation, an unrealistic one as well. One year later, when the virtual university did indeed open for business, it had no products to sell to industry. It is in the best interest of the virtual university if planners ignore similar expectations and focus instead on developing a quality institution.


These recommendations may appear to be nothing more than common sense applied to the development of a virtual university. Yet, as my research and the experiences of other virtual learning organizations have demonstrated, following these straightforward suggestions can be difficult when complex networks of partnerships are involved. In fact, it has not yet been determined whether establishing multi-partner alliances is an effective strategy for developing virtual universities. In time, as organizations learn more about their complex environments, other strategies may prove more appropriate.


Rosevear, S. G. (1999). Understanding the formation of a cross-industry alliance in the knowledge industry. Unpublished Doctoral Dissertation. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan.

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