March 1999 // Virtual University
Welcome to the Virtual University
by A. Trevor Thrall
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source ( as: A. Trevor Thrall "Welcome to the Virtual University" The Technology Source, March 1999. Available online at The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

Western Governors University. Southern Regional Electronic Campus. Colorado Community College Online. National Technological University. Michigan Virtual University. These names may not bring back fond memories of campus days, but they do represent a critical element of the future of higher education—they are all part of the movement that is the virtual university. These institutions come in many shapes and sizes and pursue wildly divergent strategies, but they share the beliefs that higher education must be transformed in order to meet the challenge of educating people in the next century and that distributed learning—learning which takes place via the Internet and other communications technologies—will be a driving force behind that transformation.

This new section of The Technology Source will track the virtual university movement from its current state of infancy into the unknown future. Technology Source contributors have an excellent record on assessing the technologies, processes, people, and pitfalls related to the integration of technology and education. Authors have often focused on how to incorporate a single technology into teaching, how the teaching of a particular subject can be enhanced using information technologies, or how an institution has dealt with its technology problems. This section seeks to complement that focus by prodding potential Technology Source contributors to ask similar questions from a unique vantage point: what happens when we begin with technology already integrated into the education process? Virtual universities may, in a sense, have bypassed some of the tortured decision-making processes of their brick-and-mortar cousins by betting the farm on new technologies from the beginning. But by no means have virtual universities solved the problems discussed in The Technology Source. If anything, they have encountered just as dizzying an array of new issues. Below is a brief look at a handful of the many critical issues this section will explore.

Content is King

As with all universities, the foundation of virtual universities is their academic curriculum. However, unlike existing universities, which have entrenched departments, schools, and committees, many virtual universities have an opportunity to build their curricula from the ground up. What should these curricula look like and why? This greater freedom in defining curricula is complicated by the fact that at some point many virtual universities must rely on external content providers—whether those are educational institutions or private sector organizations—with their own agendas. This dependence on outsiders to develop core products may well be a significant challenge for many virtual universities. How will they answer this challenge? What impact will variations in academic focus have on the ability of a virtual university to attract students, become accredited, take advantage of technology, and bring in revenues sufficient for it to thrive?

Just as importantly, how will virtual universities contribute to and affect the debate over the quality of technologically mediated education? Despite reams of research showing "no significant differences," between traditional learning and distributed learning, even educators remain contentious about the appropriate manner in which to incorporate technology into the educational process. Questions remain about the viability of distributed learning. Any qualms about quality among potential students could spell disaster for the virtual university that fails to aggressively address the issue. Even for those virtual universities that do not have their own faculty but instead broker courses and degrees created and taught by other institutions, questions about technical and pedagogical standards loom large.

The Economics of the Virtual University

Virtual universities have been touted as a response to the increasing costs of higher education, from both an institutional and an individual perspective. Many colleges and universities have been intrigued by the prospect of teaching more students with the same or fewer faculty. For individuals, virtual universities hold the promise of a less-expensive alternative to living on or commuting to campus and paying for the services required by campus dwellers. But however attractive the economics may seem on paper, more evidence is needed to prove that virtual universities will be able to provide the hoped-for savings.

Perhaps even more problematic for virtual universities is the fact that few have discovered the winning business model for providing distributed learning on a large scale. Gerald Heeger (1998), New York University's Dean of Continuing and Professional Studies and CEO of NYU Online, Inc., recently admitted to the New York Times that "The dirty little secret is that nobody's making any money." Clearly, if virtual universities are to transform higher education, or even just to give it a good nudge, they must discover sustainable financial strategies. This issue is all the more important for those virtual university projects that are not housed in and financed by a "mother university"—and which therefore straddle the fence between the academic and private spheres. NYU Online, Inc., a for-profit subsidiary created to lead distributed learning for New York University, exemplifies the new blending of academic content and a private-sector business model.


The virtual university movement emerges amidst a wild corporate scramble for partnerships and collaborations that will define the Internet, mass media, and marketplace of the future. Like other firms faced with this chaotic environment, virtual universities seek to establish partnerships that will bring multiple strengths under one roof, in the hopes that doing so will draw students to them and enable them to make a profit. Online textbook sellers, publishing companies, technology firms, and private education and training firms are among those courted by virtual universities seeking the winning combination of products and services. Will these partnerships actually strengthen education or will they merely make it a commodity without adding real value to students? Will close relationships with business make working with virtual universities more or less attractive to academic faculty?


Virtual universities begin and end with technology. From the design of a Web site and the creation of a robust virtual learning environment to determining which courses to develop, most of the major decisions facing virtual university projects rest in large part on a multi-pronged analysis of technological issues. What is technically possible must be compared with what is practically feasible at the faculty and student level.

In many ways, virtual universities are still ahead of the curve, since the potential market for their products and services is limited by the fact that most Americans do not yet have a computer at home hooked up to the Internet. Moreover, the necessary assumption that students will be using a 28.8K modem to access the Internet limits the ability of faculty and instructional designers to develop truly effective and appealing online courses. For virtual universities, the trick will be to tread carefully through the transition era, not getting too far ahead of the pack, but still leading the way to a new educational world. The most successful will find the right mix of old and new technologies. What comprises such an appropriate mix, however, has yet to be determined.

A Call for Manuscripts

I end this introductory column with an invitation to submit manuscripts on the virtual university for publication in this section. The majority of the readers of The Technology Source have likely had experience working on a virtual university project, have witnessed the development of one, or have strong opinions on virtual education. If you are one of these readers, I urge you to submit a concise, thoughtful manuscript on any virtual university theme of interest to your fellow readers. With your help, The Technology Source can become a key source for the analysis of a fascinating and important trend in higher education.


Karen Arenson (1998, November 2). More colleges plunging into uncharted waters of on-line courses. New York Times, p A16.

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