September/October 2001 // Virtual University
What Impact Are Virtual Universities Having on Higher Education? An Interview with Michigan Virtual University's David Spencer
by James L. Morrison and David A. Spencer
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source ( as: James L. Morrison and David A. Spencer "What Impact Are Virtual Universities Having on Higher Education? An Interview with Michigan Virtual University's David Spencer" The Technology Source, September/October 2001. Available online at The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

There are currently 35 states in the US with a state-supported virtual university (Young, 2001). Most of these institutions have been in operation only a few years. However, they may grow to have as large an impact on American higher education as did the GI Bill or the establishment of land grant universities. Startling words? Yes. To add substance to them, I interviewed David Spencer, the dynamic president of Michigan Virtual University (MVU), to gain insight into the nature, programs, and activities of these new institutions.

James Morrison [JM]: David, what are the forces driving the establishment of state-funded virtual universities?

David Spencer [DS]: How the economic sector obtains, trains, and retains workers is fundamental to the success of today’s knowledge economy. Consequently, the learning industry is exploding, driven by global competition, a shortage of skilled workers, the growth of the Internet, and the rapid pace of change in what we need to know.

The fastest growing trend to emerge from these forces is e-learning. Merrill Lynch (2000) projected the online educational component (corporate and educational) to grow from $9.4 billion in 2001 to $53.3 billion by 2003—a 54% growth rate. More than 90% of college students access the Internet and spend 85% of their online time in academic pursuits. In addition, more than 2.2 million college students are expected to enroll in distributed courses in 2002, up from 710,000 in 1998—a three-fold increase.

JM: MVU is a state-funded virtual university. Can you briefly describe how MVU came into being, its structure, its organization, and its goals?

DS: MVU was established in 1998 by Governor John Engler and a state agency, the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, as a private non-profit Michigan corporation whose directors represent the employer community, educational leaders, and state government. The goals of MVU are to expand the capacity of Michigan educators to use technology and, in turn, to provide distributed learning opportunities for Michigan’s core industry sectors. We coordinate the development of technology standards and student access systems as well as quality online products and services; we also facilitate K-12 and higher education technology initiatives to build a distributed learning infrastructure throughout the state. Consequently, MVU serves as a catalyst for expanding the use of technologies and a channel through which Michigan educators can make their e-learning offerings available to the public.

JM: How does MVU differ from other virtual universities?

DS: The central difference is that MVU focuses primarily on career and work force development in two ways. First, we work with Michigan educators (K-12, corporate, higher) to help them use information technology tools to enhance their instruction and to pass their skills on to tomorrow's workers. For example, MVU is coordinating Operation Upgrade, funded by Michigan's Department of Career Development, to provide more than 1,200 free online training modules in IT (NETg) and business development (SkillSoft) to companies of 25 or fewer employees throughout the state. Also, we work directly with departments within the state government to target their workers.

JM: Can you illustrate how MVU operates by describing the programs and activities MVU has implemented?

DS: We’re probably best noted for our activities on work force development. One of the most significant initiatives is the MVU Information Technology Training Initiative. MVU is partnering with NETg, a worldwide provider of online stand-alone, self-paced courses, to provide at no cost more than 700 Web-based information technology (IT) courses to some 850,000 K-12 and college students, teachers, administrators, and staff across the state. These courses cover (a) end-user topics such as PC basics, Internet navigation, word processing, spreadsheets, databases, e-mail programs, and desktop publishing; (b) infrastructure topics such as programming languages, client/server development tools, relational databases, intranet development, and mainframe issues; (c) certification-learning paths for Microsoft, Oracle, Cisco, and Novell; and (d) courses in management and professional development. As you can see, this initiative allows students greater access to IT training and provides teachers the skills they need to integrate technology into their courses.

JM: What other projects have you initiated that illustrate how virtual universities are expanding access to education?

DS: Another initiative we have launched (in conjunction with the governor’s office and state legislature) is to make 90,000 Michigan public school teachers eligible to receive a laptop, software, Internet access, and Web-based professional development. We believe The Teacher Technology Initiative to be the most significant educational technology initiative of its kind for public K-12 teachers in the country today. In the same legislative session, the Michigan legislature and the governor approved the launch of the Michigan Virtual High School that serves as a supplemental resource to high school students, as well as the Advanced Placement Academy that provides online advanced placement courses and exam review for students preparing to take the College Board exam.

JM: Do you see a trend for most college-track high school juniors and seniors to take online college courses in place of high school courses?

DS: Yes. We not only have high school students taking advanced placement courses, but soon we will also require an education development plan to be in place for every first-year high school student. Currently, Michigan high school students have dual online enrollment in Michigan colleges and universities, a trend that we anticipate will continue.

One enabling force for this development is that Michigan Virtual University and Michigan Virtual High School are working with the state to help develop an online, statewide career guidance system. Students can go online and look at career opportunities, create a career development plan, work with online career advisors, chart a whole set of career opportunities, review starting salaries of those careers, and read testimonials from professionals who have agreed to participate. In fact, it was so well received that PricewaterhouseCoopers invited MVU to be part of the bid for the e-ArmyU project. Through this contract, MVU will provide the U.S. Army with a customized version of the online career guidance system for the 80,000 soldiers over five years who will be part of the Army’s online initiative.

JM: What other initiatives has the Michigan Virtual University undertaken?

DS: One of the most important gaps in virtual learning today is teacher and faculty professional development. Consequently, we designed an online distance learning development program for K-12 and college faculty members that makes it possible, over a six- to eight-week period, for these teachers to learn how to design and develop online courses. A unique feature of this program is that it is delivered in a "'train the trainer' mode." MVU charges a school or college $3,500 to train master teacher. The school or college then uses MVU's online faculty development course and their master teacher to train other faculty members (at a charge of $200 per instructor trained). This incubator-type program enables Michigan schools and colleges train online instructors at a greatly reduced cost.

MVU is also working with a coalition of Michigan educational organizations in implementing the Ameritech Technology Academy, an innovative program designed to train Michigan public school teachers on how to use and integrate technology into their curriculum. The program is organized into four-person educational teams; each team is composed of two teachers, a building-level administrator, and a media specialist or other professional able to facilitate change among their colleagues. The Academy is funded primarily by a grant from Ameritech with additional support from MVU and the Michigan Department of Education.

JM: How did your colleagues in traditional institutions respond to the new kid on the block, so to speak?

DS: Many saw this project with some trepidation, but we have tried to serve as a true partner rather than a competitor. For instance, one of the first things we did was to act as a market distribution channel for the established colleges and universities in Michigan. We signed an agreement with the President's Council, State Universities of Michigan (representing the 14 public four-year universities) as well as selected independent institutions to include their online credit courses in our catalog at no cost. These institutions charge their normal tuition, use their own faculty, grant credit, and provide degree programs. In addition, we have an agreement with 28 community colleges through the Michigan Community College Association Virtual Learning Collaborative whereby approximately 5,000 students per semester are taking online associate degree courses. These students pay a common tuition rate to a home campus; the Community College Virtual Learning Collaborative then handles financial aid programs so that students comply with state and community guidelines. MVU also plays a key role in identifying and assessing opportunities for the export of Michigan-based online training and education to global markets.

With regard to Michigan colleges and universities, then, our purpose is to help them develop and deliver Web-based training and educational opportunities. We market and promote such opportunities, provide a supportive environment for the development and delivery of Web-based courses, and provide faculty and staff development programs, instructional design consulting, and quality assessment tools. Moreover, MVU staff often help to initiate campus-wide dialogue on the institutional and faculty issues surrounding virtual teaching and learning.

MVU Web-based products and services are designed to address barriers to the adoption of online education. We offer institutions the ability to conduct their first online programs using a technology infrastructure of servers, course management software, e-commerce systems, and a help desk to offset the initial costs and risks of such trials. An online faculty development program has been successful in teaching faculty to prepare instructionally sound online courses and to engage students in interactive activities. As part of this program we have recently developed an evaluation tool to provide faculty with an objective system in assessing the design quality of their courses. Meanwhile, the MVU course catalog continues to provide a statewide portal to all of the online, credit-bearing courses available from our institutional partners. At present, more than 750 course offerings can be accessed by student users, which represents over 12,000 students enrolled in online courses each semester.

JM: Many thanks, David, for your description of MVU programs and initiatives, which illustrate how state-supported virtual universities can dramatically expand access to education. I can well imagine that a text on the history of higher education that is published in 2050 will refer to the establishment of these institutions as having as great an impact on higher education as did the land-grant act of 1864 and the GI Bill.


Merrill Lynch (May 23, 2000). The knowledge Web. New York: Author. Retrieved August 30, 2001, from

Young, J. R. (July 6, 2001). Distance-Learning Group Creates List of Links to Virtual Universities. The Chronicle of Higher Education, p. A26. Retrieved August 25, 2001, from

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