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The virtual university: Some practical considerations

George Lee Stuart
Southern Cross University

Post industrial society now possesses the technical ability to offer distance mode university courses in a way which is, for the first time, a close analogue of the traditional university model. Such a possibility has far reaching consequences for tertiary education and society in general. The very role of universities themselves may be at issue.

The virtual university: The genesis of an idea

The concept of the virtual university grew out of a conversation with my colleague Julian Dimbleby regarding virtual reality and a virtual lecture. The scenario we painted was of a lecturer standing in an empty auditorium lecturing to, ostensibly, thin air. Meanwhile hundreds, perhaps thousands, of student sat in their homes with virtual reality kits strapped to their head seeing and hearing the lecture as if in situ. This conjured up many images. The virtual snoozer; should this be a real person or a simulation? Virtual paper darts were a possibility. Real time castigation of Dimitris in Omsk for making too much noise and what was the question again from Sharni in Delhi? Sandra Wills (Wills, 1993) further energised our debate with her use of the phrase "Virtual University".

The current modes of distance education in the tertiary sector

Distance tertiary education is not a new concept (Moorhouse & Ellicott, 1990) and there are many high quality external courses currently offered by universities in the external mode. However the difficulty of delivering materials at a distance has meant that such courses have, by necessity, been restricted in both their scope and in the fields of study available. Typical offerings have been text based using terrestrial post for communications. This places severe limitations on the type of course offered. Most particularly the opportunity for interaction using this delivery method is limited and has often been facilitated by telephones and workshops of various duration from half days to whole weeks.

As technology has advanced the communications media have played an increasing part in the delivery mix. Fax machine and teletutorials have significantly improved the quality of the learning experience for the student. Faxes allow the .swift transfer of textual and graphical material both to and from the lecturer/ tutor thus decreasing feedback times. Teletutorials, a special phone link wherein several persons can talk and interact at once, allow discussion and interaction between tutor s and peer group members in real time.

These techniques do not in themselves provide the optimal university environment. There are still many facets of the university role not provided for in this mix. However there are two recent technological advances which will facilitate the provision of the virtual university.

Technologically significant advances

The networking of the worlds universities

In recent years computers have increasingly been networked together. Networking in this context is the ability of computer to access data and programs on other computer systems over a distance both as local area networks (LANs) and as wide area networks (WANs). The universities have been instrumental in the development of these technologies and not surprisingly are amongst the chief users of such technology, especially WANs. The universities busily networked themselves together in the 1980s through the auspices of Internet in the USA and the AARNet in Australia. These networks allow university academics to communicate with each other via textual messages wherever there is a university connected to the network. The WAN infrastructure for this interconnection is provided the standard telecommunications carriers or companies in the countries involved and is paid for by a contribution from each university or from some central government fund. So it is now possible for an Australian academic to send a memo to a colleague in, say, Ireland and at the same time post a virtual carbon copy to a group of interested observers dispersed across continental North America (or the world for that matter). All one needs to do to access this facility is to gain access to a computer in a networked university and have the system administrator grant one network privileges. This networking of the worlds universities has, until recently, attracted little government attention. There is one principle reason for this, it's effective and cheap. To be sure it costs many millions of dollars per year but in the context of the annual tertiary sector budgets for the contributing countries, it's peanuts.

The multimedia revolution

Vannevar Bush (Bush, 1945) described a machine, called the memex, based on microfiche, values and levers, which would enable users to store all of their accumulated references and notes in a fashion based on association rather than indexing. This associated storage organisation would closely mimic the human way of arranging information.

Ted Nelson in the 1960s coined the term Hypertext to mean documents that contained links to other documents or to elsewhere in the same document. This is manifested by words and areas on the computer screen which when selected cause the screen display to change in some way, usually to a screen of related text. This is information organisation by association.

Throughout the sixties and seventies work progressed on hypertext systems without any great deal of publicity. In 1984 Apple computers released the Macintosh computer with its user friendly user interface. One of the early products for the Macintosh was called HyperCard. HyperCard extends the Hypertext metaphors to other objects such as cards and buttons.

HyperCard allows the rapid showing of successive cards to provide simple animation and allows the input and interpretation of text. HyperCard also allows music, speech and other sounds to be played. The augmentation of text and graphical information provision with sound and motion is called multimedia. Advances in digital compression techniques now allow computers to reproduce full motion video as well.

It is therefore possible to convey moving visual information with sound and text on computers. Commercial products employing this technology are now available. Examples are the Microsoft Encarta Encyclopaedia and children's titles such as Just Grandma and Me.

Holzl and McCarthy give a thorough and comprehensive description of the enabling technologies for the virtual university in their paper CBT and the Electronic University (Holzl & McCarthy, 1993).

The virtual university defined

The virtual university will not be one in which Virtual Reality kits will be required. Rather the concept of virtuality refers to the ability of a home based student to experience all of the learning and personal development experiences available to the student who is physically located in a university campus.

This ability will be provided by an advanced communications infrastructure allied to computer managed learning (CML) technology and access to large multimedia databases.

How might one provide the experiences services and function of the traditional university, with its physical limitations of location and temporal rigidity, to a broader community not constrained by place or time? One has first to consider what those functions and services are, and indeed what the virtual university might be able to offer which is in addition to, or superior to, the traditional university.

The role of the universities

Universities have a number of traditional roles and functions:

1. The teaching role

The lecture

The lecture is the most widely used and traditional mechanism of teaching mode in the university. The lecture consists of one or more wise persons standing at the front of a large room containing many students and giving forth information verbally. This is a unidirectional information flow. Questions are not usually encouraged in the formal lecture mode. The verbal dissemination of information is occasionally augmented with textual and graphical information presented on one or more of a black/white board; a large display screen; or via paper handouts which usually reproduce the content of the displayed material. The black/white board model facilitates some ad hoc information display. Very occasionally the lecture is augmented by some physical exposition of the topic at hand in form of a performed experiment or displayed skill such as, say, a performed dance step or tuning of a piece of electrical equipment.

Don Bligh cites many studies on efficacy of lectures (Bligh, 1971) and concludes that the lecture is effective only for the provision and acquisition of information by the student. Lectures are potentially very efficient in the transfer of information from the wise person to the recipient. One may pack a large hall with five hundred to a thousand students and so long as the audio system and the handouts have sufficient quality, the learning experience for each student is the same. There are some drawbacks in the lecture model however. Bligh identifies three factors affecting the acquisition of information in the lecture:

  1. Memory
  2. Attention and
  3. Motivation.
Memory is a personal attribute and can be considered to be fixed in the individual although individuals do remember at different efficiencies depending on such factors as fatigue and hunger. Attention and motivation though can suffer in the context of the lecture Anyone who has attended a lecture with and audience consisting of high spirited young people can attest to this. High spirits can in turn leads to a disruption of attendance levels in the other students.

The typical human attention span during intense concentration is about 20 minutes. However most lectures have a duration of one or two hours. Despite recesses this represents a Herculean effort on behalf of the student and learning outcomes are severely jeopardised by such duration. Why then are lectures so long? The answer lies in logistics and the economies of scale alluded to earlier in this paper. Logistically it is easier to timetable and fill lecture theatres in blocks of two hours than it is to fill them in 20 minute lectures. In many case the two hour lecture is provided because that is the way it has always been done.

There are other disadvantages in the lecture mode. They require complex logistics and capital investment to provide the infrastructure. the large room, for the exposition. A room which incidentally spend much of its time half full or even empty. Lecture theatres too have limits in capacity. If a course is to be presented to 500 students and the largest lecture theatre has a capacity of 300 then two lectures must be given.

The function of the lecture can just as easily be fulfilled by videos and terrestrial TV. A video of a wise person talking is just as effective as a standard lecture. Care must be taken though as the soporific effect of a talking head video must not be underestimated. The video lecture must be broken up into manageable sections. Twenty minutes per section would seem to be an appropriate duration. Given that the lecture can be emulated in the virtual mode what advantages can be derived from the new mode? The first and most obvious advantage is that the student can view the lecture at any time and at their own pace. So a student can choose to view one, two or more sections depending on their particular schedule or capability. Another advantage of videos is the ability to provide self testing facilities for the student at the end of each section. This could be in a paper based form or in the form of a computer quiz. This is possible, and even common, in traditional lectures. However the time taken for the lecture based quiz will reduce the amount of time for the lectured content.

A third advantage of the virtual lecture mode is that a famously wise person can be employed to give the lecture. World renowned experts can be used to talk about their own theories rather than having junior academics deliver the information second hand.

Are there any disadvantages in the virtual mode? There is the effort and cost of production and dissemination of the video lectures. However, if the numbers are sufficiently high, these costs become minimal in comparison to the costs of maintaining traditional buildings and staff rolls. Terrestrial TV offers economies of delivery but the flexibility of time scheduling is lost. University students though might be expected to be able to acquire and use video cassette recorders.

The tutorial

A tutorial is traditionally a period of individual student instruction by a competent person sometimes but not always a lecturer. The traditional university tutor is often a graduate seeking to supplement their income during a period of study towards a post graduate degree. The strict one to one ratio has in many cases however been modified to mean an actual ratio of one to few. Tutorial groups of twenty or even thirty are not uncommon in Australian universities in the 1990s. The reason for this flexibility in semantics is, of course, funding.

The function of the tutorial is to allow interaction and discourse of the subject matter between a knowledgeable person and the student. This discourse is in practice often enhanced by the presence of more than two persons. Ideas flow and are bandied about more easily in a group than in the stultifying expert learner model. There is evidence that some students more readily learn from their peers than from their tutors.

The key learning attribute here is the provision of interaction. In the course of discussion and exposition, learning often takes place. Sometimes it is the best environment of all for meeting learning objectives. The advantage of the tutorial is sometimes lost however in large groups. In this situation individuals might dominate discussion and many irrelevant paths might be followed. Tutorials can include assessment. Tutorial exercises are given, marked, discussed and feedback obtained. Can this model be emulated in the distance mode? Linda M Harasim (Harasim, 1990) identifies five attributes of online education:

  1. many to many communication
  2. place independence
  3. time independence (time flexible not a temporal)
  4. text based
  5. computer mediated
To some extent the tutorial is already being emulated in the form of teletutorials. This is a fair imitation but there are a number of deficiencies in teletutorials. The most obvious is the lack of a visual medium. Personal visual queues are not present and instances of group members talking over each other are common. This can be overcome by suitable tutor control. This mode can even have certain advantages. The participants can adopt any physical location for the conversation and standards of dress and visual response my be flexible. As one female put it, "I can dagg out on the couch and pull faces anytime I like". However the lack of a visual transmission mode is a severe disadvantage in many cases. The tutor cannot draw an ad hoc diagram for illustration. There are now technical solutions to this problem. As long ago as 1990 Rob Bresa of Olivetti Systems and Networks (Bresa, 1990) demonstrated a machine called the Telewriter which connected to a standard IBM PC and allowed the transmission of voice, text, graphics, ad hoc scribble and even video. All of this was via standard telephone lines.

More recently commercial software packages such as the Electronic Classroom for Apple computers have become available. This system provides immediate (or a few seconds delay over very long distances) transfer of text, images, scribbles and even sound to many participants over a telephone link. Each participating computer must have the software loaded and a standard modem. This is all that is required. The tutor has the option of passing control of the electronic whiteboard to any participating computer. Students can be asked to draw diagrams on the electronic whiteboard. The voice component is carried over a separate telephone line. Students on external courses are often required to purchase computers and standard software products. The additional purchasing of software such as the Electronic Classroom should not present too great a cost burden.

For purely text based discourse it is sufficient for the tutorial group to log onto the same computer and use one of the many text based conversation software packages such as the UNIX talk and the VMS Phone software.

The provision of full television like communication for virtual tutorials is more problematical. The computer vendors all have their own real time digital video phone hardware and software available. However such equipment is expensive and usually requires extremely wide bandwidth for transmission. This function is still a novelty and not considered to be mainstream communications activity. Teleconferencing on the other hand its an established communications activity. Teleconferencing requires two or more inexpensively equipped television studios set out in the form of a meeting room. Cameras focus on each of the participants or a camera operator is employed to pan from one participant to the other. Teleconferencing requires considerably less bandwidth than full motion broadcast standard video. Typical teleconferencing can take place with a bandwidth of 56 to 2000 kilobits per second as compared to broadcast quality which requires something of the order of 100 megabits per second.

Teleconferencing is relatively cheap and is well established in the commercial and academic sectors. However there is the requirement for the studio and the cost that it implies. Also the participants are required to attend the studio thus reducing flexibility. However there are still efficiency gains with the teleconferences. Studios are cheaper to build than whole buildings full of tutorial rooms and may even be portable. One can imagine a teleconference truck touring rural Australia in the near future. Many of the existing Open Learning Access Centres (OLACs) already have teleconferencing facilities. The combination of teletutorials, electronic whiteboard software and the occasional teletutorial will provide most of the functional elements of the traditional tutorial.

The seminar

The seminar is traditionally a small university class to supplement the larger lecture. In recent time though this function has been subsumed into the tutorial role and a seminar has come to be interpreted as consisting of a short exposition of a topic, 20 to 40 minutes being the typical duration, followed by a question time and perhaps a full interactive discussion. In effect it is a mini lecture with a degree of interaction. This process can very easily be emulated using a combination of videos and teletutorials or a straight forward teleconference. Although this last option would seem somewhat inefficient. The possibility is not far off when a short seminar or lecture containing full motion full screen video can be accommodated on a single CD-ROM.

The Philips CD-I (Computer Disc Interactive) system has been used to store full motion, full screen commercial movies on two CD-ROMs with a combined running time of over 70 minutes. Using CD-I or similar technologies opens up considerable potential for a delivery mode which contains a short digital video lecture including footage outside the realms of the standard lecture such as film of an experiment or operation, followed by self test exercises, followed by a teletutorial with assessment feed back and discussion.

Practical workshops and practicums

This is by far the most difficult of the universities teaching roles to emulate. Each of these activities consists of actual hands on exercises. The students are usually well supervised during these activities and are often assessed in situ. It is an assessment of ability and applied skills as well as knowledge. The dance student will dance, the coaching student will coach the physics student will perform experiments, the biology student will dissect.

There are two fold difficulties with emulating this mode. There is the inability to supervise and the difficulty in assessment. Tom Docherty and Harry Edgar described some approaches to the problem in their paper The surrogate laboratory interactive video project (Docherty & Edgar, 1990) wherein an electronics laboratory is simulated using video disc technology. It is clear however that some subjects and skills can never be provided for in this mode. The establishment of authenticity alone is insurmountable. One can imagine a ceramics student being required to produce a pot as a workshop exercise. How can one possibly check that the work provided is the work of the student. The simplest and most effective way of dealing with this problem is to reduce the percentage marks available for unsupervised work and have the students attend hands on workshops for the bulk of the marks. This seems to negate the point of the virtual university. However this is not necessarily the case. This mode will still reduce the amount of expensive workshop time required for any particular course.

Multimedia offers some attractive benefits in the workshop area too. One can imagine a vocational course on, say, car maintenance wherein the expert mechanic tunes a car. The digital video shows the mechanic performing the tuning. It can be played as many times as desired at varying speeds and at the end of the section the sound of the tuned engine is reproduced. "If your engine does not sound like this then its not tuned correctly" the student might be told. The range of new areas for distance education is immense. They might include music tutoring, sign language tutoring, dance, potting technique, experimentation, biology, physiotherapy plus many others.

2. The research role

The collaborative research role of the universities in the virtual mode is already well established. Research groups no longer span mere departments or even universities. International research communicate via the Internet. Groups with researchers from the USA, Australia, the EC and Canada are common.

The practical consequences of the virtual university

Here are some of the consequences of the virtual university concept reaching its ultimate conclusion:

Will we need all of these university buildings and who would buy them if they were sold?

The virtual university can save money. High quality courses can be provided very cheaply. Indeed the real possibility exist of a user pays scenario.

A university education is not just about learning a subject. It is a period of personal development and the acquisition of problem solving and communications skills. It is an opportunity for students to experience people from other walks of life and experience other points of view. The virtual university cannot ever substitute this for our young people.

Fewer physical universities would mean fewer lecturers. This has an industrial context. Most lecturers have tenure to ensure academic freedom so retrenchment is problematical. If the tenured lecturers were disposed of by waiting till they retire (a maximum of twenty years), what are the prospects for our brightest young graduates? Why persevere in academia when the wages are low there is little job security and the work is relatively menial tutorials.

The virtual university is cheap. Some centralised wise body delivers the standard curriculum and the other universities become simply assessment or accreditation centres. Custodians of standards. The teaching role of the university would be negated. More tutors and less lecturers would be the norm. This may leave the universities free to conduct research or development, a role many see as their natural function.

What percentage of the population does society require to posses university degrees? Are we in danger of becoming a highly certified society which is in fact poorly educated and skilled?


The virtual university might eventuate in certain subjects for certain students. However it cannot substitute for the true university education. The issue is not one of either/or university model, but rather, what is the most appropriate mix?


Bush, V. (1945). As we may think. Atlantic Monthly. Reprinted in CD-ROM, The New Papyrus. Microsoft Press.

Bresa, R. (1990). Olivetti Optel Telewriter. In R. Atkinson and C. McBeath (Eds.), Open Learning and New Technology: Conference proceedings, 52-57. Perth: Australian Society for Educational Technology WA Chapter.

Docherty, T. M. and Edgar, T. H. (1990). The surrogate laboratory interactive video project. In R. Atkinson and C. McBeath (Eds.), Open Learning and New Technology: Conference proceedings, 117-120. Perth: Australian Society for Educational Technology WA Chapter.

Harasim, L. (1990). Online Education: Perspectives on a new environment. NY Praeger

Holzl, A. & McCarthy, M. (1993). CBT and the electronic University. Conference Proceedings, ASCILITE 93, held at Southern Cross University, NSW Australia.

Moorhouse, J. and Ellicott, R. (1990). Arts Access: A history of open learning for country Western Australia. In R. Atkinson and C. McBeath (Eds.), Open Learning and New Technology: Conference proceedings, 258-262. Perth: Australian Society for Educational Technology WA Chapter.

Nelson, T. (1981). Literary Machines. Swathmore, PA: Nelson.

Wills, S. (1993). Strategic planning for Interactive Multimedia in University Education. Inaugural ASCILITE Keynote Address, Conference Proceedings, ASCILITE 93, held at Southern Cross University, NSW Australia.

Author: George Lee Stuart, Southern Cross University, Lismore, NSW, Australia. Email:

Please cite as: Stuart, G. L. (1994). The virtual university: Some practical considerations. In J. Steele and J. G. Hedberg (eds), Learning Environment Technology: Selected papers from LETA 94, 332-337. Canberra: AJET Publications.

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