Virtual Society?

the social science of electronic technologies

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Space, place and the virtual university

Principal Researcher

Professor Kevin Robins
Centre for Cultural Studies
Goldsmiths College
New Cross
London SW14 6NW
+44 (0)171 919 0000


Dr David Charles
University of Newcastle

Mr James Cornford
University of Newcastle

Professor John Goddard
University of Newcastle

Dr Neil Pollock
University of Newcastle

Professor Frank Webster
University of Birmingham

Research Period
1 January 1998 to
31 December 1999
Aims and Objectives
Project Design


Significant transformations are occurring in the nature and role of the university as a consequence of broader social, technological and economic change. Three important developments are: the transition from elite to mass higher education; changes in the production of knowledge; and developments in information and communications technologies (ICTs). These changes all have implications for the geographical organisation of higher education - that is, questions of space and place. In particular, virtual technologies are seen as permitting greater flexibility in the location of educational institutions, at different geographical scales - a disembedding of universities from particular places and communities. Taken together, these changes are seen to imply a major transformation in the role of the university, perhaps even its reinvention. One attempt to capture and channel these changes has been the idea of the "virtual university" and it is this idea that provides a focus for the research.

Aim and Objectives

The project concentrates on the processes by which actors seek to develop ICT applications into forms which are taken up, implemented and adapted by users. It explores the way in which these technological initiatives relate to the wider university system including such factors as governance and management, administration, teaching and learning, research, and links to the community and business.

More specifically, the aims of the project are to:

  • increase understanding of the development of ICT initiatives within the British university system and how they are contributing to a broader transformation of the nature of higher education
  • consider the implications of ICT applications for the university's relation to place
  • inform debate about the "virtual university" at local, national, and international levels.

Project Design

The research is essentially qualitative, concentrated on Higher Education Institutions in a specific regional setting - the universities of Newcastle, Sunderland, Northumbria and the Northern Region of the Open University. The project initially comprises in-depth case studies of ICT projects being undertaken within the selected institutions, including initiatives concerned with management and administration, with teaching and learning, and with research. The case studies explore the understandings of technology developers and users (students, academics, administrators), of funders and of managers, of those at the heart of these projects and of those that are less centrally involved. Subsequently, the project reintegrates the individual case studies within the wider context of the universities themselves, of the region, and of the British higher education system more generally.


The research is designed to contribute to understanding the changes in the organisation and processes of higher education associated with the introduction of new ICT initiatives. It is based on a detailed and empirically informed analysis of the realities of the virtual university as it is emerging within the existing higher education sector.

By contrasting the concept of the virtual university with its concrete manifestations in the case studies, the project teases out some of the contradictions and tensions between the idea of the virtual university and its emergence in practice.

In broader policy terms, the research contributes to the debate on the changing nature and role of the university in the 21st Century, in particular focusing on the relationship of the university to space and place.

Visit the project web site


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Contents current at 15th September 1999