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The Virtual University - Educational environments of the future

 

 

Andrea Buchholz
Conference Report
The Virtual University - Educational environments of the future
Wenner-Gren Foundations in cooperation with the Academica Europaea
Wenner-Gren Centre, Stockholm
14-16 October 1999

 

About the organisers

The symposium was held at the Wenner-Gren headquarters. The Wenner-Gren Foundation supports international scientific exchange. In particular, the foundation aims to support exchange of knowledge across geographical borders (though they run fellowship programs exclusively addressed to Swedish institutions). The event was jointly organised with the Academica Europaea which describes itself as an "international, non-governmental association of individual scientists and scholars from all disciplines, who are experts and leaders in their own subject areas as recognised by their peers" (http://academia.darmstadt.gmd.de/). Academica Europaea operates as an independent consultant body for the government as well as for private business organisations and promotes the value of European scholarship and research.

Participants

104 delegates attended the symposium from various European countries. They came predominantly from Sweden, UK, Turkey, but there were also delegates from Portugal, France, Germany, Netherlands, Belgium, Lithuania, Switzerland, Norway, Hungary, Ireland, Latvia, Greece, Korea, USA, Poland, and Austria.

Format

This two-day symposium comprised 14 speakers many of whom occupied managerial roles in addition to their academic ones. The conference was subdivided into three parts: technological capabilities, new methods of teaching and learning, and policy and institutional issues. This OPT strategy (organisation, pedagogics, technology) seems to be a common attempt to create order out of heterogeneous and complex set of arrangements. However, it became obvious in the course of the symposium that the rigidity of such a division could not be uphold.

Keywords: lifelong learning, teaching, knowledge, costs

Content of discussion

Throughout the conference it became clear that the assumption was overwhelmingly taken for granted that there are certain changes ahead due to the increase use of ICTs and economic pressure which will put new demands on the university. As the keynote speaker, Henk de Wolf, claimed

  • ICTs will change the way people and organisations will behave,
  • society will require new competencies,
  • the demand for initial university education will rise,
  • distance education will become more important,
  • the characteristics of the student population will change,
  • students will put together their own programmes (flexible curriculum design),
  • and so on.

The question is how then to react to these changes, how best to use electronic networks, and how to define educational goals — in other words, how to survive as a university. Underlying the discussion were questions as to whether there is something intrinsic in what constitutes a university and whether we can take this institution called "the university" for granted. Considerable discussion developed around questions concerning the life and death of the university. For example, delegates continually drew an analogy between the university and the Titanic disaster, transforming the symposium into a discussion on how to prevent the university from sinking. Therefore, the conference's overall focus was much more about conventional universities than about creating new challenges and raising unique debates for the field. The term "virtual university" was rarely raised by the participants throughout the two-day event. An omission, which seems rather puzzling given the title of the symposium.

How to survive as a university was then tackled from various perspectives by concentrating predominantly on case studies and, with this, on micro levels. Issues raised here were concerned with putting a handbook on the web, education in SME, the University of Highlands Initiative, web-based training, on-line assessment, accreditation, costs, and so on. Altogether, attention rested predominantly on the development of practical strategies through an exchange of very detailed experiences.

It was not until the last of the three sessions that a broader more conceptual level of discussion was entered. In particular, the presentations by K. Edwards and J. Goddard are notable.

After outlining a number of expectations placed on the university (like providing initial higher education for young people, widening opportunities, continuing professional development, supporting lifelong learning, fostering research and providing social cohesion) Edwards distinguished between the 1st and 2nd circle of higher education (initial and continuing higher education, respectively). With this, he drew a dividing line between a complex set of goals the university is said to aim at. The characteristics he ascribed to the 2nd circle are much easier to respond to by a virtual university since learning and time-management skills are already established. Arising issues for managing mixed universities (campus and distance) are deciding upon investment and scale, personnel matters (conditions of service, reward systems), place of research (classical idea of synergy of research and teaching) and cohesion/collegiality.

The last paper presented by J. Goddard was based on research which had been undertaken as part of the VS? Programme. It worked on a more conceptual level as well when it concluded that far from leading to a break-up of the traditional university new ICTs are requiring a re-institutionalisation of the university as a more corporate kind of organisation where goals, roles, identities, rules and operating procedures are made more explicit. In this sense, the research team concluded, the virtual university is a far more "concrete" organisation than the traditional university. They also emphasised the need for more integrated institutions with an enhanced capability for internal knowledge management and a need for a more corporate approach required in the adoption of information systems. They claimed that short-term initiatives supporting ad-hoc projects are not a way to build a network of virtual universities.

Both papers stressed the need for an institutional strategy which seems to be more important than ever. This was then picked up upon in the last panel session where issues which had been raised in the course of the symposium were summarised. Delegates went back home with the following points in mind which one has to ensure in order to prevent the university from becoming a second Titanic:

  • Virtual learning is not a "second grade activity" as distance learning has been regarded in the past. This can be easily ensured since transparency through the use of new ICTs makes quality assurance possible.
  • Adequate preparation is needed at the secondary level. This reminder sets the university in the context of other existing systems, like the school.
  • An obligatory and always discussed issue is the question of who controls the copyright of on-line courses? Here, the struggle between economy and academic freedom comes to the fore.
  • So far, a lot of thought has been spent on teaching and learning, but much less on research in a virtual university. A holistic idea of what the university should be, needs to be followed up more thoroughly.
  • A strategic plan needs to be developed in order to identify and deal with the other players in the market (like software and network providers, commercial course developers, distance learning institutions).
  • As a final point it was stressed that a clear (institutional) plan for change was desperately needed in order to ensure the university's survival. However, it became clear throughout the symposium that one needs to get oneself familiar with the kind of boat one is trying to rescue (Are there any explosives on board? Are lifeboats available? How many people do they hold? What stretch of water is the boat in right now? and so on) before one can start any kind of SOS action.

Post-conference

There is a post-conference discussion facilitated under http://www.egroups.com/group/virtualuniversity

 

Andrea Buchholz
CRICT
Brunel University
Uxbridge UB8 3PH
UK
andrea.buchholz@brunel.ac.uk

More on Virtual Universities:

Philip E. Agre - Infrastructure and Institutional Change in the Networked University

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