An edited and abridged version of this paper appeared in the Multimedia section of the Times Higher Education Supplement, 12 April 1996.

Goodbye Gutenberg: Towards the ‘Virtual University’

Two possible scenarios suggest themselves. In the first, existing universities create online electronic resources to serve both their residential and their enrolled distance-learning students. This is broadly in line with ODL actions under the EC Impact programme: Train-Train, Train-NFP, and Train-Educ, for example, were launched to stimulate universities into incorporating training for electronic information provision into their normal curricula. Universities might even, in deference to their ‘Mission Statements’ invariably stressing their role as higher education providers to the local region, seek to offer educational and information services to the surrounding community through electronic links to local businesses, schools and libraries, for example. I suggest that this strategy, if it amounts to no more than the established residential universities simply publishing their home-grown course notes on the Web for consumption as supplementary materials by their students and locality alone, will, while well-meaning and in the short term probably useful to both staff and students, in the long run turn out to be a dead end, a waste of investment, a minor monument to institutional timidity.

For while the catchment area for existing universities is shrinking as students come increasingly from the local community, that for the ‘virtual university’ is broadening to, quite literally, the world. So let’s now look at an alternative, and more ambitious, scenario. Here, for what it’s worth, I shall outline my own vision of further and higher education in the early 21st century, unabashedly pointing where appropriate to some features of the VITC and Circle projects with which I am involved. To begin with, the university, in its electronic form, will no longer be either the locus of learning nor the determining agent of what will be studied and when: Circle—‘whose centre is everywhere, its circumference nowhere’, in the words of St Thomas Aquinas—instead places the learner at the centre of the learning experience. Inspired originally by the Community Memory project in Berkeley in the early 1970s, the Community Learning Resource Centre (CLRC)—multimedia workstations located in homes, in adult education centres, public libraries, Internet cafés, company training rooms, hospitals, prisons, and other residential care centres, as well as within the existing universities — will be the physical node and access point for the virtual university. A ‘have laptop, will travel’ culture will bring the university to the learner, wherever he or she happens to be.

What will the ‘virtual university’ have to offer that the traditional residential university does not? Many of the benefits are well understood, and need no more than brief mention here. That, for example, it overcomes the major constraints of time and space. Or that it will support ‘learning-on-demand’ with the additional benefits of continual student monitoring (you can log who’s accessing your Web site and for how long) and rapid student feedback. Or that it increases student choice by being able to offer topics for study that for single institutions—locked in a neo-Fordist mass production of learners more characteristic of the first industrial age—it would not be cost-effective to offer. Or that, in thus enabling the ‘mass-customisation’ of learning, it can better accommodate a wide age range, wide variations in the pace of learning, and different student backgrounds and prior experience.

But what will we be able to study? Surely it is unrealistic to expect any organisation to generate in the short term sufficient high-quality electronic materials across a broad enough subject range to boast itself a ‘university’? Surely no organisation can, in any case, draw on that breadth of expertise? Aren’t we looking many years ahead? The answer lies in separating the facility itself from courseware provision. Effectively anyone could be a course provider, marketing their learning materials through the virtual university, on a pay-by-hit basis: the more one’s materials are accessed, the more cyberbucks (in all likelihood) one earns. Competition between course providers in the same subject areas gives additonal incentive to ensure that the learning materials offered are of the highest possible quality and value to the learner, just as competition between the virtual universities for students should in turn drive a pursuit of excellence.

Well, yes, you say, this is fine for the liberal studies student interested in learning for its own sake. But what if I want to gain at the end of it a respectable university degree with professional recognition? Essentially the same principle applies. Courseware from a wide range of independent course providers — these might be commercial organisations (e.g., Berlitz, Pitmans, …), traditional universities as well as traditional distance learning universities, commercial colleges and private schools, and possibly even academic publishers—may be funneled into cohesive modular courses and independently validated by existing universities, by public examining bodies, and by professional societies such as the Royal Society of Arts, the British Computer Society, the Institute of Linguists, the British Psychological Society, and others as appropriate to the discipline (as already happens in traditional universities, where external subject experts advise validation panels). As in the traditional university, award-earning programmes of study would be formally structured — essential if the learner is to be formally credited for successfully completed courses. While an independent advisory board for each disciplinary area would be responsible for ensuring the quality and global coherence of the whole, the distributed nature of the resource would ensure that individual contributors would be able to update and add further materials reflecting their native expertise, as well as being responsible, as subject experts, for assessment and for conformity with national and international standards.

But surely students would benefit from tutorial support? Provision of tutorial supervision—teletutoring—would be managed in much the same way as courseware provision: freelance tutors, anywhere in the world, might advertise their services through university bulletin boards, negotiating directly with individual students. The university would provide electronic ‘rooms’ for synchronous conferencing, while the conduct and content of tutorials would be left to the individuals concerned. The use of remote lecturers, tutors, and perhaps industrial mentors, online would enable a customisation of learning unthinkable in the traditional university.

Monitored online self-assessment for rapid feedback together with submission and assessment of coursework to tutors via electronic mail would form the hub of the student evaluation process. Where appropriate, accreditation would be given (as for course review and validation) by professional societies, by participating terrestrial universities, and by other course providers. Online student testing (including self-assessment) creates the possibility to control and assess learning progress, with results of tests automatically relayed to spreadsheets and forwarded to tutors.

There are clear benefits with regard to resourcing issues. The number of students admitted to a course in the traditional residential university is constrained by the resources available (equipment, lecturers, library provisions, size of teaching rooms, …). Most resource issues become irrelevant in the virtual university. The cost of paper handouts increases as student numbers increase; the cost of electronic copy doesn’t. The teaching and resource materials may be updated, extended or otherwise modified regularly at minimal cost since only a single electronic copy—rather than multiple paper copies—need be changed. An increase in staff-student ratio in the traditional residential university means that feedback to students is slow. Students need fast feedback, and online (self-) assessment in the virtual university is able to deliver that.

But the most significant changes will be cultural. We shall witness, and will have to manage the conceptual and pedagogic implications of, a climacteric shift from seeing telematics-based learning as a CBT add-on to traditional teaching to being the primary medium of study. We shall witness a transition from the classroom and lecture theatre as a locus of learning to Community Learning Resource Centres, with the traditional university becoming, from the student perspective, just one of many possible physical nodes to the virtual university. With the waning of the ‘Gutenberg prejudice’ — its conception of learning an essentially text-based intellectual activity that takes place in specifically designated locations (schools, colleges, universities)—we shall witness a shift from a predominantly print culture to a sensory, experiential culture, the ‘conduit’ metaphor of transmission from mentor to novice giving way to a quasi-organic metaphor of personal and intellectual growth through action and exploration in virtual worlds.

It has been said that written exams test no more than one’s ability to pass written exams, or at least that by their very nature they test the acquisition of only those kinds of knowledge which can be expressed in written form. Whatever the truth of that, there are unarguably skills and types of knowledge that cannot be appropriately examined in the classical three-hour unseen paper, just as they cannot be properly taught by a formal lecture alone. The artificial setting of the written examination—just as did the lecture and the textbooks through which the examined subject was probably taught — abstracts the verbalisable intellectual content out of a ‘context-of-doing’: it’s one thing to talk about how to squine a flidget, for example, another to actually do it. We have known since Aristotle (in the Ethics) that effective experiential learning of a complex and content-rich cognitive skill takes place most effectively through its rehearsal in an environment that, as closely as possible, simulates the real-world environment in which that skill would be put into practical use (hence, for example, flight simulators for trainee pilots). Networked virtual reality and interactive hypermedia that can model such environments, as well as present manipulable three-dimensional visualisations of abstract concepts that have no physical counterpart, empower the learner not merely to observe simulated real-world problems but to actively participate in their solution, thus re-aligning the focus onto the process of learning rather than the result (the classical examination paper).