Web Magazine for Information Professionals

Theory and Practice of the Virtual University

Neil Pollock and James Cornford report on UK universities use of new technologies.


This article reports on a two-year research project that is investigating the way in which UK universities are attempting to build new technologies into higher education.

In recent years there has been a phenomenal interest in the growth of what some are calling 'digital', 'online', or 'virtual' universities. Indeed, today, it is commonplace to read that information and communication technologies are radically reconfiguring the landscape of higher education, changing the very 'nature' of the university[1]. You will already know the vision: a decrease in importance of the campus, as students 'login' from a distance to access 'courseware', new media technologies replacing traditional lectures, courses being delivered and assessed over the Internet, promising to make higher education available anywhere and at anytime.

Depicted as a solution to the increasingly demanding problems of higher education, all of this has fired the imagination of academics, policy makers, university managers, and educational specialists alike, the assumption often appears to be that institutions can move straightforwardly toward this vision[2]. Yet, our recent research - conducted under the UK's Economic and Social Research Council's Virtual Society? Programme - suggests that the universities which we have studied have found the introduction of new technologies, alongside their more traditional methods of providing teaching and learning, extremely difficult and that the actual model of Virtual University which we have seen emerging bears little relationship to the vision. What we have found is that the Virtual University works in theory but not in practice.

What are the difficulties of implementing the vision? Basically, the bottom-up, course-by-course approach to constructing a virtual university is slow, labour intensive and prone to failure. For example, we have followed the progress of a number of initiatives in one particular UK institution for over a year: there was a humanities degree course, where video-conferencing technologies were used to connect undergraduates based in the UK with students located in other parts of Europe, the idea being that they could present work and ideas to each other, and receive feedback, much like a traditional seminar; then there was the new 'Cyber Culture' course, available for credit as a self-study module over the Internet; and, finally, there was the 'Information Skills' module taught by library staff, which had also been translated into an online self-study module. Week after week we sat in on technical sessions, planning meetings as the academic material was gathered, the technology was developed, and the actual form of these initiatives began to take shape. Staff keen to be involved in the rolling-out of the projects were contacted, and possible groups of students willing to be part of the experiment were identified.

Yet, just a couple of months after everything had seemingly been put in place, each of the projects has - for want of a better word - 'stalled'. The immediate reasons for this are varied: one of the partners pulled out of the video-conferencing project complaining of high telecommunication costs; only one distance student had enrolled for the Cyber Culture course; and library staff could not be convinced that the online version of the Information Skills course was sufficiently improved to warrant its introduction in place of their existing methods. What is common to each of these stories, however, is the failure to enrol (or to keep enrolled) all of those aspects of the university necessary to make the projects work (academic staff, students, computer services departments, libraries, validation committees, partner institutions, etc.,). Further, in the site that we studied, there were aspects of the University that were crucial for the success of the projects and that did not exist and therefore had to be built - for instance, the University lacked procedures for validating online courses - slowing the whole process. In short, initiatives were confounded by difficulties in co-ordinating a wide range of actors across a large organisation made up of diverse and disparate entities (i.e., departments and service units). It is, it seems, the very institution of the university which is at the heart of the problem.

This begs the question, if not this vision then what? If we want to understand the ways in which information and communication technologies are affecting higher education institutions in the UK, perhaps we need to look at this issue from a different point of view. And if the central problems of building the virtual university seem to relate to the university as an institution, then it is to this issue that we should perhaps redirect our attention.

The way in which universities are organised and operate is currently in a period of change. The introduction of new forms of Management Information Systems (MIS) and Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) systems are crucial in all of this. Traditionally, administrative computer systems have been kept within the domain of the centralised administration and have had little influence on the primary functions of universities and their 'chalk-face' workforce. Most academic staff rarely comes into direct contact with these systems, and students are hardly aware of their existence. The most obvious example here is the ill-fated UK University Funding Council 'MAC' initiative. The computer system, through attempting to standardise the ways in which British Universities conducted their management and administration[3], seemed to reinforce divisions between departments and faculties and between those who managed and administered and those who engaged in academic work. However, the new generation of MIS and ERP systems, through a process of standardising certain roles and relationships, are being consciously used to 'connect' and 'integrate' processes that have traditionally been kept apart. In the words of one senior academic manager responsible for such a system, its function is 'to bind the university together'[4].


Let us focus on one example, that of students, and particularly how they are to be managed and administered. Until recently, the students relationship to computer systems has been mediated by academic and support staff. However, in one of the institutions that we conducted research, students are moving from being passive objects of administration to becoming the main groups of active users. From the beginning of the next academic year, online registration for new and returning students will be introduced. Students are to be provided with 'smart cards' that allow them to self-register for certain aspects of their degree course (i.e., to select options, and to enter personal information), and then, later, to validate the accuracy of other information (e.g., their academic results, their financial status, and so on). In a later stage of the implementation, students will also be able to pay bills on-line, book accommodation, schedule meeting with their tutors, and so on - all without coming onto the campus.

At one level, this is a rather mundane use for new information and communication technologies - hardly worthy of the notion of a revolution within the university. Yet, at another level, the practices, procedures, and processes, being laid down with the introduction of these new forms of management and administration systems have important consequences for the way in which the University is being reconfigured, and particularly the way in which certain key relationships are being developed. Arguably, we might suggest, it is these systems constitute a true Virtual University in the sense that the complex databases and sets of procedures that constitute the core of these systems are a model or simulation of the university: they have the form of a University without the thing itself. Instead of an organisation full of heterogeneous actors, with complex identities, everyone and everything is formalised, represented in a standardised form, with certain explicit roles and responsibilities towards the system. Students, for instance, are simply 'users' with particular duties towards the inputting and maintenance of information.

It is well known that information and communication technologies provide a powerful incentive to standardisation. It is for this reason that in our project -'Space, Place and the Virtual University' - we have focused on the development and implementation of these systems, as well as more conventional technology-supported distance education. Indeed, as we see it, the model of the university set down by these management and administration systems will underpin future developments in online learning and distance education technologies. It is these management or administrative computer systems which may be able, by clarifying and making explicit the various roles and responsibilities within the university, to facilitate the complex process of enrolling the various actors required to implement online learning and distance education technologies.

While we think that this standardisation is, in itself, not necessarily a bad thing, there are some possible dangers. To paraphrase the words of the sociologist, Phil Agre, the problems begin when we standardise the 'wrong thing'[5]http://www-rcf.usc.edu/~ics/ed/agre.html[)]. In this respect, when replacing the administrative apparatus, we risk destroying or submerging those interactions that are tacit, informal, flexible - the very processes that might, for instance, offer important forms of support to students. Just how might a student ask for an extension on the payment of a late rent bill? Is this simply a matter of 'functionality' just waiting to be built into the system? Might cases that do not quite fit be supported - since we are now talking about computer systems and their users - by the increasingly ubiquitous 'help desk'. Alternatively, will these 'non-standard' requests simply fall between the inevitable cracks in the system?

It is, of course, very easy to get it wrong. There are no adequate models to account for how an organisation as complex as a university is able to function. Here, we are reminded of the story told by the anthropologist Marilyn Strathern of how a group of consultants, after an academic audit of Cambridge University, complained of the 'protean nature' of the University, and of how its academic structure and system of governance could not be captured by their 'managerial language' or 'organisational models'[6]. The University of Cambridge, it appeared, worked in practice but not in theory. We should then be wary of the models (or visions) that we adopt and pay close attention not only to what is 'standardised into' the university but also that which is 'standardised out' of it. The key issue, then, is whether these centralised computer systems - the MIS and ERP - which are reshaping the institution of the university will work as well in practice as they do in theory.


[1] Cunningham, S., Tapsall, S., Ryan, Y., Stedman, L., et al. (1998), New media and Borderless Education: A review of the Convergence between Global Media Networks and Higher Education Provision, Australian Government, Department of Employment, Education, training and Youth Affairs, Evaluations and Investigations Programme, Higher Education Division (http://www.deetya.gov.au/highered/eippubs/eip97-22/eip9722.pdf).
[2] Newby, H. (1999), 'Higher Education in the 21st Century: Some Possible Futures', Discussion Paper, CVCP, London, March.
[3] Goddard, A, D. and Gayward, P, H. (1994) 'MAC and the Oracle Family: Achievements and Lessons Learnt', Axix 1 (1): 45-50.
[4] Pollock, N. (forthcoming), 'The virtual university as 'timely and accurate information'', Information Communication & Society.
[5] Agre, P (1999), 'Infrastructure and institutional change in the Networked University', paper prepared for the conference on New Media and Higher Education, University of Southern California, October 23-27 (available at http://www-rcf.usc.edu/~ics/ed/agre.html).
[6] Strathern, M. (1997), '"Improving Ratings": Audit in the British University System', European Review, 5, 3: 305-321.

Author Details

 Dr Neil Pollock is a Research Associate, and James Cornford is a Senior Research Associate, at the Centre for Urban & Regional Development Studies, University of Newcastle upon Tyne, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 7RU. Telephone +44 (0)191 2225876.

Email: Neil.Pollock@newcastle.ac.uk. More information on the 'Space, Place and the Virtual University' project can be found at www.brunel.ac.uk/research/virtsoc.