Web Magazine for Information Professionals

Virtual Universities: Institutional Issues for Information Professionals

Jonathan Foster examines the institutional implications of networked approaches to learning for information professionals.

In 1997 The Dearing Report (NCIHE, 1997) published its review of the British higher education system. Underpinned by principles of inclusion and life-long learning the Report put forward wide-ranging recommendations in all areas of educational provision including students and learning, supporting research and scholarship, staff in higher education and the management and governance of higher education institutions. An important component of the Dearing vision is the utilization of new technology, which can provide universities with the potential to widen participation, to reach new markets and to make internal efficiency gains. In so doing greater access to British higher education can be achieved.

The UK Higher Education Funding Councils have funded a number of initiatives promoting the use of communications and information technology (C&IT) in UK higher education. These have included the Teaching and Learning Technology Programme (TLTP) (http://www.ncteam.ac.uk/tltp), the Learning Technology Dissemination Initiative (LTDI) (http://www.icbl.hw.ac.uk/ltdi/), the Teaching and Learning Technology Support Network (TLTSN) (http://www.tltp.ac.uk/tltsn/index.html), the TALiSMAN project (http://www.talisman.hw.ac.uk/) and the Computers in Teaching Initiative (CTI) (http://www.cti.ac.uk/), the latter recently being integrated into the Learning and Teaching Support Network (LTSN) (http://www.ltsn.ac.uk/). In February 2000, in response to the growth in virtual and corporate universities which has emerged in the United States and elsewhere, the HEFCE announced its e-University project (http://www.hefce.ac.uk/Partners/euniv/default.asp).

Virtual University Models

Virtual university models can be located on a spectrum, from the wholesale dedication of institutional resources to distance learning on the one hand to the development of individualized courses on the other. In the former one can place the new breed of corporate providers and education brokers such as the University of Phoenix, Disney University, Western Governor’s University, and the global ‘mega-universities’ (Daniel, 1998) which include the Open University in the UK. In the latter category one can place almost every university in the United Kingdom, as educational providers begin to turn their attention towards online provision as an innovative way of providing access to new learning opportunities. This provision can take the form of incorporating a WWW resource into a predominantly face-to-face module, developing teaching strategies which can be implemented both face-to-face and on-line or by designing a course which is delivered entirely online. There appears to be no one generic model of the virtual university or of virtual provision and its particular nature will depend on a number of local factors such as technology, pedagogy, assessment, training, communications, legal issues and support staff (McConnell, Harris & Heywood, 1999).

Virtual Universities and Traditional Methods of Education

For the majority of educational institutions i.e. those whose mission is not one specifically dedicated to distance learning, the emergence of virtual methods of education presents these institutions with major challenges of both technological and organisational change (Bates, 1999; Laurillard, 1993), decision-making (Collis, 1996) and costing (Basich et al., 1999; Collis, 1996). Research from the Computer-Based Collaborative Group Work Project (http://collaborate.shef.ac.uk) on institutional readiness for networked learning at a traditional research-led university (Foster et al., 2000; Foster et al., 1999) identified the need both for technological and organisational changes in internal infrastructure, including the need for more effective channels between institution and academic practice and the need for greater inter-institutional collaboration. Although the increase in virtual methods represents challenges of organisational and technological change which involve all parties within a university (e.g. academic staff, support staff, administrative and management staff) the introduction of C&IT into learning and teaching carries with it different emphases for each party within the university. Some of the emphases for support staff generally and information professionals in particular are reviewed in the next section.

Virtual Universities and the Information Professional

As the educational landscape changes through widening participation, the increased use of C&IT and continuing financial imperatives (see Edwards, Day and Walton, 1998 for an ‘imagining’ review of the different institutional scenarios), the wider institutional context of the provision of information services becomes increasingly relevant. In an attempt to embed new technologies at one university, Pollock and Cornford (2000) comment that:

Initiatives were confounded by difficulties in co-ordinating a wide range of actors across a large organisation (p.2);

and in the ‘hybrid library’ context, providing access to both traditional and electronic resources, the following comment may also be typical of the organisational situation:

there is a demand for an effective ‘one-stop shopwhich will require better institutional coordination and closer liaison between different university departments (Wynne and Edwards, 1998, p.8).

In order to carry out their task effectively the changing practices of academic and support staff communities also need to be supported by changing aspects of institutional design (Wenger, 1998). As well as technological and organisational change these include: incentives (Foster et al., 1999) and quality assurance procedures (Pollock & Cornford, 2000).

The Dearing Report identifies how new technologies have had an impact on teaching methods e.g. more project work by students, more team/group-work by students and increased use of multi-media and videos (NCIHE, 1997a). One of the most pervasive interpretations of computer based teaching methods is that it involves materials development (Laurillard, 1993). As such the development of virtual universities has strong connotations with the design and delivery of resource-based learning approaches (Ryan, Scott, Freeman & Patel, 2000). In light of the Dearing Report’s recognition of the potential benefits accruing from the use of C&IT e.g. widening participation, improving understanding, providing electronic access, and immediate feedback, the following definition of resource-based learning is apposite:

…an integrated set of strategies to promote student-centred learning in a mass education context, through a combination of specially designed learning resources and interactive media and technologies (NCODE, 1999).

The particular impact of electronic methods of learning and teaching and the increased use of networked resources on library and information professionals has been researched by a number of e-Lib projects (http://www.ukoln.ac.uk/services/elib/), including the people-oriented IMPEL2, and training & awareness projects such as Netlinks and TAPin. Issues for library and information staff include: promotion of information services; reorganisation and restructuring within the institution; selecting resources; course development and liaison; user education and support; electronic resources production; staffing; training & multi-skilling (Parker & Jackson, 1998; Jackson & Parker, 1996). Researching these implications has carried forward into the current Hybrid Libraries and Clumps projects with their continued emphasis on access to network resources.

The successful adoption of resource-based learning approaches also has institutional implications (see Ryan, Scott, Freeman & Patel, 2000; Gibbs, Pollard & Farrell, 1996 for examples of institutional case studies). Institutional support for library and information services includes institutional commitment, funding and strategy formulation (Jackson & Parker, 1996). Indeed, an information strategy (NCIHE, 1997) linking the institution and support staff in a joint enterprise remains a key denominator of any change scenario (Edwards, Day & Walton, 1998). Research conducted by the Computer Based Collaborative Group Work Project (Foster et al., 1999) supports much of the above research identifying the following areas of concern identified by support staff in getting ready for the delivery of networked learning methods:

In sum, a dual focus on resources, their selection and development, along with effective collaboration with academic, management, other support staff and students (and agencies such as publishers outside the institutional context), each supported by the institution is clearly important in moving successfully towards a situation in which effective support for online learning & teaching is the norm.


In the face of the current hype surrounding virtual universities Brown & Duguid (2000) point to the recalcitrance of institutions:

In looking at university change for its own sake or as an indicator of institutional change more generally, no one should underestimate the remarkable staying power of these institutions. They have been around…for more than 1000 years. In that time, they have survived many revolutions and may survive more yet, including the digital one (Brown & Duguid, 2000, pp.240-241).

The impact of C&IT on information professionals needs to be seen in the context of and in dialogue (Foster et al., 2000) with the other communities who are part of the institutional context. Whether it is taken to mean the production of materials or liasing effectively with other professionals inside and outside the institution, the development of virtual education is an intrinsically collaborative problem.

Jonathan Foster is Research Associate on the Computer Based Collaborative Group Work Project funded by the UK Teaching & Learning Technology Programme Phase 3.


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Author Details

 Jonathan Foster
Lecturer in Information Management
Department of Information Studies
University of Sheffield
Western Bank Sheffield S10 2TN
Tel: +44 (0)114-222 2665
Fax: +44 (0)114-278 0300
E-mail: j.j.foster@sheffield.ac.uk