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The virtual university?

An institutional perspective

Alan Wilson

University of Leeds

May 1996

This paper is a draft (at May 23rd 1996) of a keynote address presented via videoconference from the University of Leeds to the HEC Virtual University Conference held at Senate House, University of London June 1996

First principles

If we are going to explore the idea of a virtual university, we have to start from some reasonable definition of what a university is. We can then look at the impacts of technology - as they drive us towards 'virtualness' - and ask what this means. It may lead to the creation of very new kinds of universities. I have been asked to speak today from the perspective of an existing institution: will Leeds go virtual? What could this mean?

We can start with some obvious points: universities are concerned with knowledge: conservation, communication, invention. And I can obviously assert, in the context of this Conference, that universities as knowledge facilitators are nothing without capable staff and students. But these staff and students need the best available resources to facilitate their work - and it is at this point in the argument that we can begin to assess the impact of technology and particularly that part of IT which generates the notions of a virtual 'this and that'. A university can then be seen as a locus of staff, students and associated resources which is a contribution to the knowledge base of society. If I follow the argument by John Seely Brown and Paul Druguid in the THES on 10 May (Space for the chattering classes), then we should also separate out the role of the university in setting standards as degree awarding bodies - and this is important for a later part of the argument.

The next part of the introduction must be concerned with being more precise about the idea of 'virtuality' - as you can see and hear, I am struggling for a noun here! (My spell check is resisting all inventions to date!) It usually means, simply, I think, that the locus of the virtual 'whatever' will not be geographically confined. It will be distributed and the elements, the nodes of a network, will be coupled electronically. Many of the pieces of this technology are not new. We communicate by telephone, even video phone. We communicate through radio and television. We increasingly communicate via e-mail on computer networks. The possibilities of computer-based communication increase as the complex set of networks themselves interact through what we call the internet. Two features of ongoing developments can be emphasised however which indicate that we are moving into a new era. We are not there yet, but we are some way along the route - a smallish fraction of the way? - and we can begin to imagine what the future will be like.

First, the technologies are converging: computers will function like televisions and video phones; televisions will become smart. Computer networks already have trunk links which are provided (as fractions of their capacity) by TV cable companies. Almost anyone with a network is finding that it can also function, with suitable development, as a telecommunications network.

Secondly, the quality of the interaction will change beyond all recognition. The basics are all in place now - essentially through e-mail and video-phone linkage; though abilities to search other people's directories, from library catalogues onwards. What will change is the ability of people talking to each other on computer networks simultaneously to share software; and the smartness of the search procedures: human minds linked to intelligent machines. I believe that these developments will lead to very profound changes. There is a change we can already perceive which is not yet fully recognised explicitly. That is: the nature of academic capability is fundamentally changed not simply by individuals becoming cleverer (and they have) nor simply by the existence of very smart machines - but by the interaction of these two capabilities. In my own academic field, building mathematical models of cities, problems which could not conceivably be tackled analytically, and for which the machine generates too many possible 'solutions' - can be tackled by bringing the human intelligence directly into interaction with the machine. I believe there are very many problems of this type. It is a new kind of research; it must be the basis of a new kind of student learning. The profound change to come is this. What is more powerful than a capable person linked to an intelligent machine? The answer must be a network of capable people and intelligent machines. That new capability must be what virtuality is all about. For the sake of a name, tongue only slightly in cheek, let us call this virtual capability!

The virtual university.

In one obvious sense, the virtual university is one which loses much or all of its geographical locus - call this geographical virtuality. But a virtual university can also be said to make the best use of virtual capability. The first heading can be seen to represent the consequences of the application of the technology and its obvious uses; and the second, most effective use of that technology in building higher levels of capability in a university. One way to take the argument forward is to classify institutions on these two dimensions:

geographical-virtuality lowhigh
(L,L) (L,H)
(H,L) (H,H)

This table defines a few archetypes:

(L,L): geographically concentrated; low virtual capability

(L,H): geographically concentrated; high virtual capability

(H,L): geographically distributed; low virtual capability

(H,H): geographically distributed, high virtual capability

(L,L) is a conventional university which is not taking advantage of IT development; (L,H) is where a university like Leeds is aspiring to be at present; (H,L) is perhaps the OU; (H,H) is a new kind of institution. Of course, in practice, the categories will not be as well-defined as this. There are also complications: there are universities which are geographically distributed but which are more like networks of traditional loci rather than a hi-tech interacting network.

Let us then develop the argument by taking the three main elements of a university and seeing what impact virtuality will have. That is - take staff, students and resources in turn.

The first obvious point is that, for some forms of teaching, staff will be much more widely available.

The appropriate distance learning technology is already available for lectures for example. It can be seen at its most well-developed in the National Technological University in the United States: it provides a network which enables lectures in say Stanford to be delivered in MIT. We have some very limited experience of this in Leeds. How common will this become? Will the students of one university want their lectures from what is in some sense the very best - Nobel prizewinners or whatever? Does this mean that they have been taught by them any more than if they have read a book by them? Distributed lectures would start to look like an extension of the library - one component of multi-media provision. And, of course, it would be more convenient for the students if they were not 'live'. Lectures on demand. We could build on BT's existing technology, now being trialled, for video on demand. A university's own staff can then concentrate on something else - part of the shift from the university teacher as lecturer to the university teacher as facilitator of learning. Some courses can already be 'taught' - as far as the conventional element is concerned - through computer multimedia systems. Staff can then be deployed on a support basis rather than a lecturing one. This is an argument which can be extended in many directions.

And then, of course, students can be distributed. You can now have one lecturer talking to many classrooms, and retaining the capability to interact individually with each student. Such systems are already in operation on the 22-campus Pennsylvania State University for example. But distributed students could control their own learning: they could in practice take their courses from many different universities. Whose degree do they get at the end of a 'course'? These issues are already live in relation to credit transfer and David Robertson's report. They raise issues of the oversight of standards as implied by the Seely Brown and Druguid argument I mentioned earlier. Will there be a particular kind of university which is the validator?

Resources will certainly be shared electronically - and this is already happening on a large scale in the library world, for instance. This will have major impacts on the publishing industry.

There is a psychological and sociological dimension to these arguments as we start to explore the realms of the possible. Staff and students will each need, from time to time at least, physical loci for face-to-face interaction. Otherwise, we surely lose something?! But these needs will be different for different kinds of staff and students. Eighteen year olds will probably need a social environment- for both social and educational reasons - more than a continuing education student who is seeking to add a professional skill. Again, no simple answers.


From the point of view of a current institution, I can illustrate what I think ought to be done by describing what we are attempting in Leeds. Broadly: to invest in the facilities to build virtual capability now and to explore the changing future through a series of experiments. These developments include the technology for distance learning and some associated experiments in work-based learning; and the development of a virtual science park. Each of these reveals the concept of virtual working systems as crucial. I think I can claim that our capability is expanding. We could be said to be aiming to move to (on the basis of my earlier diagram) an ([L,H], H) position. That is, we will have our physical locus as now, with 22,000 students and a concentrated research capability; and we will have distributed students through WBL networks; and distributed research capacity and linkages through the VSP.

This experience, however, reveals a number of substantial development issues. Ideally, progress should be made with at least some of them at a national, even international, level. Failing this, the market responses will be different but nonetheless interesting. I will now simply indicate some of these areas of debate.

(1) The investment needed in multimedia teaching materials and associated means of dissemination; the need for authoring tools which are as easy to use as word processors.

(2) The associate library and copyright issues.

(3) In relation to each of these (and other issues) how will the market determine the prices at points of exchange? (Cf.: the internet tradition of free exchange); we are trying to solve these problems ourselves for the VSP.

(4) What will be the impact of competition outside universities? (For example, through multi-nationals developing their own 'universities').

All these kinds of issues have to be resolved. They are all concerned with the obvious deployment of technology - even though this deployment raises many issues and will need massive investment. But I would like to end with a plea that we do not lose sight of the issue of using the technology to enhance capability - because that will be the basis of revolutions not yet envisaged. This, I believe, means focusing investment on smart interaction (shared software and so on) and very clever search and navigational procedures. The 'geography' will probably then look after itself!

draft 4.1 at 23 May 1996