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The new century: societal paradoxes and major trends
The university - current challenges and opportunities
A world of borderless higher education - impact and implications
Virtual universities-emerging models
UNITAR, Malaysia
Campus Numérique Francophone de Dakar, Sénégal
Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC), Spain
Universidad Virtual de Quilmes, Argentina
USQOnline, Australia
Athabasca University, Canada
African Virtual University Kenyatta University, Kenya
University of Maryland University College (UMUC), USA
L'Université Virtuelle en Pays de la Loire, France
NetVarsity, India
Messages and lessons learned
Case updates
The authors
The Virtual University Models and messages
Lessons from case studies

Susan D'Antoni, editor


Information and Communication Technology (ICT) offers the university both an opportunity and a challenge. By using ICT the university can provide increased flexibility to students while reaching students beyond the usual catchment area. However, institutions need to develop and apply appropriate policies, and to plan and manage effectively for a new mode of teaching and learning.

The virtual university warrants examination as it represents an important development in the use of ICT to increase flexibility and extend provision of higher education in both developed and developing countries. The virtual university can be seen as "a metaphor for the electronic, teaching, learning and research environment created by the convergence of several relatively new technologies including, but not restricted to, the Internet, World Wide Web, computer mediated communication ..." (Van Dusen, 1997).

One of the ways of examining change in higher education is to put a number of institutions under a microscope by means of case studies, and this has proved a fruitful approach. The cases selected for study represent a range of - although not all - institutional models, and diverse - although not all - geographic regions. The task of each author was to tell the story of the institution and to illuminate the main policy, planning and management challenges, and finally, to convey a message to the reader with the lessons learned.

The case studies are the heart of this publication and they were designed to speak for themselves. Taken together, the case study chapters outlined below put forward a rich and diversified description of the virtual university. They outline the changing landscape of a global marketplace of higher education.

But first, three initial chapters put in place a backdrop for the virtual university cases and their messages:
the main trends that impinge on higher education;
the challenges and opportunities facing the university;
the impact of borderless education.

The new century: societal paradoxes and major trends

At the turn of the century, the world is caught in powerful cross-currents and many of the predominant trends manifest themselves in seemingly contradictory ways:
wealth and poverty - economic growth is rapid but inequalities are widening;
better health but new threats - the significant progress in achieving higher levels of public health has not been uniform and new scourges are complicating this challenge;
technology gain and technology gap - although technology has brought great progress in many areas, the benefits are skewed between groups and between countries;
control over nature and environmental degradation - while knowledge and control over nature have increased there have been unintended negative consequences;
improved gender conditions but persistent problems - women have gained more rights, health and influence, and yet, inequity persists;
democratization and disenfranchisement - although there have been significant gains in rights and increasing numbers of countries are democratically governed, there are still infringements on basic human rights and many political regimes are repressive;
education, but not for all - education may be a human right, but it is still not available to all when millions remain illiterate.

Three major trends can be seen to be influencing the education environment:
a new demography - an increasing world population, growing urbanization, international migration, ageing societies and new and old diseases all constitute challenges to the education system;
globalization - technology, economic exchange, political integration and culture require education systems to reduce inequalities and marginalization and prevent widening technology and knowledge gaps between countries, among other challenges;
knowledge growth - information technology and development are inherently linked, but development must be defined in terms of knowledge and the humane uses to which it can be put: a society's wealth and welfare are determined by its capacity to train and educate its people to share in generating and applying knowledge in all spheres of life.

Education is central to addressing these paradoxes and inequities. A well functioning education system is essential to modern societies, and higher education has a pivotal role to play in the renewal of education systems and development in general, given the influence of its institutions and programmes on all societal activities.

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Download the chapter (.pdf) by Gudmund Hernes

The university - current challenges and opportunities

The state of higher education systems worldwide has often been described as being in crisis. A number of change factors impinge on systems:
globalization, with digitalized knowledge and permeable educational boundaries;
connectivity through the Internet, which results in a globalization of information and increased access;
an increasing digital divide, due to differing access capacity;
the commodification of knowledge, and a more consumer-oriented attitude in the university;
government funding decreases, leading to a more competitive stance;
the need for lifelong learning, which demands new approaches.

In this context, universities are faced with some serious challenges:
improving quality, increasing access and reducing costs;
modularizing education so that it can be used and re-used;
changing the role of faculty;
developing e-learning competencies;
changing institutional leadership styles to become more adaptable and flexible.

However, in addressing an increasing and an increasingly varied demand, universities have new opportunities, many of them linked to Information and Communication Technology. First, there is growth in virtual university activities, many of which allow traditional universities to expand their reach and increase the flexibility of the educational offer. Blended learning, which combines classroom and online study, offers new learning methods, while open source software and courseware facilitate sharing of resources and reduce costly duplication of effort. These changes promote a learner-centred pedagogy.

There is evidence of an emerging global marketplace and a growing spirit of competition in higher education as traditional universities expand their reach through the Internet, and new actors, such as corporate universities and other private providers, enter the field.

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Download the chapter (.pdf) by Robin Mason

A world of borderless higher education - impact and implications

Borderless education refers to educational provision that crosses the boundaries of time, space and geography. These boundaries include:
levels and types of education - for example, further and higher education, adult and continuing education;
private and public - for-profit and not-for-profit education;
state level and country level - business and public-sector initiatives, transnational consortia;
time and space - virtual learning environments, online learning.

The extent of borderless education varies from country to country depending upon numerous factors, including:
the penetration of ICT within the country;
the preference for different forms of educational delivery;
the regulations imposed by the State.

Different categories of providers are emerging. In the publicly-funded not-for-profit sector, there are:
regional and international consortia;
forms of transnational education;
national virtual university initiatives.

While in the commercial sector, can be found:
corporate universities;
private and for-profit providers;
media and publishing enterprises;
educational services and brokers.

Borderless education has policy and management implications. First, there are certain features of this type of education, such as its technology dependence and the growing move to collaboration, that imply policy and management challenges. Second, the very fact of crossing borders - whether they be national, functional, temporal or spatial - poses a policy concern related to the need to remove barriers to a seamless global provision. Reducing national barriers is currently under debate in the World Trade Organization negotiations on the general Agreement on Trade and Services.

A distinctive characteristic of the new modes of delivery used in the new educational provision relates to modes, media and locations. Depending upon the media used and instructional approach, students and tutors may never or rarely meet and all interaction may be asynchronous, which has important implications for learning and student support. The nature of the educational experience itself is changing.

New providers and new provision give rise to new types of qualifications, and raise the issue of non-certified learning. The quality of the education and the value of the award are both of high concern.

The virtual university represents an important emanation of the development of borderless education.

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Download the chapter (.pdf) by Robin Middlehurst

Virtual universities - emerging models

As the higher education community has moved to adopt ICT to support the teaching and learning function and as an international marketplace appears to be taking shape, a variety of institutional models has begun to emerge. Various classifications have been proposed, but for the purpose of this study, the focus was placed on four main institutional types:
a newly created institution operating as a virtual university;
an evolution of an existing institution, with a unit or arm offering virtual education;
a consortium of partners constituted to develop and/or offer virtual education;
a commercial enterprise offering online education.

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Newly created institutions

Higher education is seen as the key to turn Malaysia into a fully industrialized country by 2020. UNITAR, which is the region's first virtual university, was created in 1998. It is a new institution, operating as a private enterprise with the goal of providing quality education to a global audience and promoting Malaysia's transformation into a knowledge economy. Its mission is to expand opportunity for quality education at affordable fees. In recognition of bandwidth constraints, courses are mainly CD-based, although some are offered online. Compulsory tutorials, which may be face-to-face or online in synchronous and non-synchronous modes, are an important part of the instructional model and serve to both support and motivate the learner. In addition, a network of study centres provides learners and instructors with a space for academic or extra-curricular activities. The courses and programmes of UNITAR are fully recognized by the Ministry of Education and its students are eligible for loans. One of the points made in this case is that a virtual university need not be without a 'campus' and that social interaction is an important aspect of education.

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Download the chapter (.pdf) by Syed Othman Alhabshi and Hasnan Hakim
Download the update (.pdf)

Established in 1999, the Campus numérique francophone (CNF) represents the evolution of the initial project, a virtual university for the francophone countries, of the Agence universitaire de la francophonie (a network of more than 400 higher education institutions). CNF has been built upon a network of centres that were established in the early 1990's to facilitate access to scientific and technical information, as well as to the Internet and e-mail. The Campus numérique francophone de Dakar (CNFD) was inaugurated in 2000. It functions essentially as a well equipped resource centre, promoting and supporting distance and ICT-enabled education through the production of multimedia content, the promotion of distance education courses and CD-ROMs, an incubator for innovative firms, the development of digital literacy in students and teachers, and access to online information. CNFD, although supported to some extent by the Agence universitaire de la francophonie, generates its operating budget by charging fees for its services, such as Internet access. The main lesson from this case is that it would be misleading to suggest the distance education can be used in developing countries without investing in the technical and administrative infrastructure. And the Campus numérique francophone has been established to address just this need.

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Download the chapter (.pdf) by Olivier Sagna
Download the update (.pdf)

Created in 1995 as a new institution within the Catalan university system, the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC) is rooted in its local context while aiming to develop a global presence. It was developed as an e-university that can be flexible, competitive and cooperative, all at the same time. It operates as a non-profit foundation, and describes its operating style as more akin to that a private company than a traditional university. The importance of recognizing that a virtual university cannot be managed like a conventional one is one of the key lessons this case conveys. As a new institution, UOC was not burdened with inappropriate policy or institutional inertia. The administration of the university is ensured by UOC-developed Campus Virtual software, which replicates the functions of a university. Its teaching and learning model connects students, professors and central services all over the country. In recognition of its importance, there is a rationalized plan for staff development. Quality assurance is deemed a high priority, with the quality of the academic programme being ensured by the Catalan agency responsible for the quality of the university system and UOC is working to develop indicators relating to a virtual learning environment. Research is viewed as a necessary function of the university and a research institute has been established with a focus on the impact of ICT on society. The university is committed to cooperation, believing that by helping other institutions develop high quality learning systems, it will increase its own credibility.

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Download the chapter (.pdf) by Albert Sangrà
Download the update (.pdf)

Evolution of existing universities

The Universidad Nacional de Quilmes (UNQ), represents a young traditional institution, which moved quickly to offer online education through the creation in 1998 of the Universidad Virtual de Quilmes (UVQ). UVQ is a corporate entity, and while UNQ is responsible for academic processes, the company, Campus Virtual SA, provides all the support processes. The case describes an efficient manner of ensuring software support for the development of online education and facilitating learner access. First, the UVQ benefited from a transfer of technology from the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya that permitted the use of the software platform, Campus Virtual, to support the provision of online courses. Second, since Internet development in Argentina was limited, a strategic alliance was formed with a small Internet Service Provider to facilitate student access. Management challenges were posed by the need to develop administrative policies and procedures appropriate for online education. The academic approach reflects the notion of student-centred learning to create 'a university of students'. The creation of UVQ benefited from the boldness, creativity and leadership of senior officials in the university.

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Download the chapter (.pdf) by Juan Carlos Del Bello
Download the update (.pdf)

Located in Australia, which is one of the most active countries in the export of higher education, the University of Southern Queensland is an example of a traditional university operating as a dual-mode institution. It serves both on-campus and off-campus students, with the latter group comprising about 75 per cent of the student body. This case outlines a planned institutional response to the emerging global higher education market, which has been characterized by increasing competition for students, as more and more institutions offer online courses and programmes. USQOnline is described as "an E-university for an E-world". Building upon twenty years of experience in distance education experience, USQOnline was established in 1997 to provide Internet-based courses and programmes, with a commitment to the offer of education anywhere, anytime. In order to finance its development, the institution changed its liquidity ratio and it also invested in a private company for the provision of its software platform and services. Perhaps the most important message is that in this type of initiative, institutional leaders need to take a strong proactive approach and to put in place an organizational development strategy appropriate to the specific institution and e-learning. And a significant financial investment will be necessary, from which the return will not be immediate.

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Download the chapter (.pdf) by James C Taylor
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A single-mode institution, Athabasca University is Canada's leading distance education and online university. Serving a relatively small (30,000) population in a large country, the institution has offered an alternative to residential study since its creation in 1970. It strives to remove barriers to higher education participation - time, space, previous educational experience and level of income. The case presents the experience of an open university moving into the provision of online courses and programmes. The university already had administrative and academic procedures in place for distance education, and that facilitated the move to online education. Nevertheless, developing and offering online courses and programmes had an impact on policy, practice, infrastructure, financial modelling, and institutional culture (requiring the revision and creation of new polices related to issues such as service standards for students and staff, and the key issue of quality assurance). An important message conveyed in this case is that since online learning is borderless, it is more affected by globalization than any other educational model, a reflection with implications related to global higher education supply and demand.

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Download the chapter (.pdf) by Dominique Abrioux
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Kenyatta AVU represents the model of an existing institution that added a 'virtual' unit to extend its educational offer through participation in an international project. Kenyatta University was one of the initial six institutions that joined the African Virtual University (AVU). Launched in 1997 as a project of the World Bank, in 2002 AVU was transformed into an independent inter-governmental organization with headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya. It currently has over 34 learning centres in institutions in 17 countries. The initial aim of the project was to bring world class instruction - mainly in Engineering, Computer Science, Information Technology, Business Studies, Health - from institutions around the world to learning centres in participating higher education institutions, through the use of satellite and e-mail, fax and phone. Having been one of the more successful learning centres of the AVU project during its pilot phase from 1997 to 2001, the experience of Kenyatta AVU during that period is instructive. The case highlights both the challenges faced by many African institutions, as well as the experience gained in using technology to face some of them. The lessons put forward point to the management challenges associated with operating a special centre under the operating policies and procedures of a traditional university. They also speak of the significant constraints that institutions must take into consideration when establishing ICT supported education in countries with limited telecommunications infrastructure.

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Download the chapter (.pdf) by Magdallen Juma
Download the update (.pdf)

University of Maryland University College, USA

The mission of the University of Maryland University College (UMUC), one of 11 institutions in the University System of Maryland USA, is to offer high quality academic programmes that are independent of time and place for the learner, thereby extending access to higher education to those who wish to combine work and study. Its global mission is to extend access worldwide, becoming "the benchmark global university". The virtual university initiative, launched in 1994 with the creation of a proprietary software system, relates to the introduction of online delivery and did not result in the creation of a separate entity within the institution. Having used a wide range of delivery methods previously, the university identified the Internet as the most effective means of delivering its courses and programmes independently of time and place. This conviction proved to be right and online course enrolment numbers grew from 110 in 1994 to almost 87,000 by 2002. A comprehensive system was developed to provide services to students, including noteworthy library services. UMUC attributes much of its success to the fact that it is highly entrepreneurial in nature - managers are held accountable for strategic performance goals. The case underlines that the development of a virtual university requires "expensive, long-term, institution-wide commitment", as well as significant and ongoing investment in human resources and technology.

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Download the chapter (.pdf) by Mark L. Parker
The case update will be available here soon


Launched in 1999, the Université Virtuelle en Pays de la Loire (UVPL) is a consortium of five partners - the universities of Nantes, Angers, and Le Mans, the IUFM (University Teacher Training Institute) and the regional authority Conseil Régional des Pays de la Loire. After three years of co-operation, it was formally established in 2002 with the aim of offering tutored education leading to a qualification, mainly in the context of lifelong learning. Administration is provided by a public interest group governed by a Board of Directors, within which the partner universities constitute the majority. A call for proposals in 2001 generated 61 project proposals, which were evaluated, resulting in the selection of 15 that were financed. Of the open and distance learning courses on offer, most are blended learning, offering a combination of distance and in-class sessions. The user is the central concern and a portal was developed to provide as much information and as many services as possible. Each partner manages its teachers, tutors and technicians, while the portal and platforms are supported by a UVPL technical team. An appropriate lesson from this particular model is that the co-operation that is the heart of the consortium has been found to accelerate the production of content and improve the quality of the support to students. And co-operation among the teaching staff involved has resulted in an important transfer of skills and an exchange of experience.

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Download the chapter (.pdf) by Henri Ott and Pascal Geeraert
Download the update (.pdf)

Commercial enterprises

India's first online learning facility, NetVarsity was created in 1996 as an education portal by NIIT, a large commercial software development and Information Technology learning company. Training in IT is a fast-changing, high-demand area and NetVarsity has developed over 300 courses for an annual enrolment of about 100,000. Course design and development is undertaken by a 'factory' of 400 persons, 100 of which are instructional designers. The curriculum is oriented towards learner comfort and ease of learning, at the learner's pace and convenience. NetVarsity provides a full range of learner services from online practice testing to expert assistance 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, to an online library and even a coffee shop for relaxing. Given the nature of the subject matter, national accreditation has not been deemed feasible, and it is industry certification and recognition that defines the quality of the education. And although it is a private sector institution, it has developed a student loan scheme to assist those learners that need financial assistance.

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Download the chapter (.pdf) by Sugata Mitra
Download the update (.pdf)

Messages and lessons learned

The authors of the case studies each told their story in order to illuminate some of the policy, planning and management issues faced by institutions depending upon ICT in making their programmes and courses available to students. The authors spoke about creating new institutions, extending existing ones, working with others in a consortium and developing a business model. They described their particular experiences, sometimes with pride, sometimes with concern, sometimes with brevity and sometimes at length, but the objective was the same - to help the reader understand what the institution set out to do, and to convey the lessons learned from the experience to date and the main messages for others.

The distinguishing characteristic of the lessons that are presented as the final section of each case study chapter is that they are very diverse. This could be attributed to the range of models presented and national jurisdictions represented. Nonetheless, there is some commonality in the messages.

The following are among the key issues raised:
Leadership and support from the senior level of the institution;
Appropriate technology infrastructure and sufficient resources for its implementation and maintenance;
Staff training, support and reward structures;
New teaching and learning approaches;
Programmes appropriate to the technology;
Quality of the educational product and service;
Co-operation for sharing of expertise and reducing costs.

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Download the chapter (.pdf) by Susan D'Antoni

Follow-up activities

The message and lessons learned were intended to inform a series of policy forums. A first Internet discussion forum was held in early 2004. For more information about the forum series, please see the Forums section of the website. To be put on a mailing list for further information, send a message to Susan D'Antoni.

A word of thanks

This study and web publication benefited from financial support from the Department for International Development of the United Kingdom and the Development Grant Facility of the World Bank.

Project Overview  |  Web Publication  |  Forums  |  Links

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