Virtual Universities: Revolutionizing Education or Just Digital Diploma Mills

Virtual universities use technology to deliver courses and degrees. But questions concerning their value are emerging almost as fast as the schools.

by / July 31, 1999
What do Oxford, Harvard, Stanford and Duke have in common with the World Campus, Jones International University, Southern Regional Electronic Campus and the Western Governors University? They all offer online courses and degrees.

Slowly, but surely, something is happening at colleges and universities around the world, thanks to technology. Classrooms of students listening to live lectures by professors are giving way to courses taught on the Internet, via e-mail and on CD-ROMs.

Stanford offers virtual master's-degree engineering courses. Oxford offers an online course on computers and historical research using electronic databases. Harvard also offers a Web-based computer course. At Duke, business students can earn a global executive MBA, which combines online learning with live class sessions. At the less familiar Jones International and Western Governors' universities (WGU), students can earn online associate's, bachelor's and master's degrees.

But these two schools differ from the better-known universities in a major way. Neither owns a building or has a library, and the number of full-time faculty can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

"Technology is leveling the playing field for universities and colleges," said Brad Englert, a partner with Andersen Consulting who specializes in education strategies. "Greater access to courses through technology has tremendous appeal to both students and universities."

Advocates of online education point out that students are no longer limited by geography in order to further their education. Colleges and universities can add courses to meet demand without the expense of brick and mortar.

But not everyone agrees on who benefits the most from virtual universities, nor is everyone happy with the changes that are occurring. For instance, most established schools, such as Oxford and Harvard, have shied away from offering undergraduate degrees online, citing the campus experience, with its rich social milieu, as the best way to educate students fresh out of high school. Virtual universities agree with only half of that assessment. "For the most part, our students are adult learners who don't want a campus experience," explained Jeff Edwards, marketing director for WGU. Yet, the university and others like it are offering or plan to offer undergraduate degrees.

More troubling, according to critics, is the lack of accreditation standards for virtual universities and unclear guidelines pertaining to the intellectual property rights for courses developed by professors and then mass marketed to students on the Internet. Without more rigorous standards and rules, some professors fear our colleges and universities will become an automated education system that churns out digital diplomas at the expense of real education, while scholarly teaching becomes a software commodity that can be commercialized for profit.

States, with their massive investments in public colleges, have been some of the most ardent supporters of virtual universities as a way of broadening access to higher education without the traditional costs. But setbacks, both political and programmatic, have taken some of the luster off of virtual learning.

Jumpstarting Virtual Campuses

Distance education has been around since the mid-nineteenth century when the first correspondence schools for higher education were set up in America. But the concept of a virtual university, where technological tools such as the Internet, e-mail, chat rooms and CD-ROMs would replace classrooms and blackboards, got its start with the creation of Jones International University in 1995. A private institution, Jones International exists entirely in cyberspace and has only two full-time faculty. The rest are "content experts,
Tod Newcombe Features Editor