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Development of virtual education


Provision for education will be the biggest challenge for most
governments as they attempt to attain the ideals of peace, freedom, and
social justice, while striving at the same time to position themselves
to generate more wealth and compete in the free global market. Bold
steps have to be considered by states to provide their people with
affordable access to education; using methods of mass education will be
inevitable. Even by using these methods, not all aspirations will be
met. Intervention by outside agencies is one solution, but it will come
at a higher cost than most individuals in the developing parts of the
world can afford. One solution available for Governments of the
Commonwealth is to use the newer technologies as vehicles to bring a
variety of educational opportunities to individuals in their respective
countries. The knowledge, skills and a significant part of the
infrastructure to create a virtual campus seems to be there in many
jurisdictions but little is known of the what, why, and how of such
operations. (From A Proposal to Study Trends in the Virtual Delivery of
Education, presented to the U.K. Department of International
Development) With that rationale, the Commonwealth of Learning proposed
to the United Kingdom Department for International Development that a
comprehensive study be made of the global state of practice globally of
virtual education in schools and on campuses in order to achieve the

· Get a snapshot picture of what is being done by whom and where. 

· Study the potential impact of such initiatives on a range of current

· Provide Commonwealth Governments with information relating to
technology and telecommunication infrastructure as well as financial and
human resource needs for setting up virtual learning facilities. 

· Enable existing distance education providers of the Commonwealth to
rengineer themselves to benefit from this emerging option. 

· Review protocols and other administrative arrangements for awarding
credits and credentials under special circumstances through Commonwealth
co-operation in virtuality. The Department for International Development
agreed to fund the study and work began in September 1998. 

Process and Methodology The study is intended to provide a global
snapshot of the state and practice of virtual education. It is not meant
to be an exhaustive analysis of all virtual education initiatives. It
should be seen as illustrative, based on the knowledge and perceptions
of the individual members of the study team. We also see this as a work
in progress because the interest and activity in the concept we have
called virtual education is extremely dynamic. The Commonwealth of
Learning identified 10 global regions and commissioned an individual in
each region to write a paper describing, from his or her perspective,
the state of practice of virtual education in that region. Study team
members were selected on the basis of their known interest, expertise,
and experience in the development of virtual education strategies and
models. The regional reports were completed in February 1999, and the
study group convened during the first week of March in Brunei Darrusalam
during the Pan-Commonwealth Forum on Open Learning to review regional
developments and synthesise a global perspective. The first task of the
study team was to define the study parameters and agree on a working
definition of virtual education (see Framework for Regional Reports in
Appendix 1.1). This was a difficult task, and the definition initially
agreed upon is admittedly broad. Making it more precise would have meant
excluding a great deal of current practice that involves some exciting
and creative use of information and communication technologies. Having
now gone through the exercise of applying the definition, we have
concluded that it remains a useful way to conceptualise the notion of
virtual education. As development takes place, the definition may become
more focused on those teaching and learning interactions mediated
entirely through the application of information and communication
technologies. At this stage, however, there are very few examples where
that is the case. Within the Framework  team members were encouraged to
develop their reports to reflect the context of virtual education
development in their regions. Some of the reports focus on the state of
information and communication technology infrastructure development in
the region, while others (those where the infrastructure is readily
available), provide examples of practice and discuss the related issues.
Some team members, because of the size and complexity of their assigned
regions and the lack of access to electronic data-gathering capacity,
were compromised in their ability to make their reports as comprehensive
as they would have wished. (Note: Throughout this publication, universal
resource locators (URLs) are included to permit readers to pursue
additional information on sites and topics referenced. These URLs are
valid Internet addresses as of March 1999. 

Due to the nature of the World Wide Web and the restructuring of home
pages by Web masters, the addresses might change by the time readers try
to access the referenced sites. If you get an “Error 404” or “Invalid
Location” message when you try to access a site, try removing the last
part of the address to at least get to the home page of the host
organisation.) General Observations The 10 regional reports reflect, not
surprisingly, a great deal of variation in the stage of development of
virtual models of education. Taken together, however, they do provide a
world view from which the study team has distilled the following

• The label virtual is widely and indiscriminately used around the
world. Indeed, it is frequently used interchangeably with other labels
such as open and distance learning, distributed learning,  tworked
learning, Web-based learning, and computer learning. Furthermore, it is
used in some regions to refer to systems that combine broadcast and
interactive teleconferencing technologies that operate in real time.
With such broad use of the term, you need to know what the information
and communication technology applications are in order to know what
virtual education means in any given context. 

• In spite of the increased use of the term virtual, there are very few
examples of institutions using information and communication
technologies to carry out all the functions included in our definition.
The most common applications of information and communication
technologies are found in administration, materials development and
distribution, and where possible, student tuition in the form of
student-student and student-tutor interaction.

• While there are still few examples of virtual institutions in the
purest sense, the amount of development activity in all types and levels
of educational organisations, both public and private, is considerable
in all parts of the world. No one seems to doubt that the development
and deployment of information and communication technologies will have a
profound impact on access, institutional functioning, and the teaching
and learning process. However, teachers and administrators have many
questions and concerns (see the section below, The Global Context of
Virtual Institution Development).

• The development of virtual institutions is still experimental, rather
unfocused, and not necessarily matched to clientele learning needs.
While there are some exceptions (e.g., the programmes offered in
Communications Studies at the University of Victoria in Wellington, New
Zealand), generally the applications of information and communication
technologies tend to be unsophisticated. Commonly, for example, the
World Wide Web is used by institutions simply as a publishing medium
without addressing the interactive potential of the technology. This may
be because little attention seems to be paid to the importance of staff
retraining and development. 

• There are some remarkable examples of the transformation that can take
place when a vision for an educational system is developed and its
implementation championed by decisionmakers. Perhaps the clearest
examples are the initiatives that have been taken in Korea (see Appendix
9.1 in Virtual Institutions in East and Southeast Asia).

• The emergence of virtual institutions is directly linked to the
development of, and access to, information and communication technology
infrastructure. However, major socio-economic and geographical
disparities exist in such access. This disparity is perhaps the most
critical issue of virtual education because those without access are
likely to be increasingly disadvantaged in acquiring skills and
knowledge. In spite of this obvious linkage, it seems that strategic
planning for the development of information and communication technology
infrastructure typically proceeds with little, if any, consideration for
educational applications. 

• The application of information and communication technologies to the
provision of education is having a two-pronged effect on the marketing
of education by institutions. First, there is now an emphasis on
strategies that respond to niche learning needs rather than on a broad
array of programmes to a common market group. In other words, the market
is being fragmented. Second, there is an unprecedented degree of
competition, Introduction 4 nationally and internationally, which is
creating problems for those institutions that have historically used
revenue from high-demand programmes to subsidise the low-demand
programmes. Some jurisdictions are attempting to limit this growing
competition through legislation, regulation, and accreditation
requirements. However, the consensus seems to be that these measures
will, at best, be effective only in the short term since the
technologies being used do not honour political boundaries. 

• It’s generally believed that we will see the emergence of a relatively
small number of international providers who will dominate the
educational market through vast distribution networks and strategic
partnerships. However, at this stage in the evolution of virtual
institutions, this observation appears to be more rhetorical than real.
While there is evidence of global providers and of their continuing
emergence, there is, as yet, no indication that they will dominate the

• The emergence of virtual institutions appears to be coming from four
separate sources: 1. Institutions that have historically been involved
in open and distance education on a single mode or dual-mode basis. 2.
Traditional institutions, from schools to universities, that have never
been involved in distance education. These institutions are now
beginning to apply information and communication technologies to support
their campusbased teaching in order to add quality and increase
productivity and flexibility, with the belief that doing so may reduce
costs and increase revenue by attracting new students. This transition
is typically occurring on a programmespecific basis that, in many
instances, is creating a virtual institution inside a traditional
institution. 3. The corporate sector. Many large organisations have
developed internal training programmes based on information and
communication technology delivery and, increasingly, they, are marketing
them using the virtual label. 4. Individuals who, for reasons ranging
from altruism to profit, are motivated to use the technology to create
learning opportunities for anyone who is interested. This study did not
set out to either document or describe the emergence of this form of
virtual education; however, it is becoming commonplace on the World Wide
Web and deserves to be identified. 

• Cost reduction is frequently cited as an objective to be served
through the introduction of information and communication technologies
within educational institutions. However, there is a paucity of valid
and reliable data on the question of costs. 

• There is rapid emergence, particularly in North America, of new forms
of virtual organisations that do not act as direct providers of
educational programmes. This observation reflects the shift to
institutions “unbundling” many functions, such as the development and
distribution of learning materials, tuition, assessment, registration
and record-keeping, award-granting, learner support, and general
administration. These functions can now be shared through a wide variety
of organisational arrangements marked by specialisation and
“added-value” partnerships involving both the public and private

The Global Context of Virtual Institution Development The evolution of
virtual institutions is occurring in the context of a wide range of
forces that, on one hand, are driving the need for change, and on the
other, serve to constrain change or at least slow the pace. These
changes range from those that are regionally specific to those that are
globally pervasive. The importance of any one of them is determined by
the specific socio-economic context of a given state or nation.


Factors that influence the development of virtual learning models are as

· The increasing capacity, flexibility, and suitability of information
and communication technologies to educational applications, together
with the continuing decrease in the cost of hardware.

· The enabling capacity of the technologies to “unbundle” functions (as
described above) that have traditionally been provided by one

· The growth of knowledge, with its attendant consequence of the
obsolescence of much of what was previously learned, placing an
ever-increasing pressure on conventional models of education. People are
seeking opportunities for lifelong learning, and with diverse personal
circumstances, they require flexible access-to-learning opportunities
and venues such as the home, the work place, the community learning
centre, as well as the traditional campus-based institution.

· The realisation that the quality of the learning experience can be
enhanced by applying information and communication technologies. In the
conventional classroom we find increasing use of the Internet to access
information, which enriches the learning experience. Further, in the
conventional distance education environment, we find the technologies
being adopted to improve the learning process through interactive and
collaborative learning to reduce the learners’ sense of isolation.

· The demand from isolated learners for more equitable access and
service. This, of course, is not new, and was the reason for the
development of correspondence courses. However, the context is broader
now as the capacity of the technologies enables a remote, single-room
school to access many of the instructional resources available to
schools in an urban setting.

· The perception of many institutions, particularly in Europe and North
America, that the application of information and communication
technologies will enable them to increase their market share in an
environment that is increasingly competitive. · The need to be seen to
be “keeping up with the competition.” Administrators worry that student
recruitment, donations, and grants may decline if this expectation is
not met. · The expectation by policy makers and administrators that the
development of virtual delivery models will reduce costs, increase
productivity, and enable expansion without cost increases.


Opposing those forces that are driving the emergence of virtual learning
models is another set of values, beliefs, perceptions, and realities
that serve to constrain the rate of change. The following are examples:

· In many parts of the world there is simply no access to networks and
in many others Introduction 6 the cost of access is prohibitive. A
related factor is the amount of bandwidth that can be accessed, which
determines the possible information and communication technology

· Many learners have no access to the necessary information and
communication technology appliances such as computers, telephones, and
televisions. Even within developed economies, the disparity of access is
so great that many policy makers fear that adopting these technologies
will result in a widening of the gap between the “haves” and the “have

· Copyright restrictions on the use of instructional products and
materials do not promote sharing through collaborative
inter-institutional arrangements or through broad international delivery

· The front-end cost of implementing high-quality virtual models
constitutes a major constraint, even if it is believed that ultimate
savings are possible through standardisation, resource sharing,
economies of scale, and increased productivity. The cost of initial
hardware, operating software, and instructional material development
typically require capitalisation funds that far exceed the resources of
most institutions. In some cases the problem is dealt with through
internal reallocation of funds (e.g., from library acquisitions to
technology support). There is also a widespread practice of passing
these costs on to the student through tuition fee increases or special

· Current systems of learner support are not designed to function
effectively in a virtual education environment, creating problems for
all but the most capable of independent learners.

· Perhaps the most commonly reported constraint is the reticence of most
teachers and faculty to embrace the use of information and communication
technologies. Lack of training in the use of the technologies is the
most frequently cited reason for the reticence. However, concerns over
job security, the need for greater preparation as a result of operating
in a public environment like the World Wide Web, plus the need to manage
an increased amount of communications with students are also
contributing factors.

· The educational philosophy of many teachers and faculty contributes to
their reticence of communication technology applications. If they
believe that learning should be structured and directed by teachers,
then they are not likely to be attracted to using information and
communication technologies, which enables a more constructivist or
learner-centred approach to education. 

· The transfer of course credits among institutions is a problem for
those students who would like to undertake a programme that might be
available through virtual methods but would require taking courses from
several different institutions. From the students’ perspective, this is
a serious constraint on their ability to function as true virtual

· Many people, particularly those who are younger and with less
experience as independent learners, when given a choice prefer a
traditional face-to-face learning environment. These learners tend to be
more organised and vocal than older, part-time learners and, therefore,
can be a significant political force against information and
communication technology applications in education. While the above list
is not exhaustive, it should remind educational policy makers and
managers that, in many respects, it is not the technologies themselves
that are at issue, but the purpose and manner of their use that are
likely to influence opinion of virtual education. 

Emerging Models of Virtual Education As stated earlier, the emergence of
virtual education models is directly linked with the emergence of
information and communication technology infrastructure. For example,
the emergence of postal systems enabled by the development of
transportation technology led to the development of correspondence
models of education delivery. As the broadcast media evolved, first
radio and more recently television, those technologies were applied to
mass educational programming, typically those of a general and community
education nature. Indeed many educators feel the potential for using
these technologies has been, and remains, woefully under utilised. With
the more recent development of real-time interactive media such as
audio- and video-conferencing, there has been broad use of these
technologies in formal education to reach underserved students.
Applications have been particularly noticeable in North America and
Australia. Now the phenomenon of the Internet and the World Wide Web is
driving the broadest scope of interest and involvement in technology
applications ever witnessed across all levels of educational
institutions. With each of these developments of information and
communication technology, the once-separate models of open and distance
learning and the so-called conventional, campus-based education has
increasingly converged. Tapsall and Ryan have elaborated on this
phenomenon in their report on Australia, Virtual Education Institutions
in Australia: Between the Idea and the Reality, suggesting an
interesting model for looking at its evolution. One result of the
convergence of teaching models has been the emergence of new forms of
educational organisations. These models are not mutually exclusive and
undoubtedly others will develop quickly. Here are a few current

· There has been rapid growth of virtual education within many so-called
traditional institutions. Virtual programmes are offered by institutions
that offer most other pro grammes in the traditional manner. More mature
examples exist in the United States, Australia, and Canada; however, it
is an emerging phenomenon in all regions.

· Single-mode distance teaching organisations, using primarily
print-based delivery and created originally with relatively clear and
exclusive mandates, are now confronted with having to reinvent
themselves. On one hand, their once-exclusive mandates are evaporating,
and on the other, they are constrained in the use of information and
communication technologies because their students typically have
difficulty accessing the necessary appliances. · Broker-type
organisations, designed to acquire or broker programmes from a variety
of institutional providers and add value through flexible entry and
credit transfer policies, are emerging rapidly. Two examples are the
Public Broadcasting System (PBS) Going the Distance project in the
United States and the University of the Highlands and the Islands
project in Scotland. · Information and facility provider-type
organisations have emerged in response to the support needs of learners
as well as those of institutions. Examples include the Queensland Open
Learning Network in Australia, the University for Industry in the U.K.,
the Maine Network for Education Technology Service in the U.S., the
Confederation of Open Learning Institutions of South Africa, European
Study Centres, and the Sylvan Calibre Learning Network in the U.S. 

· Institutions that are authorised to award credentials and to provide a
variety of other services such as learning assessment, educational
Introduction 8 planning, and learning records, but do not provide
instruction directly to students, are becoming part of educational
systems, especially in North America. Examples are Regents College in
New York State and the newly created Western Governors University in the
United States. (Note, however, that the latter is still moving through
the accreditation process.) It is noteworthy that while the United
States never developed a single-mode distance teaching institution such
as the U.K. Open University or the National Open School in India at
either the state or national level, it is there that we are seeing the
most prolific development of these newer institutional forms. It is also
noteworthy that these newer types of organisations, which are not
focused on direct instruction, potentially transcend political,
geographic, and legislative boundaries much more easily than the more
traditional models. 

The rapid growth of private sector providers is another dimension of the
emerging model scene. 

These are three types: 

1. Direct providers of instruction, usually with a focus on a particular
niche market, have become prevalent and profitable. Examples are The
University of Phoenix and Jones International University as described in
Distance and Virtual Learning in the United States, and National
Institute of Information Technology (NIIT) as described in Virtual
Institutions in the Indian Subcontinent. 

2. Corporate training networks, developed initially to meet internal
training needs, are now exploiting external market opportunities and are
increasingly seeking formal recognition for the training they provide.
Examples include Quantas Airlines, as cited in Virtual Education
Institutions in Australia and South Africa Telecom, as cited in Virtual
Institutions on the African Continent. 

3. Specialised service organisations that are focused on providing
consultation, project management, technical support, and private tuition
have evolved on a fee-for-service basis. Examples are the IBM Global
Campus and the McGraw-Hill Learning Infrastructure, as cited in Distance
and Virtual Learning in the United States, Virtual University
Enterprises as cited in European Trends in the Virtual Delivery of
Education, and Real Education, as cited in Virtual Education
Institutions in Australia. ( Note: Real Education no longer operates in
Australia but remains active in the U.S.)

The phenomenon of the “tele-centre” or “tele-learning centre” is
emerging as a hallmark of the virtual education environment. In concept
it is not new; the idea of a community learning centre has long been a
part of various models of adult education and was pioneered many years
ago with the Scandinavian concept of “learning circles.” However, in its
current form the concept involves the creation of community-based access
points where connectivity to networks is provided and access to
information and communication technology appliances is made available.
While applications may not be exclusive to education, the idea of the
technology-based community learning centre provides an essential
component of any virtual education system that aspires to be broadly
accessible. Countries like India, which recently announced it will
create information kiosks throughout the country, and South Africa, with
its commitment to developing tele-centres, are examples of nations which
have recognised the importance of ensuring access to citizens as a
matter of public policy. Although virtual education models have not yet
influenced education at the primary and secondary levels in a pervasive
sense, there is evidence that this will start to occur rapidly.
Initiatives such as SchoolNet in Canada, SchoolNetIntroduction 9 India,
SchoolNet South Africa, and the Open School in British Columbia, Canada,
are examples. The evolving model is likely to remain focused on
classrooms, but with more flexibility in the role of the teacher. This
role can be portrayed as a continuum, at one end of which technologies
are used to support teachers and, at the other, teachers support
learning where information is primarily accessed via information and
communication technologies. Change Strategies Two visions of change in
educational systems emerge from the regional reports in this
publication. One portrays technology as an overwhelming driving force
with the emergence of a few global providers dominating the educational
market through vast distribution networks and strategic partnerships.
The second involves a more explicit, policy-based approach at national
and state levels which is concerned with issues such as equity of
access, curriculum relevance to labour market needs, accreditation,
consumer protection, and cultural sensitivity. These visions are, of
course, not mutually exclusive as they can, and are likely to, co-exist.
However, if they are to coexist in a positive way, then it behooves
educational policy makers to ensure that the educational leaders in
their jurisdictions are making decisions in a careful manner and are
managing the process of change as constructively as possible. 

Following are some strategies that the study team considers important: 

1. Ensure that information and communication technology development
planning is linked with educational planning so that the application is
both appropriate and sustainable in terms of access to the
infrastructure. Wherever possible, virtual delivery should be linked to
the development of tele-centres to enhance access and add value to
overall information and communication technology development. 

2. Use policy, legislative, and regulatory incentives to ensure that
some portion of telecommunication capacity (e.g., X% of cable channels
or Y% of bandwidth) is reserved for educational use at costs that are
affordable by institutions. If such incentives are available free of
charge to accredited institutions, they will help ensure that
educational applications become part of telecommunication infrastructure

3. Ensure that all facets of the concept of appropriateness are
considered. In other words, the technology needs to be appropriate to
the skills and characteristics of the target learners, the nature of the
programme content, the current competency of the instructional staff,
and available funding. 

4. Show how the application of information and communication technology
in education can enhance existing practice. If teachers perceive that a
given application will help them accomplish their goals more efficiently
and effectively, they will more likely change their behaviour and be
motivated to acquire the necessary skills and knowledge. 

5. Ensure that appropriate staff training and development programmes are
available as an essential part of any change strategy. 

6. If the purpose of increased utilisation of information and
communication technologies is to achieve cost savings, ensure that there
is a clear plan in place indicating precisely how such savings will be
effected and whether they will be real savings rather than simply a
transfer of costs to students. 

7. Encourage differentiated mandates among institutions. There is an
obvious cost benefit if complementary rather than competitive
development can be achieved within educational systems. 

8. Encourage and support initiatives of faculty members. Change,
particularly within conventional institutions, often occurs at the
initiative of the individual teachers rather than by strategic decisions
taken by the institutions. 

9. Consider how or whether institutional functions can be “unbundled,”
particularly between those functions related directly to the provision
of instruction, and those that relate to materials development and
learner support. The goal is to enable the partners to focus on what
they each do best—their “core business.” 

10. Recognise that the development of virtual education models will
create change forces in a variety of other ways:

• Advising and counselling may need to be managed differently. 

• Concerns over the quality assurance of providers using information and
communication technologies will develop as new players become involved.

• Issues of credit recognition and transfer will arise between

• Demands from learners for assessment of existing skills and knowledge
will become commonplace.

• Decisions related to the allocation of funds will increasingly be
between the costs of “bricks and mortar” on one hand, and the cost of
“bandwidth” on the other. 

11. Effective incorporation of the technologies requires a commitment by
all parts of an institution. For example, the offering of courses
on-line will be diminished if the registry insists on “hard copy”
processes. Summary As stated at the outset, this study was designed as a
“snapshot” of current practice and the state of development of virtual

Given the dynamic nature of information and communication technology,
the examples cited date very quickly. However, what will endure is the
phenomenon of change that educational institutions at all levels, and in
all parts of the world, are experiencing. The decisions that face
educational leaders and practitioners are no longer simply
intra-institutional; increasingly they are systemic and international in
scope and involve some aspect of technological application. The world of
education has become a smaller place and, like it or not, more
interdependent. However, just as the emerging information and
communication technologies have made the educational decision-making
environment more complex, so have they led to a great deal of
conventional wisdom regarding their application. We cannot over-stress
the importance of the concept of appropriateness when making decisions
about information and communications technology applications. This study
has revealed nothing if not that the use of information and
communication technology should be in the context of clearly stated
educational outcomes accompanied by practical strategies for achieving

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