Published online in Virtual University Journal (, October 1998.
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A Vision of the Virtual University (I)

Daniel Eisenberg

This column, written by invitation of the publisher Anne Christie, explores a topic brought up in the online conference of June 1998, inspired by my article “College Faculty and Distance Education.” A summary of the online conference will appear shortly.

I. What is a university?

        Universities fill a variety of functions. They have been called “a community of scholars,” a place for intellectual interchange and cross-fertilization. They have become havens where a significant portion of the world's thought and research takes place, especially on topics without immediate practical application. However, society deems these functions — intellectual interchange and research — to be secondary.

        The essential function of a university, or any other type of school, is education: providing knowledge (broadly defined), skills, and formative experiences to a student. Often the education is combined with certification of the recipient's knowledge, skill, or competence, but at times the two functions are separated.

        For education to take place, there must be a source for the knowledge, skills, or experiences. (To simplify our discussion, I will henceforth refer only to “knowledge.”) The knowledge must exist, and it must be delivered to the student in accessible form. This activity assumes some human intervention, either direct or indirect. The lecture — literally, “a reading” — has existed since the days of manuscripts. If the education will come from a student's experiences, an instructor must select and program them. If the knowledge is to be gained from reading a book, not only did an author write the book, a different person suggested the book to the student.

        Of course, a person can learn from self-selected books, tasks, and experiences, or from those which life places in his or her path. Every teacher has learned from someone, and that teacher from someone previous, but eventually there must be a self-educated person who began the chain. At some point the knowledge was created, not transmitted.

        Yet self-education is typically slow and haphazard. Guided, structured education has more predictable outcomes and is usually quicker, even if it may not be as impactful. That schools exist at all reflects the limitations of self-education.

        In other words, education involves at least two people: a student and a teacher, facilitator, or coach. The classic image is John Dewey and a student sitting on a log. Someone aids the learner to acquire the knowledge faster than he or she could without guidance: faster than the teacher, or the teacher's teacher, acquired it. Structured learning, then, implies at least a community of two. Because of the growth of modern knowledge and its division into specialties, usually the student will need instruction from a variety of teachers.

        Traditionally, the collection of teachers, constituting a school, college, or university, has been place-bound. The teachers assemble in a city or town, where classrooms are constructed. The student comes to the town to learn from those teachers. Other resources, such as a library or a laboratory, are located there as well.

        This model evolved in a world of minimal technology, without printing or transportation faster than a horse. It has remained almost unchanged from the beginnings of formal education until the very recent past. It requires nothing more than places for the teachers and students to interact. Texts (manuscripts or books) are traditionally found there; over the last two centuries scientific equipment has been added as well.

II. Technological Advances

        The twentieth century has seen advances in communications unparalleled in human history. The printing press allowed data to be reproduced as never before; the telegraph permitted transmission of small amounts of data at the speed of light. Equally dramatic increases in transmission capacity were added by the telephone, whose use became widespread only in this century, broadcast radio, and television. However, the high cost of transmission per unit of data prevented its widespread use for such an information-intensive activity as education.

        Transistors, printed circuits, satellites, and fiber optics have reduced the cost of data reproduction and transport — once again, dramatically. Transport of small quantities of data (text messages, word-processed documents, and some pictures) is essentially free. A telephone connection from any U.S. point to anywhere within the U.S. and Canada can be had for $5.40 (£3.30) an hour, $3.00 (£1.80) per hour on Sundays, and from the U.S. to the U.K., $7.20 (£4.40) per hour. (U.S. readers, these prices are available via MCI One Net plan; see A competitor at 800 787-3333 is already advertising $6.60/hour to U.K. British readers, calls from the U.K. to the U.S. are available for £5.40/hour peak and £3.90/hour off peak; see and Prices such as these are within the budgets of most educational institutions.

        A low-quality video connection can now be made over such a telephone link. Further declines in cost, permitting increases in transmission quality, are coming in the near future. The equipment needed is relatively inexpensive and getting cheaper. Operation is simple, even if sometimes frustrating, when compared with a telegraph, a hot-metal typesetting machine, or a broadcast station.

        A key element in these recent advances is that the data transmission is bidirectional, making interaction possible. Except for a small number of hobbyists with special, expensive equipment, publishing, radio, and television have always been uindirectional media. Bidirectionality is now the norm, and multipoint connections (groups) are relatively simple to arrange. This empowerment of the once-passive receiver is bringing profound changes in the arts, politics, and many other fields.

III. Implications for education.

        Given these advances, place-bound education will decline in importance. Although the changes are still unfolding, students and teachers no longer need to assemble physically in order to communicate and interact. Options for students will continue to expand, since they will not be limited to that combination of teachers employed by a single institution, nor by the rigid schedules of traditional classrooms. Teachers for highly specialized subjects will be accessible to a degree impossible at any present institution. It will be much easier for students to compare and share data not just about course content, but about teachers and institutions as well. The best will flourish, the mediocre and poor improve or lose market share.

        While this may sound threatening to the teachers and institutions, their options will also expand. Teachers will find it easier to change employers or work simultaneously for multiple employers, or sell their services directly to students, omitting the middleman (the university) altogether. The institutions will be able to recruit faculty without concern for geography.

        Greater efficiency is in store for everyone. If one does not need to go to a specific place either to learn or to teach, moving and commuting costs can be saved. Time otherwise used in commuting can be applied to study, or other purposes. The pools of available faculty, institutions, and students will become larger, as local resources become part of an international community of learning.

        Traditional classrooms and residential study will not disappear, any more than live music and theater have disappeared. Interaction through cameras, screens, microphones, and speakers cannot offer the fullness of experience that is possible in the flesh. Certain types of library materials, equipment, and clinical training will still require that the student go to a location where these are available. Nevertheless, recorded music is today far more available and less expensive than live music, and sufficient for many or even most purposes. Because of these same factors — greater efficiency and reduced cost — instruction through our new media will inevitably flourish. It may well become the predominant mode of education within a generation. There is apparently a pent-up demand for education, and for change, which the present educational paradigm cannot meet.

        What we do not have, as yet, are structures to bring coherence into a chaotic situation. A key question, posed repeatedly in the online conference, is the nature of an educational institution with teachers and students interacting over great distances. The next column will begin to outline possible forms it may take.