Published online in Virtual University Journal (, November 1998.
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A Vision of a Virtual University (II).

Daniel Eisenberg

        Institutions, once created, perpetuate themselves. The people who make up any organization naturally resist change. People's jobs and lives are involved. If we discontinue teaching Classics, the Classics professors will become, in that precise British term, “redundant.” If it is today the Classics faculty, those teaching French, or history, or any subject without direct practical application can be next.

        It is only for-profit institutions that can be swept away by what has been called “the destructive power of capitalism.” The market sees to it that the useful, relevant, and efficient survive and others disappear, and pays little attention to the resulting disruption in people's lives. If the public no longer buys one's widgets, the company must find another product to sell, or it is forced into bankruptcy.

        Almost all universities are nonprofit institutions. Their “product,” education, is much more nebulous and its perceived usefulness often subjective. They are therefore protected, far more than business, from pressures to change. Universities are also the traditional homes of painstaking but leisurely debate, stretching over years or decades. They have large investments in buildings as well as in people. Like governments, they are not, and never will be, able to respond quickly to societal changes. Just as Oxford and Cambridge have retained their ancient college structure and provide much the same product they always have, present-day universities will largely remain unchanged.

        It is when one sets up a new enterprise from scratch that one can make dramatic changes. Just as it usually takes a new government to change from, say, a monarchy to a democracy, it is far easier to set up a new educational institution than to change an existing one. Various such experiments in new educational structures are underway. Florida Gulf Coast University, among others, has begun without that traditional American scapegoat, the tenure system.

        In the previous column I referred to the present and coming advances in communications. When we can conference at a distance, what use would a new university make of such capacity? In the following I will assume that we will have all the bandwidth we need, at an affordable price, and that access to videoconferencing capability will be as ubiquitous as television or telephones are today.

        The first difference will be the elimination of the need to assemble physically. Perhaps this will be the biggest break with the past. Faculty could teach from any location, and students could learn at any location. The place of residence would thus be separated from the place of employment. Remember, this is not based on today's technology, in which videoconferencing is of limited availability, and of varying quality. In this new world which is coming, the professor would not have to go to a specially equipped classroom to teach these remote students. Rather, from her own workplace or home, from a flat in Bloomsbury perhaps, the professor could meet with students for office hours, a cup of coffee, a seminar or tutorial to discuss a topic or document, a virtual trip via the Internet to a remote location. With high definition video and audio, the experience would be much fuller than possible now. The students and faculty could not touch or smell each other, but then one doesn't touch the students now, not in our litigious times.

        The impact of the new technology on students and pedagogy has been and continues to be examined in the literature. There has been far less attention to its future impact on universities as institutions. Faculty used to live within walking distance of the place they taught. Now they live within commuting distance, via car or public transportation. If their professors can be anywhere, universities would have a much larger pool from which to choose new faculty, and faculty would find it easier to “relocate” to a school at which they would feel “at home.” Options would expand for everyone.

        But can a university function if its faculty (and staff) are widely separated and communicate primarily, or only, through technological means? Can the equivalent of a department, committee, or faculty senate meeting be held under those circumstances? I am sure that it can. All the pieces are in place right now, and in fact such meetings already take place at some institutions with distance learning programs. A viewing screen can be split in four, nine, or more windows, with each square containing a different person or group. Inexpensive video cameras can be attached to computers, or to clothing.

        In the nineteenth century, to see the Lincoln-Douglas debates, today so famous, one had to be present in Illinois. No one felt anything was lost when the whole country could see then-president Bush and candidate Bill Clinton debate on national television. Routinely, questions are called in to television talk shows from all over the country. We can view many governmental activities — Congress, court sessions, and the like — from wherever we may be. News shows routinely conduct live interviews of correspondents or newsmakers located on other continents, and no one objects. If the show did not inform us that these people were on the other side of the planet instead of in the next room, we would be hard pressed to tell. Internet chat rooms flourish to the point that there is now Internet addiction, on the one hand, and Internet romances, on the other.

        We are already in the world of what once was science fiction, just as the communications satellites we now take for granted were first envisioned in an article of fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke (1945). In The Currents of Space (1952), Isaac Asimov envisioned virtual meetings in which the participants assembled via communications screens. Taking it further, in his The Naked Sun (1957) the citizens of a fictional planet live in a park-like world, widely separated from each other, communicating freely and sometimes intimately almost exclusively through viewing devices.

        What will become a new practical challenge in education will be time zones. When an academic department — if there are departments — holds a meeting, and one participant is in Moscow and another in Hawaii, what time will be convenient for both? Can patterns of work change to accommodate the differences in time? Or can a university function on the basis of asynchronous communications? This is an example of a new issues with which we will have to deal.