Published online in Virtual University Journal (, January 1999.
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The Vision of a Virtual University (III)

Beyond the Academic in the Virtual University

Daniel Eisenberg

        In the traditional arena, there is a difference between the residential university and the “commuter” university. In the commuter, urban university, students arrive just before their classes, take them, and depart almost immediately afterwards. Interaction outside of class among students outside of class, among students and professors, and sometimes among professors, is minimal.

        In contrast, the residential university is usually located in a small city or town. Students live together, and interact with each other extensively outside of class. There are mixers, sports teams, musical and theatrical groups, clubs of all sorts, places to “hang out.” Residences invariably have social programs. Students who wish to—most do—make friends. One can date. Programmed or chance contact outside of class between students and faculty is relatively common.

        At the commuter university, students' experience is all but summarized by the classes they take. To my knowledge, the advantages of this type of school are exclusively practical. Classes can more easily fit into work schedules, family responsibilities, or other commitments the students bear. Study does not require moving to a different location or additional housing expense. The proportions of married students and students who work full-time are much higher, and the average age of students is higher as well.

        If anyone prefers this type of higher education, he or she has not yet come to my attention. If other aspects are equal—a big proviso, to be sure—if students have time and world enough, they clearly prefer the residential environment. Why else are there so many programs for full-time professionals that remove them from their usual environment, and place them in Middlebury, Vermont, Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, and similar settings, where they can interact with peers for extended periods?

        Society recognizes, then, that the classroom and the course are only part of the education experience. Retention of the subject matter benefits from informal interaction. And an important part of education, even if we can't pin down its precise nature, happens completely outside a subject matter context.

        Before examining the role of student-student or student-faculty contact in a virtual university, a preliminary point. I am convinced, from personal experience, that meaningful, deep human interaction is possible through electronic media. One cannot touch the other person, have a three-dimensional or 360-degree view, or have other than simulacra of sports teams and musical groups. Current technology offers no solutions to these real shortcomings. Nevertheless, one can interact poignantly using text alone. The cost of voice communication declines to where it is ever less significant, and televised contact will become common with the greater bandwidth coming in the near future.

        In sum, the technological means for informal yet meaningful communication exists right now. It deserves much more attention from those designing learning systems and virtual educational institutions.

        At present, interaction between students in a given class is usually possible by (and limited to) email or postings in a discussion group or bulletin board. Group messages or teamwork between those in a class is also commonly available. Contact between students not enrolled in the same class is much rarer. The means for students to share information about classes and professors, so as to make informed selections (take this course from Professor X, not Professor Y), is not there. There are no virtual fraternities or sororities, nor the means to have a chance encounter in the library with a faculty member. All of this needs be incorporated in the design of the virtual university.

        Informal, serendipitous, non-academic encounters among all members of the university community are essential to a full educational experience. The technical means of facilitating this are readily available. The technology can permit a fuller human experience than traditionally, by permitting searches for those of similar interests, by allowing the members of the community to set up and manage their own groups and chat rooms. To reach its fullest potential, a virtual university must provide it. If not, it will be provided by external companies.

        Perhaps the external company is going to be the best solution. Not many organizations can tolerate real criticism in their own publications. This is why many student newspapers, once sponsored by the schools they served, have become legally and financially independent. Also, since whoever owns the server can view any messages passing through it, confidentiality of communications can not be guaranteed. An external site can provide confidentiality, and a place for posting thoughtful comments about the school, its faculty, programs, or facilities.

        Such a site can be created and customized for a particular school, just as an electronic bookstore can be at present. The school, however, must allow the site to communicate its existence to its students. Online schools, so far, have no equivalent of the bulletin board or telephone pole where flyers can be posted. There is no place to drop off copies of literature at building entrances. The electronic substitutes are direct mail and banner display on university pages. Administrators, please think about providing these.