This article presents information on virtual universities. Virtual universities, also known as online universities or distance education, evolved out of the history of distance education as new technologies became available (Moore, 2003). They have served to open up access to some form of higher education to students who would otherwise not have the opportunity, such as working adults who must balance the responsibilities of work and family (O'Donoghue, Singh, & Dorward, 2001; Peltier, Schibrowsky, & Drago, 2007). Larger, nonprofit public institutions tend to be more heavily involved in providing education virtually (Allen & Seaman, 2006). At the same time, total virtual universities more often tend to be for-profit entities (Antonucci, 2001). While the demand for the online education that virtual universities provide is growing, questions still remain about its legitimacy.
Keywords Access; Asynchronous Online Instruction; Continuing Education; Distance Education/Learning; Lifelong Learning; Online Education/Learning; Synchronous Online Instruction; Technology; Total Virtual Universities; Virtual Universities
Higher Education: Virtual Universities
Importance of Virtual Universities
Many of those in education generally support the notion that virtual universities provide educational opportunities to students who would otherwise not have them. For instance, O'Donoghue, Singh, and Dorward (2001) indicated that "access to the Internet allows for distance learning that may encourage people to return to education who would not otherwise due to work or other personal commitments" (p. 514). Likewise, others have said that online education particularly benefits nontraditional students who may have no other educational options (Peltier, Schibrowsky, & Drago, 2007). Overall, Allen and Seaman (2006) noted that "a critical question for those who support online education has been to determine whether online learning is merely a different way to serve the existing student base, or whether it provides opportunities for an entirely new group of students" (p. 10). The latest annual survey sponsored by the Sloan Consortium in fact found that the majority of chief academic officers (65 percent) agree that online education is critical to their institution’s long-term strategy (Sloan Consortium, 2011, p. 4).
Virtual universities are also changing the face of distance education. Moore (2003) noted that "historically, distance education has been regarded as an unimportant and marginal activity by comparison with face-to-face, on-campus forms of teaching and learning" (p. 40). However, enthusiasm for distance education has grown rapidly with "the application of Internet-based information and communications technologies" (Moore, 2003, p. 40).
Historical Development of Virtual Universities
Virtual universities evolved out of the history of distance education as new technologies became available (Moore, 2003). According to Boettcher (1996), "distance learning in higher education evolved to provide access. It has provided access where it might not have been, due to constraints of geography, time, family, or money (para. 19). Distance education in the United States has its roots in the Chautauqua Correspondence College, which was founded in 1881, and the Extension Department at the University of Chicago, which initiated the first university-led distance education effort in 1892 (Moore, 2003). Initially courses were designed to be delivered to adult learners via correspondence through postal mail (Moore, 2003). While the University of Chicago, which was a private institution, set off the university-led distance education effort, public land-grant universities, such as the Ohio State University and the University of Wisconsin, served to accelerate it (Moore, 2003). Another public land-grant institution, the State University of Iowa (now known as Iowa State University) became the first university to deliver educational programs over broadcast television in 1934 (Moore, 2003). Later, during the 1980s, the University of Wisconsin had the world's most advanced audioconferencing system (Moore, 2003). Finally, the land-grant institution first known as Pennsylvania State College and now known as the Pennsylvania State University was the first to offer a graduate degree in adult education online during the 1990s (Moore, 2003). Overall, by the end of the 1990s over 80 percent of public colleges and universities offered courses over the Internet (Moore, 2003).
Virtual university courses are designed to be delivered over the Internet (Moore, 2003). Both public and private institutions offer online courses (Moore, 2003). The University of Phoenix Online and Capella University are two of the more well-known private providers (Moore, 2003). Rickards (2000) defined the virtual university or virtual campus as "a set of technology enabled functions making possible interactions between the different groups in the university (student, teaching staff, management and support personnel) without the need to coincide in time or space" (p. 1).
Moore (2003) argued that over the course of its history distance education in the United States has not fundamentally changed. The technological mechanisms by which it is delivered may have changed but approaches to teaching and organizational structures have not (Moore, 2003). Over time, courses have been delivered first by mail via print and correspondence, then by broadcast and recorded audio and video, next by teleconferencing, and finally via the Internet (Moore, 2003). Yet, the basic approach to teaching has not changed and still involves
… a careful deconstruction of content and reassembly in a series of 'lessons' for delivery in text to learners who are challenged in their individual environments to interact with the content to process it into personal knowledge; and that this processing is assisted by an instructor through interaction with each learner in support of that person's independent study (Moore, 2003, p. 35).
About Virtual Universities
Types of Instruction
It has been stressed that "distance education requires, by definition, that communication between teacher and learner be mediated by technology" (Moore, 2003, p. 34). The Internet is the technological medium utilized by virtual universities and courses are delivered online. According to Epstein (2006), "technology allows schools to reach a broader student base and to offer their programs according to students' preferences and time constraints" (p. 37). Online instruction at virtual universities can specifically be delivered either synchronously or asynchronously (Epstein, 2006). In synchronous online instruction, students and their instructor attend class online at the same time. Asynchronous online instruction is the opposite, and due to the fact that students and their instructor do not have to attend class online at the same time, it has been noted that asynchronous online instruction holds the additional promise that "more people might be able to receive their postsecondary degrees at a time when it might be otherwise impossible" (Epstein, 2006, p. 36). Regarding virtual university instructors, according to Allen and Seaman (2006), schools generally use the same mix of core and adjunct faculty to teach online courses as traditional (face-to-face) courses.
Total Virtual Universities
Total virtual universities differ in the extent to which they offer courses online. Rickards (2000) noted that total virtual universities, in which all services are completely delivered online, are the exception and that most institutions – both traditional and non-traditional – are using some combination of technological and conventional means (e.g., face-to-face instruction) to deliver courses. Online-only colleges or total virtual universities tend to be for-profit entities, whereas online segments of traditional colleges are not-for-profit (Antonucci, 2001).
Institutional size is apparently tied to which institutions have virtual segments and to what extent. For instance, according to Allen and Seaman (2006), "the larger the institution, the more likely it is to have developed online courses and online programs" (p. 7). As such, larger institutions, including doctoral/research and master's institutions, tend to enroll more online students. Yet, while the size of the online class at each of the institutions tends to be smaller, associates institutions have the largest share of online students because of the absolute number of such institutions enrolling students. Also, in general, small, private, four-year institutions are less likely than public institutions to enroll online learners (Allen & Seaman, 2006). Finally, "there is a very strong positive relationship between institutional size and online program offerings: the larger the institution, the more likely it is to have a fully online program, and the more likely it is to have some form of online offering" (p. 8). For example, two-thirds of the largest institutions have fully online programs (Allen & Seaman, 2006).
Virtual universities may also be part of an educational system. The Tennessee Board of Regents' Online Degree Program has been rated as one of top virtual university systems in the United States. Not only do all Tennessee Board of Regents (TBR) institutions, including six universities and...
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