Other papers and publications by the writer are available from his personal website


Uys, P.M. (1999, July). Towards the Virtual Class: Technology Issues from a Fractal Management Perspective. Proceedings of the ED-MEDIA 99-World Conference on Educational Multimedia, Hypermedia & Telecommunications. Seattle: AACE




Towards the Virtual Class: Technology Issues from a Fractal Management Perspective

Dr Philip Uys

Senior Lecturer and Director : hydi Educational New Media Centre

Massey University, Wellington, New Zealand
Tel: +64-4-8012794 ext 8926 Fax: +64-4-8012692

E-mail: philip.uys@globe-online.com

Personal homepage: http://www.globe-online.com/philip.uys



If you need assistance in the strategic implementation of e-Learning (networked education/distributed learning) in your institute, you are welcome to contact philip.uys@globe-online.com to discuss your needs.




This paper addresses the research question: What are some of the key information and communication technology issues from a fractal management perspective when implementing the virtual class in conventional higher education? It also suggests effective management strategies for dealing with the identified issues. The specific manifestation of the virtual class referred to in this study is when the virtual class is based on Internet and Intranet technologies. The term "networked education", coined by the writer is used to describe this expression of the virtual class. The study concludes that the implementation of the virtual class in conventional higher education has an extensive and profound impact on, and demands new ways of using and managing information and communication technologies.

Table of Contents


1. Introduction

"The single most frequent failure in the history of forecasting
has been grossly underestimating the impact of technologies"


The research question addressed in this paper is: What are some of the key information and communication technology issues from a fractal management perspective when implementing the virtual class in conventional higher education? This paper attempts to identify what some of the key technology issues are when the virtual class is implemented in conventional higher education and ways to address these.

Tiffin and Rajasingham (1995) argue that communications have a fractal dimension that is "a node in a communications network can prove, on closer examination, to be a communications network itself (p. 37). The technological issues are also viewed from a fractal management level that is to acknowledge the various levels and dimensions of management the management processes of the institute, administration, the departments (both academic and administrative), the design, development and delivery of teaching materials, the student's learning and so forth. "Management" in tertiary education does not refer to "administration" only. To limit management to administrative practices only and thus excluding the teaching area would be to argue that planning and decision making, organising, leading and control do not occur in the area of teaching, but only in administration. "Management" refers therefore to management on all levels of the organisation, both in the teaching and administrative.


2. Creating Visibility in A Virtual World

Rayport and Sviokla (1995) summarise the essence of the virtuality of the virtual class when they write about a corresponding phenomenon in the business world that they term the "marketspace" that is a virtual market place. They characterise it as being "virtual" because the value-adding processes "...are performed through and with information".

Tiffin & Rajasingham (1995) first used the term "virtual class" to refer to the learning process that is enabled solely by telecommunications. Tiffin & Rajasingham (1995) distinguishes the concept of the virtual class from the "Virtual Classroom" coined by Roxanne Hiltz (1986) as "...it suggests that the place a virtual class is held is an electronic simulation of a conventional classroom" (p. 10) because Hiltz described it as the use of computer-mediated communications "...to create electronic analogue of the communications forms that usually occur in a classroom including discussion as well as lectures and tests" (p. 95).

The virtual class can be described as the process that occurs when teacher, learner, problem and knowledge are joined solely through communication and information technologies for the purpose of learning and teaching. It is an educational experience of real people in a virtual dimension. In the virtual class the teaching and learning is performed without the movement of physical objects (eg getting students and lecturers into a physical venue).

The specific manifestation of the virtual class referred to in this study is when the virtual class is based on the Internet or Intranet technologies. The term "networked education", coined by the writer is used to describe this expression of the virtual class. Networked education emphasises the high level of connectivity that it enables through creating a network between student en student, student and teacher, student and resources, teacher and resources as well as the past and the present (through availability of on-line resources of one course occurrence for a next occurrence). It also indicates that the education is network-based (Internet or intranet) and computer-mediated, that it includes teaching, learning and research ("education"), and emphasises the distribution both of the control of learning, as well as the on-line learning and teaching materials among the students and teacher(s).

The virtual nature of this type of learning can remove the conventional prompts to assist the learner to focus on their studies for example when the lecturer starts to speak in a face-to-face on-campus lesson, or the arrival of study materials in paper-based distance education mode. It is therefore essential in the virtual environment to build in prompts to assist in this area for example automatic e-mail based on the course schedule as well as on the participation of each individual student.


3. Providing Mobility in the Virtual Class

The most significant loss students often experienced in an on-line environment are the lack of mobility of the study materials.

The affordability and weight of portable computers such as Laptop computers and notebooks negate these technologies from being an adequate provider of mobility. Smaller hand-held palmtop computers with infrared updating capabilities are a positive step in re-creating the mobility for on-line students.

Another development which is currently experimented with by MIT (Nicholas Negroponte at the 1997 ICDE Conference) and by commercial companies in the US, is to address and program pixels on paper which has all the characteristics of wood-based paper except that it is made of specialised materials. Pages in such a book can be loaded with information form the Web or other electronic sources and copied and pasted into other applications. Each page has a huge capacity to store information and can be continuously updated and reloaded. This will be a major breakthrough to provide students of the virtual class with both mobility and a totally new level of flexibility.


4. The Pervasiveness of Communication and Information Technologies in the Virtual Class

A complete set of technologies, which have become transparent through their pervasive integration into every-day life is required to make conventional on-campus or distance education possible. This set of technologies include roads, vehicles, electricity, air conditioning, buildings, ducting, clothing, aids such as spectacles, food preparation technologies, piping, systems dealing with waste, entertainment systems and so forth. At the same time these technologies require skills and knowledge which in most cases have become totally transparent through our frequent and natural use of it for example navigating buildings and roads.

The virtual class is per definition based on communication and information technologies. Education in this environment similarly needs a whole range of technologies, which often corresponds to the ones described above. At this stage the technologies required to enable the virtual class are however not only in its infancy and undergoing revolutionary changes, but the full complement of what is required is not even fully clear yet. In the current phase of establishing the virtual class, there are often new realisations of totally new technologies needed or significant changes required to existing technologies (like Word-processing HTML documents). It might be that the virtual class at this stage is creating more questions than being nicely tied down according to our traditional conventions. In this scenario communication and information technologies can be seen to be more of a hurdle than an enabling agent.

The virtual class therefore requires of both student and lecturer to assume a sophisticated level of computer literacy and use. While the on-line lecturer may have support within the tertiary educational institute through a computer department and a network of colleagues, the students often may not have the same advantage. It is therefore essential to provide technical assistance not only via on-line help information, but also through a technical help desk function which can be reached by telephone and fax.

A conventional tertiary educational institute interested in using technology-based education like the virtual class seems to require therefore an extensive use of CIT throughout the organisation. At the University of Melbourne, Australia, where a campus wide information system (CWIS) was implemented, Goldenfarb (1995) noted that one barrier to the successful implementation of the CWIS was low IT skills. Goldenfarb also notes that "...if the problem is identified, it can be overcome and the department can become a successful adopter".

In embracing the virtual class, an organisation per definition also embraces communication and information technologies on a wide base and with it the requirement for higher and new levels of computer literacy of their academic an administrative staff as well as their students.


5. Managing Discontinuity in the Virtual Class

In networked education the materials and teaching process is in a state of continuity while these are in a state of discontinuity in conventional tertiary education. Once a course is on the Web, it remains available and no special arrangements need to keep it continually available; special arrangements however have to be made to discontinue availability.

Effectively managing the discontinuity of on-line materials as a result of the discontinuity of human involvement is vital to meet student expectations and provide ongoing support, and in so doing avoiding that the institute comes in disrepute. An example of discontinuity is when a course is in a specialised academic area and the lecturers discontinue their involvement with the course. The on-line course materials will still remain on-line and might become obsolete, or when removed causes frustration to on-line users when unsuccessfully attempting to locate it.

In a paper-based distance education environment or a face-to-face physical teaching environment, the discontinuity of a lecturer can be addressed by the discontinuity of the mailings or the classes at an appropriate point. Two factors contribute to the problem. Firstly the on-line materials are often registered with search engines and guides on the Internet. The URL is then bookmarked within a web browser by users who may also share the URL with others in a network of contacts. Secondly the on-line materials need to be kept up to date if it needs to remain available.

The virtual class thus needs special approaches to ensure a seamless discontinuity like de-registering the materials with the search engines and guides, replacing the course materials with clear notices to that effect or contacting those whom the institute know have bookmarked the materials.


6. Effective Data Management in the Virtual Class

It is quite staggering to see how many computer products for the development of on-line courses take the notion for granted that course elements ("course objects") - including media elements - are to be stored in flat directory structures.

Often the HTML files media elements and scripts are being stored on servers in an organised flat directory structure, which is reminiscent of how data was stored before the 1980’s. Since then relational databases and object oriented databases have clearly emerged as more effective and sound ways of storing information in computer systems.

Some comprehensive and specialised databased software have been developed for on-line course generation eg "Hyperwave" (initially developed as "Hyper-G") (Hyperwave 1998) and TLM (The Learning Manager) and Lotus Learning Space.


7. Bridging Transactional Space in the Virtual Class

A major challenge in the virtual class is addressing the issues of dialogue across the response and psychological distance between teacher and learner. "Distance" in the virtual class however is no longer defined in terms of physical proximity but in response time (comment made by Nicholas Negroponte at the 18th World International Council for Distance Education Conference in June 1997).

There is also another type of distance which Caladine (1993) explains as 'transactional distance' which is the psychological distance between learner and learner, and learner and teacher. Caladine indicates that transactional distance in technology-delivered education is greatly impacted by the technology itself: "...one of the most important determining factors is the medium of communication". Terry Evans and Daryl Nation (1992) seem to agree when they state that virtual class practices "...do not eliminate the problems of distance between teachers and learners but create their own" (p. 9).

Complicating this issue is a changing relationship between student and lecturer. In the conventional class, the teacher often has a one-to-many relationship with the students, which is based on the conventional teaching model as well as on convenience for the students. Students in a course will often relate with the academic community solely via the convenor of the course when seeking clarification, feedback, additional instruction or wish to challenge ideas. The on-line student however is "...no longer confined to our campus and its teachers and students and activities" Tiffin (November 1996). The student now has various teachers accessible by e-mail and geographically located anywhere in the world. This was vividly illustrated when the writer wanted to clarify an aspect of Roger’s (1983) diffusion of innovation theory and was able to use electronic mail to contact Everett Rogers personally and received clarification within 24 hours through a reply electronic mail (Rogers, E. Re: Top-down approach. everett rogers <erogers@unm.edu>, 10 July 1998). The student in the virtual class, through an extended group of on-line teachers, can therefore be more challenging and also more knowledgeable than the conventional student. Furthermore, lecturers might have to deal with a new relationship with their students which is not one-to-many but one of many.

Synchronous on-line communication facilities like Internet Relay Chat (IRC), voice, video-conferencing and shared whiteboard facilities over the Web provide social interaction in a more natural way, and also build some accountability into on-line courses. Asynchronous mechanisms like electronic mail, hypermail-threaded message and newsgroups are effective in bridging both time and space.

Addressing the social needs of on-line students and on-line teachers are critical. Strategies like newsgroups, electronic mail discussion lists, synchronous on-line meetings, arranging some kind of meetings in the physical realm with other students, designing courses with a high level of interactivity and using photographs and video clips of students and lecturers within a course can all be used to address these needs.


8. The Nature of Change Required When Implementing the Virtual Class

Taylor, Lopez and Quadrelli (1996) comments on the work of Morrison believe it to be improbable, as technology becomes more pervasive in all aspects:

… and suggests that our thinking about those issues itself must recognise that a 'smooth evolutionary transition' to the widespread use of more flexible modes of delivery is not likely. Indeed, his work suggests it may be far more productive to conceptualise the process of evolution in terms of dislocations, dilemmas and uncertainties rather than projections from 'what is' to 'what is needed'.

At the University of Melbourne, Australia, where a campus wide information system (CWIS) was implemented, (Goldenfarb 1995), a research project looked closely at the first ten departments adopting the use of CWIS and set out to test if critical success factors in diffusing innovations, identified in the literature and at other universities played key roles in diffusing the CWIS in this University. Goldenfarb found that:

In the final analysis of departments against criteria measures for successful adoption, the departments that recognised the low skills as barrier found solutions to this problem and rated highly in the ranking order. On the other hand, the department that had very high IT skills but did not see a clear advantage in adopting ranked last. The department that did not see a clear relative advantage didn't have full commitment from the head of the department. Many other departments reported success in obtaining commitment from the leader, when clear benefits were demonstrated in trial/pilot projects.

Understanding the benefits of the virtual class, like possible productivity increases of academic staff, is therefore essential for administrative managers and academic staff to take a positive interest in the implementation of the virtual class.


9. Conclusion

The possibility in the virtual class to work collaboratively has become a strong motivation to consider networked education. This is not surprising if one considers the nature of the underlying distributed technologies of the virtual class that is the Internet and intranets - the purpose of which in essence is to enable connectivity - be it to share resources or contact other people. This fundamental characteristic of the virtual class needs to be fully explored in areas like on-line communication, use of on-line resources, collaborative research activities and the transnational recognition of prior learning and qualifications.

Does conventional tertiary education have the ability to change as dramatically as the new media seem to demand> Can it respond in such a flexible, dynamic and adaptable way? Thomas, Carswell, Price and Petre (1998) argues for the "transformation of practices (both teaching and administrative) to take advantage of technology in order to provide needed functions, rather than superficial translation of existing practices".

Taylor, Lopez and Quadrelli (1996) believe it to be improbable:

As technology becomes more pervasive in all aspects of teaching and administration, both academic and general staff roles are being transformed. New positions and skills are required across all key areas. From the diversity of staff development strategies and activities that universities are adopting, we identified three approaches to deal with this challenge. These approaches will need to support an accelerated shift from teaching to learning, delivered not by individual lecturers but by multi-functional teams. Universities are poorly equipped and under resourced to manage this strategic change.

It is important that the future must not be inhibited by what we have been doing in the past; we have a great opportunity to rethink teaching, learning and research; to uncritically replicate in the virtual class what happens in conventional on-campus and distance education would be a tragedy.

"In a time of drastic change it is the learners who survive;

the "learned" find themselves fully equipped

to live in a world that no longer exists"

Eric Hoffer


10. References

Caladine, R. (1993). Overseas Experience in Non-Traditional Modes of Delivery in Higher Education Using State-of-the-Art Technologies: A Literature Review. Australian Government Printing Service: Canberra.

Evans, T. and Nation, D. (1992). Theorising open and distance education, Open Learning, vol. 7, no. 2, pp. 3-13.

Hiltz, S. R (1986). The virtual classroom: using computer mediated communications for university teaching, Journal of Communications 36(2).

Hyperwave (1998). Welcome to Hyperwave. Available: [1998, March 17].

Morrison, T.R. 1995, 'Global transformation and the search for a new educational design',
International Journal of Lifelong Education, vol. 14, pp. 188-213.

Rayport, J. F., & Sviokla, J. J. (1995). Exploiting the virtual value chain. Harvard Business Review, November - December 1995, 75-85.

Rogers, E. (1983). Diffusion of Innovations (3rd edition), Free Press, New York.

Taylor, P. G. , Lopez, L. & Quadrelli, C. (1996). Flexibility, Technology and Academic staff' Practices: Tantalising Tales and Muddy Maps. Commonwealth of Australia. [Online]. Available: [20 June 1998]

Thomas, O., Carswell, L., Price, B., Petre, M., 1998. A holistic approach to supporting distance learning using the Internet: transformation, not translation. British Journal of Educational Technology, Vol 29, No 2, pp.149-161. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.

Tiffin, J. (1996, November). The coming of the virtual college. Paper presented.

Tiffin, J. & Rajasingham, L. (1995). In Search Of The Virtual Class. London: Routledge.

Uys, P. M (1998). Towards the Virtual Class: On-line Hypermedia in Higher Education in The Digital University. London: Springer-Verlag.