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


Uys, P.M. (1997, October). Towards the virtual class: trends in cyberspace education. Virtual Technologies in Tertiary Education: A Vision for New Zealand?" Conference. Auckland: New Zealand.





Towards the Virtual Class:
Trends in Cyberspace Education

Dr Philip Uys

Senior Lecturer and Project Director: Educational New Media

Massey University, Wellington, New Zealand
 E-mail: philip.uys@globe-online.com

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


This paper, presented at the "Virtual Technologies in Tertiary Education: A Vision for New Zealand?" conference which was held 11-12 October, 1997, highlights some of the key trends and developments in Cyberspace education (distributed on-line education). It also refers to progress made at the hydi Educational New Media Centre in this regard.





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.


Table of Contents


1. Introduction

I would like to acknowledge the positive support of Nick Zepke, Head of the Education Development Department, Bruce Phillipps, Vice-President and Bob Bubendorfer, President of Massey University at Wellington. I would also like to acknowledge the excellent work of other team members: Alison Viskovic, Adam Sondej, James Harvey, John Kramer and George Economous as well as content providers of on-line courses.

The strategic directives of research and development of distributed on-line education (a term we coined and use at the hydi Educational New Media Centre to describe on-line education - which include teaching, learning and research - be it intranet or Internet based) in tertiary education institutes as a way of utilising modern computer technology in education and as a means to educate more students more effectively while increasing the quality of education, are validated and strengthened by the points presented here. While some of the developments and trends discussed confirm the New Zealand experience, others however challenge our visions, objectives, paradigms and practice.


2. On-line Real-time Communications over the Internet is taking off

About 50% of the people who attended the ICDE conference in June 1997 have been using on-line real-time communications over the Internet regularly.

Nicholas Negroponte, founder and head of the Media Lab at MIT and author of "Being Digital" who was the keynote speaker at the ICDE conference, mentioned that 60% of a phone call cost is billing, which is the part not occurring with VOTN (voice over the Net). He also stated that with the increase in low orbit satellites, the phone companies will be bypassed, implying that drastic changes are on its way in this commercial area.

"Distance" is no longer defined in terms of physical proximity but in response time!

It will become an essential and normal part in on-line courses to provide this extremely cost-effective way of communication between students and between students and lecturers ("Cyber guides"!). The educational value of it include

  • immediate feedback
  • addressing social aspects (voices, faces, body language) in on-line communication
  • add elements of accountability
  • provides a "somebody cares for me" message!


3. The Internet is growing stronger by the day

Referring again to Nicholas Negroponte who says that the Net’s decentralised and distributed nature is its robustness! - it won’t fall over. (Its weakest point however currently is inter-country links.)

Looking back at its history it started out as ARPANET, a US military initiative to design a robust alternative communication system - designed to continue even if a large number of nodes on this network stop operating.

Internet 2 also seems to be in the pipeline : 100 US Universities involved are involved to make it a faster and bigger network for educational purposes only (remember that up to a few years ago, that was the sole purpose of the Net!). The US Government also is supporting and pursuing this next generation Internet.

The size of the Internet has been doubling each year since 1974, and at the same time each year every person is using 10 times more bandwidth - this pattern will continue for the foreseeable future - yet, the Net has been robust enough to survive.
(see http://www.mids.org/mapsale/world/matrworld.gif for a map of how Internet servers truly covers the globe).

At the same time access is becoming easier and cheaper eg the "Internet computer" has recently been launched internationally and in New Zealand, while other devices are also now becoming available which uses the TV as the graphical user interface (although issues on standards are not yet fully finalised).


4. The reasons are becoming more and better for distributed on-line education

  • Life long learning

Prof Barry Munitz, Vice Chancellor: University of California, indicated that students in the USA are older, more study part-time, and education is becoming more of a lifelong endeavour than a few year stint after school. It is therefore critical that students are learning not only what to learn, but how to learn. Distributed on-line education is very attractive to those in the work force that want to up-skill because of its open and flexible nature.

Dr Graham Spanier, Vice Chancellor of PennState, indicated that some say one full time year of study needs to be completed every 7 years in the USA to keep up with change. This implies, according to him, that a new campus is to start every 8 days if the traditional educational paradigm is used; which is clearly an impossibility.

A new term that some tertiary educational institutes use for this type of education is "incremental development", which in essence is ongoing professional development in a very specific area. Dale Spender in a talk at our campus two weeks ago used the term "portfolio education" to emphasise this aspect and stated that in this type of society, the whole population becomes "the student body"!

Because life long learning has been strongly emphasised in New Zealand, increased government funding for less formal courses might encourage local tertiary institutes to modularise their courses for incremental development.

  • The only way to efficiently address the huge increase in learning needs and numbers

In South Africa the term "Massification of Education" is used, and in California the talk is about catering for the learning needs of the "Second tidal wave" ie the babies of the baby boomers children which in the USA is expected to dramatically increase the student population in the next ten years. Dr Barry Munitz with other Western States governors, as well as large number of educational institutes in South Africa, see the only solution as open and distance learning with specific reference to distributed on-line education.

  • Quality of learning can be enhanced

Maris O’Rourke, Director of Education at the World Bank, said in her session that educational technologies, if used wisely, enhances the quality of learning.

Dr Barry Munitz stressed that distributed on-line education is a "BETTER WAY of education, not necessarily cheaper". Representatives from the Open University, UK confirmed this.

Why would they say this?

Quality distributed on-line education can:

  • Lessen two huge problems in traditional distance education ie decrease in personal motivation and a sense of isolation. Both asynchronous (e-mail, message boards) and real time on-line communication facilities (voice, video, Internet Relay Chat and shared whiteboards over the Net) can be used very effectively in this area
  • bridge the boundaries and limitations of time and space
  • provide for a variety of learning styles
  • provide various navigational paths through educational materials
  • allow students to take more control of their learning
  • develop "life" skills like time management and research skills in students, by them having to set there own study plans, find additional Web resources, having to evaluate its validity and then drawing sound conclusions.


5. Convergence

With the advent of intranets, the ease and feasibility of offering the same facilities to local students that are being offered to distance students have increased extensively. With the same interface (ie a Web browser), on-line education and teaching materials are available to both local and distance students.

Traditionally, centres for distance education were often the minority who understood and used information technology in education out of necessity because of its ease of distribution, ease of maintenance and later because of its potential to increase the quality of learning and teaching. At the same time their colleagues carried on with face-to-face education with workload formulas based on contact hours and lecturing in bigger and bigger lecture halls (on a visit to an institution in the US in June 1997, they were building a 900 seat lecture hall! - which is in any case just another form of distance education!)

On the other hand, some educational institutes have the majority of their on-line materials solely for the use of local students. That was the case for instance when I visited MIT in 1996 and which, I am told, is also currently the case at Harvard University.

Scenarios like these indicate that the possibility and reality of convergence of both local and distance education modes is a paradigm shift which is currently being made by only a minority of tertiary educational institutes.

How can this convergence look in operation?: teaching and learning materials are available and used by academic staff as well as local and distance students in a creative way. Local students may have all their lecture notes on-line as well-designed hypermedia courseware which include on-line communication facilities, different navigation paths, catering for different learning styles, access and pointers to other Web resources and exercises. The local students may also have face-to-face tutorials to work through exercises and sit tests and exams in a physical building. Distance students may also have all their lecture notes on-line as well-designed hypermedia courseware, have on-line real-time tutorials, attend workshops on the physical campus, but do their assignments on-line. However the synergy of this convergence is that local and distance students can meet on-line as well as physically, evaluate each other’s on-line published materials, do group assignments together, form informal study groups etc!

Instead of trying to meet traditional workload formulas and extend often ineffective class room and distance education techniques, this convergence rather look at creating the best possible learning scenarios for both local and distance students in a more flexible way. Hence the term: "distributed on-line education" coined by the hydi Educational New Media Centre to indicate this convergence.

Managing this convergence will be a key aspect in the transition to more modern approaches to teaching and learning.


6. Industry and education is coming closer: too close?

In the keynote message at ICDE 1997, the President of ICDE, Armando Rocha Trinidade (Vice Chancellor, Open University of Portugal), emphasised that one of the global trends in his view is that strategic alliances between business and education are increasingly occurring and should be encouraged.

Dr Barry Munitz, Chancellor: University of California, said that Corporate Universities are emerging which do not have the same academic philosophies or handicaps eg Microsoft, Andersons, Macdonald’s. These proprietary institutions often focus on what makes money eg courses like MBA, ESL, certificating teachers.

Education and entertainment is getting closer too! Hollywood Studios are also getting involved in partnerships (currently project with Warner Bros to identify how each student learn and what they need to learn, and then match up with specific computer mediated learning systems). Currently in the UK the BBC, Open University (UK) and the British film industry is exploring joint projects in education.

Will we soon see "The Ultimate Consortium" delivering the same quality of education, at the same cost or less, but more entertaining and taken shorter for degreeing students? A consortium consisting of a huge financial sponsor, computer giant (eg MS), prominent company in the film industry drawing on the "best professors" available for the content and educational process? Will free academic discourse, critique and research be valued, encouraged and supported when the bottom-line is moving to achieve a target profit margin?

At the same time "collaboration", "Strategic Alliance", "partnerships" among educational institutes is also occurring eg in the US "The West Governors University" is being developed (some eastern states also wants to join). At the same time it is being argued that the smaller niche market focused educational institutes are institutes at the future?

Maybe we’ll soon see the emergence of the "distributed educational institute" (as has occurred in the IT industry in database and network deployment and in modern management systems - moving from centralised to decentralised to distributed systems) which has its focus, control, power and resources distributed throughout the organisation?

Tertiary educational institutes will need to rethink mission, objectives and strategies to turn threats into opportunities in this volatile and dynamic environment!


7. English opens doors, and others ask for a sensitive entry

The fact that the delivery language of courses in New Zealand is predominantly in English opens huge possibilities for us in the global market. The internationalisation of on-line courses should be seriously considered.

Nicholas Negroponte believes that English will not become an international language for culture, but like airport control, it is through the Net, becoming even more of a common denominator. By the way: Montreal is the only city in the world which does not use English as their airport control language!

Although much more is required for a true translation of a course into another culture, one step towards this is to amend courses for delivery in English speaking nations by having case studies, exercises, examples and graphics in separate folders (directories) from the text in an object-oriented fashion, so that different sets of these instructional elements can be templated out for different countries or even states within countries.

At the same time, sensitivity for the differences among cultures is essential.


8. Culture should not be underestimated

Modern educational new media enables more tertiary institutes than ever before to participate in the global education market - the big and the small players alike find that they can participate, as illustrated by the story of the two dogs that were surfing the Web; one dog said to the other: "You know, what I like about the Web is that nobody knows you’re a dog!" The modern educational new media with it brings both the opportunity, and the danger of not valuing the source of the education.

This raises the question why a "MacDonalds" type degree can’t be developed in such a way that only one of each kind of qualification can be produced for global use? There are certain initiatives like this in progress currently eg "The Globe Wide Academy" on the Web!

Besides convenience and political issues, culture emerged at the ICDE conference as a key determinant in how students want to learn, how the content should be structured and how the learning experience should be facilitated.

In the keynote message at the ICDE Conference, the President of ICDE, Armando Rocha Trinidade (Vice Chancellor, Open University of Portugal), emphasised that one of the global trends is the reinforcement of the need for human interaction - which always involves the culture of the participants who engage in this interaction.

Nicholas Negroponte also spoke on the changing technological environment. His belief is that just as co-ed schools for example can facilitate natural and relaxed communication between the sexes, and interracial neighbourhoods can facilitate natural and relaxed communication among people from different races and cultures, so the Internet is busy creating natural and relaxed communication among nations!

The Net is a distributed phenomenon which emphasises diversity and provides opportunities of expression for local cultures and languages. The cultural identity on the Net gets bigger, not smaller. Is it true that most kids come off the Net with more social skills, not less?


9. Symmetry

Nicholas Negroponte encouraged participants at the ICDE Conference to take the role of emotions in communication seriously!

There was a time when purists in sociology and communication believed that emotions detract and negatively influence the "true message". However we should not subtract or try to remove emotions from human communication - instead, it is a very important and natural part of human communications which should be included in computer mediated communication!

The challenge is for computer systems, and computer mediated education systems in particular to accommodate, facilitate and communicate emotions (be it verbal, body-language or otherwise) as an integral and vital part of the message.

On-line education can deliver some support for this aspect through on-line audio and video, emoticons, well-designed icons etc. - but there is still a long way to go!


10. What’s happening on the student side?

Huge changes also!

Nowadays students are often better at the technology than the teachers.

They also want to be recognised and treated as individuals - distributed on-line education learning can address rather effectively through appropriate navigational structures, individualised electronic responses and dynamic customised learning systems.

Students want to be participants (not merely clients) - distributed on-line education learning can facilitate this using for example the constructivist approach and the "infinite space" of the Net for exploration and judgment.

Students will increasingly become more like shoppers in a global educational supermarket which delivers not at their door, but in their bedroom from anywhere in the world!

The issue of credits transfer and certification are huge, but models are emerging which seems to work eg Open Learning Australia (OLA) where more than 20 Australian Universities collaborate in distance education and the qualification is awarded by the institute at which the student did a certain agreed percentage of the courses.

Credit could increasingly be based on demonstrating that learning outcomes has been and not how long a student have studied and at what institute. The effect that this will have on the tradition of indicating that "I have a degree from ..." might be bigger than we now envisage!

What about students in developing countries who would like to participate? Many initiatives are being launched to address this situation. An example from South Africa is "Cyberconnections" (which will carry advertising) but will provide free Internet access to enrolled students. Safe places like libraries, police stations, post offices etc. will become places where the Net can be accessed. Another initiative there is BELTEL 2000 computers which will carry advertising, but it will be available for rent at a very low rate instead of the student having to purchase a computer.

Another emerging trend is that, in the words of Dale Spender (in a talk at our campus two weeks ago), that in the emerging information society the whole population becomes "the student body" - with manifold implications for all aspects of educational provision eg understanding adult education will become increasingly important, shorter courses stringed together in certificates (for those who wish) will be required rather than formal qualifications, new administrative attitudes and new flexibilities will be required.


11. The openness and flexibility of Open and flexible learning revisited

Various tertiary educational institutes that experimented with a very open approach to enrolment and completion, has moved to a more structured approach because

  • employers want students who have valid, contemporary knowledge and skills; in this time, someone who started a qualification five years ago (depending on the discipline) will probably find that what they learned in their initial years’ of study is no longer relevant when they finish
  • government funding for prolonged periods of study is drying up
  • students enrolling, starting and finishing as and when they want requires costly and complex administrative processes.

An approach where grouping and pacing is emphasised in which students have to define their goal more clearly, seems appropriate (as is the case at the Open University of the Netherlands). Students can for instance indicate whether they would like to study:

  • to obtain a formal qualification in which case certain start and end dates per year and overall duration are applicable
  • for their own edification only, and then they could start and finish whenever they wish
  • a course which has been specifically designed for a specific industry sector, in which the industry dictates the start time and duration of the course
  • etc.

Students can then be grouped and their progress monitored against their stated goal, while following the appropriate administrative processes.

It also seems that "student centered" learning can be applied in the extreme at the exclusion of sound educational principles, generic student needs, technological feasibilities and effective administrative issues. While the learner might need to be in the center of the educational formula, the other necessary aspects to make the formula work, must be acknowledged and openly taken into account when designing effective distributed on-line education.

Although some students, especially adults, prefer distance education because of its flexibility, the accompanying lack of accountability often leads to a high drop out rate in distance education courses which is neither satisfying for the student, nor for the academic staff involved. In conjunction with other communication facilities, periodic on-line real-time meetings can create, besides addressing social needs, a sense of accountability and also provide the message that "somebody is interested in my study success" (a number of self-evaluation checkpoints throughout an on-line course is another way to address this situation).

A distance education convenor from Norfolk (in Pennsylvania) said to me that their video conferencing courses have a 92% retention rate while some research indicates that on-line courses in the USA only have a 17% retention rate. She believes it is because of the accountability aspect of "having to be there" at a certain time which is implicit in their video conferencing courses.


12. What about on-line teaching and learning resources?

If you access the Web often, are subscribed to e-mail discussion lists or follow or participate in the news groups, you will know that huge amounts of resources in all disciplines are multi-plying on the Net.

A senior lecturer in statistics recently approached me to create a Web resource which was going to be links to statistical Web resources and research projects. A week later the person told me that it was an impossible job and that only the highest quality Web resources could and will be included!


13. New terminologies in the making

Some newer terminologies are listed below.

  • Distributed Learning - emphasises two aspects: that it is no longer physical distance which is an important issue in new media enabled learning; more important is where and how the learning should occur based on sound instructional principles as well as learners’ preferences. Secondly, the learning does not have to be centralised (be on time in a physical place), nor decentralised (each student functions over a distance as a separate entity), but students in new media enabled environment has their individuality respected while at the same time being more strongly connected to other students through communication facilities and collaborative group work as well as to the facilitator.
  • Distributed On-line Education - a term created by the hydi Educational New Media Centre from "distributed learning" and "on-line learning" (in common use). Describes on-line learning, teaching and research integrated on an intranet or on the Internet for both local and distance students, teachers and researchers.
  • New Media - this term is taking root to describe media used in Internet- , and specifically World Wide Web, applications. This term links "hypermedia" (multi-media with hyper links) to Internet applications.
  • Educational New Media - media used in distributed on-line education (intranet or Internet based).
  • Virtual University / Class - an educational institute which performs the activities of the traditional educational institute, including the provision of social interaction and the campus experience, mostly without the movement of physical objects (eg getting students and lecturers into a physical venue).
  • Cybertable debate - a recent e-mail read: "Hi Folks.... Finally, here are the rules for the Cybertable debate beginning on Sept. 22 at noon Mountain Time. Beth Agnew, Senior Technical Writer, InSystems Technologies and Craig Saila, Managing Editor, The Convergence are the principal debaters on the topic ...." It is no longer the "round table debate"!
  • Internet Robot: another recent e-mail read: "......... is the most powerful Internet tool developed since the browser. ............ lets you surf hundreds or even thousands of Web sites/pages off-line, at your leisure, and at lightning fast speed. Think about it, no more wait time!

"................. will make search requests for you at 7 of the major Internet

search engines, visit each link returned by the search engines (limit

applies), read each page, and save to your hard drive only those pages that

contain your key words. You can then review all of the Web pages saved by

................. off-line, directly in your Netscape Navigator or Internet

Explorer Browser.

It's like having the Internet on your hard drive!"

Howz that!!


14. Organisational culture and practice: Quo Vadis?

Can we adequately summarise these trends at this stage - I would argue no.

Some final comments however might be appropriate at this stage.....

Dr Barry Munitz, Chancellor: University of California, believes that the reward systems of an institute need to be tied to the strategic objectives / directions of that institute. This is a matter which needs serious consideration if institutes want to progress towards the virtual class (wether fully or just incorporating aspects of it).

On the operational level one can see the need for large numbers of computer drop in rooms / labs on physical campuses to cater for on-campus students doing on-line (intranet or Internet) courses.

Workload formulas of academics need to be revised. They are often based on class contact hours or research output. New formulas should incorporate aspects like

  • time spent researching and preparing on-line course materials
  • on-line support of students etc.

Intellectual Property rights should be debated and negotiated as more and more of an academic staff member’s work will be on-line.

Academics, and tertiary educational institutes as a whole, often do not respond easily and quickly to change - therefore acknowledging some of these trends and accepting the inevitable changes can be a slow process and must be managed with great care.

These trends however will hopefully enable us to think and research deeply on the appropriate vision, objectives, paradigms and practice required in order to serve all of our students and communities with quality education in an emerging information society.

"Do not be afraid of going slowly,

be afraid of standing still."

Eastern Proverb

"The Universe is full of magical things

patiently waiting for our

wits to grow sharper."

Eden Phillips

"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