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The Virtualization of Universities: Improving the Quality of Academic Work

José SILVIO <>
UNESCO Regional Center for Higher Education in Latin America and the Caribbean


This paper aims to contribute to the improvement of the qualityof academic work by providing a better understanding of universities'presence and activities on the Internet. The study, which is partof a more extensive research project, is based on a survey ofWeb sites managed by universities worldwide. The survey was conductedby the author entirely on the Internet. Web sites of the GlobalUniversity Web, the Commonwealth of Learning,Network Wizards (which provides data on Internet nodes by country),and the electronic database of the International Associationof Universities were used as main sources of information.The main characteristics of the presence of universities on theInternet are analyzed. Qualitative aspects of university presenceas well as functions and services offered by their Web sites accordingto the degree and type of interactivity between the Web site andthe user are also examined. The paper then analyzes the developmentof virtual universities existing throughout the world, their functionalcharacteristics, and services offered. These universities havebeen classified according to their degree of "virtualization"on a scale that ranges from partial virtual extensions of universitiesto totally virtual universities existing only on the Internet.The final section includes conclusions and suggestions to improvethe quality of academic work through the virtualization of universityactivities.



Virtualization is a process and a product at the same time ofcomputer-mediated processing and communication of data, information,and knowledge. More specifically, virtualization involves theelectronic or digital representation of objects and processesexisting in the real world. In the context of higher education,the virtualization may comprise the representation of processesand objects associated with teaching and learning, research, andmanagement activities. These representations allow the user tointeract with them to perform several operations through the Internet,such as enrolling in courses, learning from electronic courses,retrieving information from an electronic library, communicatingwith teachers and students, and other activities [1]].

Universities and other higher education institutions, especiallythose of the developing countries, are facing the challenge ofserving a larger population of users, more diversified culturallyand socially, in a new social environment, more dynamic and turbulent.The virtualization (partial or total) of these organizations canbe a transforming factor in their structures and functions, aninstrument to improve the coverage, quality, equity, and relevanceof their activities, and a way for them to build a new identityin the "knowledge society." To what extent virtualizationcan become a factor of academic quality will depend on the approachused to implement it and the role played by the users of the variousservices offered by the universities.

University presenceon the Internet

University presence on the Internet can be studied through itsWeb site. A Web site is an electronically interrelated set ofvirtual documents that may contain data and information on anorganization's mission, objectives, academic offerings, informationfrom its library, and other aspects. The basic characteristicof a Web site is its interactivity, which allows the user to navigateacross different environments and obtain results relevant to hislearning, research, or management purposes. At present, the Website has become the principal means of expression of the virtualpresence and activity of an organization. Therefore, this studywill consider the Web site as the main indicator of universitypresence on the Internet.

According to Figure 1, the distribution of Internet nodesis more unequal than that of higher education institutions (HEI)with a Web site. North America, including Canada and the USA,concentrate 38.8% of HEI and 61.6% of Internet nodes. The percentageof HEI in Asia (16.6%) exceeds that of Internet nodes (7.9%).In Europe, the proportion of HEI and Internet nodes is balanced:25% and 24.1%, respectively. A marked disproportion is also observedin Latin America and the Caribbean: the percentage of universities(16%) is much greater than that of Internet nodes (1%). In Africa,the proportion is more or less the same: a very low percentageboth of HEI with Web sites and of Internet nodes (1% and 0.7%respectively) [2]].The pattern for Oceania is similar to the one in North America,where the percentage of nodes (4.7%) exceeds that of HEI withWeb sites (2.3%). Universities make up a minority (39%) when comparedto other nonuniversity institutions of higher education (60.9%);however, universities account for about 70% of the student population.Nonuniversity institutions are more numerous but smaller and lessmultifunctional than universities. This pattern is observed inall regions, with certain variations. Differences with regardto unequal distribution of universities and Internet nodes canbe explained in terms of the recent and rapid development of theInternet, in comparison with that of HEI. A direct consequenceof the above is that significant differences arise between countriesdeveloping at different paces.

Figure 1. Higher education institutions and Internet nodesby region, as percent of total (as of July 1997)

HEI with Web Sites (%)
Internet Nodes (%)
North America38.861.6
Latin America and Caribbean16.41.0

Note: HEI = higher education institutions.

Sources: Web sites of Global University Web, the Commonwealthof Learning, and Network Wizards.

On average, 31.4% of the HEI throughout the world are presenton the Internet (Figure 2). Of these, 74.7% are universitiesand the rest are nonuniversity institutions. In terms of universitiesalone, an average of 60% have Web sites. However, a big disparityhas been found from one region to another. Presence on the Internetis greatest in North America, where every university has a Website, Oceania (83.9%), and Europe (69%). In Africa, only 13.6%have an Internet presence, and in Asia it is 35.3%. Latin Americaand the Caribbean rank fourth, behind Europe, with 58.8%. In Africa,only universities are present on the Internet. In general, inevery region, with slight variations, nonuniversity institutionsare present on the Internet to a far lesser extent than universities.Nevertheless, given the rapid expansion of the Internet, the presenceof universities on the Internet will increase significantly. Furthermore,the databases of the International Association of Universities[3]],the Global University Web [4]],and the Commonwealth of Learning [5]],which were used as main sources of information, are linked tomost, but not all, university Web sites.

Figure 2. Universities and other higher education institutionswith a Web site by region, as of 1997 (% of total of HEI in eachregion)

Universities with Web Site
Other HEI with Web Site
TOTAL HEI with Web Site
North America100.043.771.1
Latin America and Caribbean58.810.724.8

Note: HEI = higher education institutions.

Sources: Web sites of Global University Web and the Commonwealthof Learning.

HEI, as a whole, serve a student population estimated at 73.7million for 1992, which increases at an annual rate of 3.7%, anda teaching staff of 5.18 million, which grows at a rate of 2.9%a year. Annual growth of both students and teaching staff is higherin developing countries (5.9% for students and 4.4% for professors)than in developed ones (2.2% for students and 2.1% for professors)[6]].Therefore, the demand for higher education will increase, particularlyin developing countries. This will have considerable effect onthe ability of higher education systems to adequately meet thissocial demand.

The presence of universities and other HEI is not seen as a problemin the future. In the short term, all institutions will be presenton the Internet and they will quickly develop their own Web sites.What really counts is the type of presence that these institutionswill have, as well as how they will use their Web sites. Web siteshave become the means for organizations to express themselvesin cyberspace. They offer information on their objectives andcharacteristics and can be used to provide different servicesto users through the user-system interactivity mode that characterizesthem.

The survey conducted through the Internet on different universityWeb sites allowed us to identify various kinds of Web site useaccording to the degree and type of interactivitybetween the user and the Web site. The following types were determined,on a scale ranging from a lower to a higher degree of interactivity,for different levels of Web site utilization and extent of thevariety of tasks offered to the user by the Web site:

  • Presence alone, no interactivity: a Web site limitedto describing an organization, its objectives, etc., but whichdoes not allow the user to perform any other kind of operation.It consists only of an information page aimed at just showingthe presence of the university. The message given by this typeof Web site is "I'm here."
  • Informative interactivity: the user can obtain at leastsome supplementary information on the university, its course offerings,teaching staff, schools, and departments. Its message is "I'mhere and can show you what the university is like."
  • Consultative interactivity: The user has access toinformation contained in university databases, or the Web siteat least affords university students and faculty an access oncemembership and registration requirements have been complied with."I'm here and I can let you consult my library."
  • Communicational interactivity: At this level, the Website allows the user to access communication spaces in real time(synchronous communication) or deferred time (asynchronous communication),in order to take part in discussion forums (IRC groups, newsgroups,and mailing lists). "I'm here, I can tell you about the universityand let you consult my library and communicate with professorsand students."
  • Transactional interactivity: This is the most sophisticateddegree of interactivity, allowing the user to perform differenttasks: enrollment, book and document purchases, involvement inteaching-learning processes, participation in conferences, etc.This type of interactivity is the most desirable because it allowsthe user to take full advantage of the technology available. "I'mhere, I can tell you about the university, let you consult mylibrary, allow you to communicate with professors and students,and perform several kinds of tasks linked to your university activities,such as enrollment, study follow-up, research, etc."

Among the universities consulted, the least predominant typesof interactivity are located at the high and low ends of the scale,in other words, presence and transaction. Informativeinteraction prevails over consultative interaction. However, significantdifferences are noted between Web sites of universities in developingand developed countries: the least sophisticated kinds of interactivityprevail in the former, except in a group of advanced universitiesin some developing countries in each region, while in developedcountries, universities have Web sites with a greater degree ofinteractivity.

Virtual highereducation worldwide

The degree of virtualization refers to a broader concept, indicatinga certain level of depth and penetration of universities in cyberspace.For instance, some traditional universities have created virtualspaces to disseminate education through the Internet, while othersdo not offer any teaching or research activities. Furthermore,virtual learning identifies clearly with distance learning. Notincluding the USA and Canada, there are currently 139 universitiesoffering distance education programs throughout the world, ofwhich 40 (13.6%) operate exclusively at a distance. All universities(partially or completely at a distance) cater to a student populationof approximately 4 million through a teaching staff of 10,000professors dedicated to this mode of education. The developmentof distance higher education is still incipient, considering thefact that these universities comprise only 1.3% of all universitiesin the world and that distance education students represent 5.3%of the student population and professors comprise 1.9%. Distributionis very uneven, and it reflects the enormous effort made by populatedcountries in Asia to meet their tremendous demands for highereducation. The student population in distance learning programsin Asia represents 81.8% of the total student population and Europe11%. Latin America and the Caribbean follow with 3.3%, Oceaniawith 3.2%, and Africa with 0.8% (Figure 3) [7]].However, these figures would change considerably if we were toinclude the USA and Canada, for which we have not yet found accuratedata about students and teachers in distance learning programsin international organizations' information sources.

Figure 3. Students and teachers in distance higher educationprograms, as of 1996

Latin America and Caribbean3.38.4

Source: UNESCO. Statistical Yearbook. Paris, 1997.

Distance education universities are a potentially significantsource of virtual learning that is inherent to their nature, butthey have also inherited a long-established reliance on traditionalmeans of communication that weighs heavily upon them and needsto be changed. Efforts to do so imply a considerable financialinvestment and a complex process of sensitization of students,faculty, administrators, and directors and training in the useof informative and telematic teaching-learning methods, as wellas a change in attitudes and work habits.

To supplement this information, a survey was conducted throughthe Internet. A higher number of universities offering virtuallearning programs were identified, including this time the USAand Canada. On the basis of a sample of 293 universities we foundthat 29 (9.9%) are totally virtual, and the rest (90.9%) are virtualextensions of universities with their own physical location (Figure4). Of these universities (partially or totally virtual),52.6% are located in North America and 23.9% in Europe. Amongthe remaining regions, Oceania stands out (10.6%) due to the influenceof Australia and New Zealand, followed by Asia (7.5%), Latin Americaand the Caribbean (4.8%), and, finally, Africa with only 0.3%.

Figure 4. Virtual extensions of universities and virtualuniversities (as of 1997)

Virtual Extensions
Virtual Universities
All (Extensions and Virtual)
North America47.796.652.6
Latin America and Caribbean5.30.04.8

Source: data collected by the author from Web sites ofuniversities.

Located between the two extremes of what we might call the degreeof virtualization scale are various kinds of universities.The degree of virtualization ranges from universities thatoffer only continuing education courses to those with entire master'sand doctoral degree programs (the minority). In terms of the coverageof virtual activities, variations range from universitiesthat only use telematics to support courses and activities requiringphysical presence through electronic mail, and Web usage as asort of information warehouse for students and faculty. Most universitiesoffer a relatively low coverage. The highest level of telematiccoverage corresponds to universities that use these services foractivities linked to the teaching-learning process and telematicservices for information search, storage, and synchronous andasynchronous communication. There is also a scale for the varietyof informational and communicational media used to supportthe teaching-learning process that goes from the use of a singlemedia (unimedial) to the use of every distance communication mediaavailable, like telematics, television, radio, CD-ROM, teleconferencing,etc. (plurimedial). Generally speaking, universities with a higherdegree of virtualization tend to make the most use of electronicmedia, with a high level of transactional interactivity, and touse every communication media available to conduct teaching andlearning activities. Nevertheless, some universities offer a fewvirtual learning programs, but their degree of coverage is quitehigh and based on plurimedial communication. Most of the universitiesexamined have a relatively low level of virtualization.

Now emerging is a trend towards the association of universitiesin networks for teaching and research activities through the Internet,allowing them to complement and share their programs and resources.Thirteen networks were identified, grouping 139 universities.This is relatively high if we consider the rather recent appearanceof this kind of association among virtual universities. Most ofthese networks (81.3%) are located in North America and the restin Europe and one in Latin America-Caribbean. This type of associationdoes not exist in other regions yet. Examples of these networksinclude the Telelearning Network in Canada; the ElectronicUniversity Network, the Mind Extension University,and the National Technological University in the USA;in Europe, the Erasmus Virtual University, supportedby the European Union, and the Clyde Virtual Universityin the United Kingdom. The Technological Institute of Monterreyin Mexico manages a virtual network extending to several campusesin Mexico and is beginning its expansion to various countriesin Latin America and the Caribbean.

Another finding is that universities that offer virtual programsare generally either those operating under the distance mode whichused to apply traditional media of communication before the appearanceof electronic communication media, or recently established "traditional-type"universities. In the former case, their basic mission is to provideteaching and learning at a distance and, consequently, they arenaturally inclined to make use of an interactive media of communicationthat lessens the importance of time and space in teaching andlearning. The latter, in turn, have the advantage of not beingbound by a long history of teaching through traditional communicationmedia, a long-established infrastructure, and resistance to innovation.However, when accompanied by academic excellence, tradition isnot necessarily negative. The incorporation of "traditional"universities, characterized by excellence, into cyberspace willsurely increase quality and excellence in this education mode.

The evolution of both virtualization in universities and virtuallearning has been very uneven worldwide. Due to the exclusivenature and recent appearance of this kind of educational mode,the differences among regions are even more pronounced. Most ofthem, be they partially or totally virtual universities, are concentratedin the USA, with a few in Europe. The number of universities offeringvirtual learning programs in regions among developing countriesis very limited. Disparities will prevail for a while, but willdecrease if developing countries make informatic and telematictechnologies their own.

Virtualizationand academic quality

Virtualization of universities makes no sense if it does not helpto improve the quality of academic work, its processes, activities,products, and its contribution to the improvement of the qualityof life in general. The improvement of quality is much more complexin higher education than in educational institutions at otherlevels. Until now, reference has been made only to teaching asthe sole function of universities. But the university model thathas prevailed in the world, at least nominally speaking, is thatof a multifunctional university that transmits knowledgeand facilitates the means of acquiring it, creates new knowledge,and disseminates this newly created knowledge to society for itsapplication to the solution of development problems. These threefunctions have been linked to three processes: teaching-learning,research, and extension. Based on this university model, universityvirtualization would have to be measured according to each function,and we would have to determine how this virtualization contributesto improving the total quality of higher education. The institutionsincluded in this work have indicated virtualization to a greateror lesser extent based on teaching and learning. We need to alsohave information on what they have done in terms of virtualizationof research and extension.

The achievement of a more advanced degree of virtualization requiresa complex organizational strategy to project universities withall of their integrated functions to society and allow partiallyor exclusively virtual universities to progressively incorporateother functions in an interactive and integrated manner. Teleresearchand tele-extension could also be incorporated along withteleteaching and telelearning. Teleresearch hastaken place rather spontaneously. The Internet evolved as a networkto support research through communication between scientists andacademics. But, perhaps it would be advisable to think of a moresystematic structuring of virtual research through the differenttypes of existing telematic services. Tele-extension would allowuniversities to link up with companies and other institutionsaround them. All of these functions require structured virtualenvironments for information management and communication betweenuniversities and their respective internal and external "clients"by function. Another question to ask would be how far virtualizationshould progress in terms of need, desirability, opportunity, convenience,and feasibility. Still another to ask would be if, given the precariousconditions under which universities operate in developing countries,it would be realistic to demand this multifunctional integration,when universities have not even been able to solve their teachingand learning-related problems. The teaching function is, no doubt,the one that carries the most weight of all of the functions.Higher education institutions are still under heavy social pressureby a continuously growing population that is avid for learning.We have already seen how the student population growth rate indeveloping countries doubles that of developed countries. We mustalso add the population integrated into the labor market, whoneed to perfect their knowledge, and those who were unable toattain higher education and now seek a second opportunity forcareer advancement that will allow them to act effectively withinthe new and emerging knowledge society, where most workers willbe called knowledge or "symbolic" workers [8]].In this context, universities will face an ever-increasing demand.Developing countries will not escape the transition towards theknowledge society. Development is not linear, and these countriesshould not necessarily take the same path as developed countriesto reach the knowledge society. Because of the strong trend towardsglobalization in every activity of society worldwide, developingcountries will also have to follow the same trend; otherwise,they will be unable to function within it.

Virtualization of teaching and learning in higher education constitutesboth hope and promise if it is dealt with adequately and a clearview of its possibilities and limitations is maintained. Someof its possibilities are the reduction of operating costs forteaching and learning programs, increased control of learningby the learner, more interactivity between all actors involvedin the teaching-learning process, individually paced learning,and lifelong learning. Virtualization can "deliver educationto people, instead of people to education" [9]].All of this seems very tempting to higher education, which isso very pressured by the exceedingly high demands made upon itby society. In terms of its limitations, we could mention inequalitiesexisting with regard to its level of incorporation to the Internetand degree of assimilation of informatics and telematics amongcountries, regions, and locations within the same country, amongsocial groups and classes within the same country, and among organizationsfrom different institutional sectors of society; resistance tochange from several social groups; relatively high costs of technologyand access to telematic connectivity in developing countries;lack of resources to obtain new technology for vast segments ofthe population, especially in developing countries; and difficultiesin learning the technology experienced by many sectors of thepopulation. Much of this inequality is linked to an even deeperdegree of inequality that stems from the varying levels of wealththat differentiate developed from developing countries. Resolutionof same will depend on the evolution of development worldwideand the balance achieved by closing the gap between rich and poor.While it is true that these conditions cannot be directly controlledby higher education planners and managers, some of the inequalityand limitations can be mitigated.

Another very important factor that will decisively influence thefuture evolution of education at its different levels is the emergenceof a new generation of youth that is growing up in a worlddominated by electronic technology, which is completely contraryto the philosophy of unidirectional and noninteractive transmissionof information that characterizes television and other mass communicationsmedia. Furthermore, these youth are able to learn this technologywith ease and flexibility because it is essentially interactiveand closely linked to their psychological needs and expectations.For the first time in the history of mankind, a younger generationhas mastered a technology better and faster than the one knownto the older generation. Michel Cartier foresaw this phenomenonand has clearly portrayed the roles that different generationsof users will play in the future knowledge society [10]].Don Tapscott recently published a study on this phenomenon basedon an analysis of experiences among thousands of children andyouths with the Internet in several areas of their lives in society.He calls it the "N-Generation," or "NetworkGeneration" [11]].

The question for higher education planners and managers is whatwill happen when this generation works its way through the educationsystem and reaches the university. Are universities prepared tomeet the needs and expectations of a generation that can handletechnology better than its professors? These issues should compelhigher education institutions to program their activities witha prospective view if they intend to survive and offer studentslearning opportunities at the level of quality and pertinencerequired by them. The demands they will make on the educationsystem are not without context, for they will be the agents throughwhich the new knowledge society will impose its culture. Undoubtedly,the passage of young people through the education system willrequire change and will imply that they will not accept just thetraditional solutions to the issues linked to their learning.They will demand interactivity, dynamism, a new role for teachers,greater pertinence of educational contents in terms of the realworld, while being more discriminating as to the quality of educationthey are being given.

The traditional problem of user-system interaction ariseson a more specific level when we focus on the potential and limitationsof virtualization. Universities need to increase their degreeof interactivity with their users in the virtual world in orderto go from informative interactivity to transactional interactivity.University Web sites, particularly in developing countries, shouldbe more attractive to their users and fully integrated into thefunctional life of the organization, instead of being just a plainscreen projected in cyberspace. The user is undoubtedly the coreof every generalization process of new technology, as well asthe key to its success. Main action should center on the two mainactors involved in the teaching process: teachers and students.Along with its basic offerings, any system of virtual learningshould include sensitization services and user training basedon the newly introduced technologies that these processes involve.Training should not be limited to just the technical aspects ofsoftware use and to navigating in cyberspace; it should also include,on a supplementary basis, a process to change learning, teaching,and work habits and methods in general, as well as attitudes withregard to relations between user, technology, and the technologicalmeans. Once this change in attitudes and habits takes place, theactors will feel a true need for virtualization in life in generaland be able to act accordingly to satisfy their needs in cyberspace.

The implantation of virtual teaching and learning is much morecomplex in the case of universities that function on a physicalpresence basis. It implies selection of activities to be virtualizedand the way to relate them to the traditional ones. The main dangerinvolved stems from the weight borne by tradition and the oppositionclearly associated with any innovation as profound as that ofinformatics and telematics in society. The feasibility of performingvirtual activities varies between universities that are physicallyestablished. Traditional universities tend to favor lengthy expertise,accumulation of excellence, social prestige, and a potentiallyhigh level of resources for teaching and learning which, if madeavailable to virtual learning, could become a very powerful assetto them in terms of alleviating the organizational burden of activitiesconducted via physical presence, as well as the financial expensethey imply. However, this tradition could stand in the way ofinnovation and strongly resist change. New universities and nonuniversityinstitutions have the advantage of their flexibility, thanks tothe absence of tradition, routine, and habits accumulated withregard to structure, organizational functions, and actors, butthey lack accumulated excellence and will need to achieve theirown in a virtual world. No doubt the combination of both comparativeadvantages incorporated into a network of institutions could resultin a cooperative advantage that would benefit every institutionand the society as a whole. Cyberspace is the ideal place forcooperation and association. We could very well combine the effortsof two or more university institutions to obtain the desired result.Another type of desirable association has been suggested by GlennJones with regard to mergers between academic institutions andenterprises for the development of virtual learning that combinescaution and risk [12]].


  1. Quéau,Phillippe. Le Virtuel. Editions Champ Vallon et INA.Paris, 1993. This book contains an extensive discussion of theconcept of virtualization in different contexts of human life.
  2. Data onInternet nodes collected and processed by the author from theWeb site of Network Wizards. (
  3. InternationalAssociation of Universities. World Academic Database.CD-ROM Edition. Paris, 1996.
  4. Global University Web.
  5. The Commonwealth ofLearning.
  6. UNESCO.World Education Report. Paris, 1995. Pp. 103-109.
  7. UNESCO.Statistical Yearbook. Paris, 1997.
  8. Reich,Robert. The work of nations. Vintage Books, New York,1992.
  9. Jones,Glenn. Cyberschools. Jones Digital Century Inc. Englewood,USA. 1997. p. 45
  10. Cartier,Michel. Le nouveau monde des infostructures. EditionsFIDES. Montréal, Canada. 1997.
  11. Tapscott,Don. Growing up digital. McGraw-Hill. New York, 1998.
  12. Jones, Glenn.op. cit. Chapter 10.


José Silvio is currently the Principal Specialist at UNESCO'sRegional Center for Higher Education in Latin America and theCaribbean (CRESALC). He has also worked at UNESCO Headquartersin Paris, in the International Institute for Educational Planning(IIEP) and the Division of Educational Policy and Planning. Heis coordinating CRESALC's program for the development of academicnetworks, among others, and has worked on several research andtraining projects in the field of electronic networks. In particular,he is the principal adviser of a Network on Distance Education(RIESAD) for the creation of virtual communities for research,training, and development in this area. He is a sociologist andgraduate from the Central University of Venezuela. He holds adoctorate degree in Educational Sciences from the University ofParis and pursued post-doctoral studies in Informatics and StatisticsApplied to Social Sciences, and Mediatics and Telematics, in Franceand Canada, respectively. He is the author of several articlesabout the social and educational impact of new information andcommunication technologies and the editor of two books recentlypublished by CRESALC/UNESCO: Calidad, tecnología y globalizaciónen la educación superior (Quality, technology andglobalization in higher education) (1992) and Una nuevamanera de comunicar el conocimiento (A new way to communicateknowledge) (1993). Mailing address: UNESCO/CRESALC. Apartado68394. Caracas, 1062-A, Venezuela. Tel: 2860721, 2860516. Fax:2862039. E-mail address:

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