The Virtual University: New Approaches to Higher Education in the 21st Century

Linda Harasim

One of the basic requirements for education in the 21st century will beto prepare learners for participation in a networked, knowledge-basedeconomy in which knowledge will be the most critical resource forsocial and economic development. Students will need new and differentknowledge resources, skills, roles, and opportunities. All levels ofeducation will be affected, as lifelong learning becomes not only apersonal interest but a social and economic imperative in building aknowledge society. New communication technologies such as computernetworking enable new approaches to and opportunities for teaching andlearning. Networking can be used to enhance face-to-face classroomactivities as well as to support entirely online course delivery,expanding access to quality education.

The past decade of research in network learning has demonstratedimportant benefits: both increased access as well as enhancedopportunities for active student participation in collaborativelearning and knowledge building. However, the use of new technologydoes not by itself guarantee improved educational outcomes. There is acritical need for rethinking education, with especial focus on the needfor new designs for learning as well as new designs for thetechnological environments that can support enhanced cognitive as wellas socio-affective activities. These ideas will be discussed andillustrated in the context of the ongoing Virtual-U developments atSFU.

The Virtual-U is one of the first multimedia networked environments inthe world that is specifically customized for course delivery andcourse enhancement. The goal of development on the Virtual-U is toallow students access to learning experiences with a richness incontent and simulation that has never been achieved in conventionalclassroom; thus Virtual-U, is customizing the WWW, to become aneducational environment that can support active collaborative learningand knowledge construction and that provides special tools for learnersand educators.

Linda Harasim is Associate Professor, School of Communication, SimonFraser University. She holds a PhD in educational theory from theUniversity of Toronto and has been active for over a decade inresearching educational and organizational applications of computernetworking. She has designed, implemented, and evaluated networkingapplications in Canada, the U.S., and Latin America. She edited OnlineEducation: Perspectives on a New Environment (Praeger, 1990), GlobalNetworks: Computers and International Communication (MIT Press, 1993)and is the senior author in the recently published Learning Networks: A Field Guide to Teaching and Learning Online (MIT Press, 1995). Shehas published many articles on computer communications and haspresented her research at numerous international meetings. Sheconducts much of her teaching and her project work online and teachesabout topics related to design and application of network learningenvironments. She is the project leader for the Virtual-U, one of thefirst multimedia network systems especially customized for course delivery and course enhancement. She is also the leader of the TeleLearning Research Network, which was awarded the Networks ofCenters of Excellence in July 1995. The TeleLearning Research Networklinks 150 researchers in education, cognitive psychology, socialscience, computer and engineering science from 29 universities acrossCanada in the design of new pedagogies and technologies for advancednetworked workstations.