Virtual U: Brain-eating computers not poised to take over education
In recent years, with the advances in technology proceeding in leaps and bounds, there have been warnings about the impact technology will have on society. Never has the clamour been as loud as when it was proposed by several groups including technology visionary Bill Gates that by the year 2000, the classroom will no longer exist. Everyone will interact in a virtual environment. That was almost ten years ago.
Now, here we stand on the campus of a school that has implemented a virtual learning environment almost a year ago. How has impacted our lives as students? For most of us, we were unaware that such a program was even offered at SFU, never mind that SFU is at the cutting edge of the technology. However, the development should come as no surprize to those of us who are familiar with SFU's long standing commitment to technology and technological advancement.
Right now, this program, called Virtual U, is only available to a very few of us. Namely those who are enrolled in the FPA 229 class "Dancing in Cyberspace." This class involves students getting the bulk of their readings and assistance from the Virtual U environment. I had a chance, thanks to Fiona Jackson from Virtual U, to browse through the Virtual U environment. While I was not blown away, I was impressed at the ease of navigation throughout the "campus". It is laid out like a small city, with all the buildings representing different services available. It can be browsed by any standard computer with an Internet connection and a web-browser.
To get a better understanding of the project in general, I contacted the staff at the Virtual U project and got an interview with Chris Groenboer and Denise Stockley. As they emphasized, they represent a diverse group of academia taking part in the research behind Virtual U. Chris is a computer scientist who spends her time co-ordinating the research between the different teams across Canada. Denise has a masters of education and is helping implement the Virtual U program in real universities.
Right now, the project is being tested at SFU, Laval, Douglas College, McGill, University of Winnipeg, Guelph, Waterloo, and Aurora College. Once more research has been completed, there are clients interested in buying the system as far away as Malaysia. The basic idea behind the project is to develop an infrastructure capable of hosting a large number of users and data in a secure environment located on site. In English, that means that a school like Waterloo designs their own curriculum and uses the Virtual U software to interact with students enrolled at their school, not just any person who wants to pick up an interesting course here or there.
Allow me to address some concerns expressed by the critics of such a learning environment. The cost is a big question on most people's minds. Chris assures me that anyone that has access to a computer with Internet capabilities will be able to utilize Virtual U. This isn't as bad as it sounds because as SFU students, we all have free access to the workstations throughout the school. As well, most students in the 90s have a personal computer at home more than adequate to handle the technical requirements.
Will the quality of the classes decline? The answer that Denise has gleaned through much research is "no". She feels that the Virtual U will enhance the learning experience in many ways by putting everyone on equal footing in discussions. For instance, because the discussion groups are based on a message posting system like most newsgroup servers, it is impossible to interrupt someone or ignore them because they are shy. If someone posts a messages, it is there for the world to see. In practical application, studies show that these newsgroups can break down into bickering if the instructor doesn't participate regularly. While requiring more of the teacher's time, this sort of environment does facilitate better one on one discussion.
Classes aren't any smaller in the Virtual U environment but the chances of a professor getting to know their students is a lot greater in this scenario than they are in the traditional lecturer/TA system currently in place.
You might ask, won't this tool eventually make the campus obsolete and professors even more so? The people at Virtual U didn't seem to think so. The fact remains that there are just some things that need to be hands on and cannot be simulated in a virtual environment. As for the mass lay-offs among the faculty, it's unlikely that will ever happen as it takes more staff to run a Virtual U course than it does a regular one.
There are dangers, though. The more a school comes to depend on technology, the greater the risk of disaster. It is not unknown among Canadian schools for a hacker to break into the system and crash it, destroying a lot of valuable information. As well, there is no way for instructors to stop students from passing around their access code for illicit purposes.
In the end, it is up to the individual instructor to choose what content goes on their site; be it full motion video or a simple message saying "well done people." We will not see the likes of American University at SFU any time soon, but keep watching. There are a handful of Virtual U courses offered at SFU right now. Next year, it might be a dozen, then half, then 2/3rds. No matter what way you look at it, the Telelearning project is gaining momentum and respect, and it's well worth looking into.
For more information on the project, contact:
Virtual U : Rm 9703 Applied Sciences Bldg.
(you can arrange to get a guest account here)
Telelearn : Rm 9701 Applied Sciences Bldg.