Vol. 15 : No. 10
New Virtual University in Virginia Would Let Students Create Their Own Curriculums
By Dana Mulhauser
Virginia's next public university may not offer well-appointed classrooms, a lively assortment of on-campus diversions, or even any of its own courses. The state is looking to create a virtual university, in which students would earn degrees by combining online and traditional courses from various institutions.
The university would act as a broker, helping students develop personalized curriculums from resources at both in-state and out-of-state institutions, as well as from businesses such as Microsoft. "We would be the reference librarians of online learning," said John H. Milam Jr., a professor at the University of Virginia's Center for the Study of Higher Education who was the primary author of the proposal.
Phyllis Palmiero, the executive director of the State Higher Education Council, described the project as a chance to publicize and custom-fit the distance-education programs that the state currently offers. "It's really a minimal staff and a minimal investment, because the infrastructure is already there," she said.
The proposal to create the institution, called the Virginia Virtual University, germinated in the higher-education council, which will probably give the plan formal approval on September 11. The plan must also be approved by the governor and the legislature. Ms. Palmiero hopes to open the university's virtual doors next July.
The council presented the proposal at a meeting of state university presidents Tuesday, and reaction was generally warm, although at least one president worried that the new university would duplicate her institution's existing offerings.
Support from the presidents came with one consistent caveat. "If this is going to take money away from us, we'll have to find another way to fund it or put it on hold for a little while," said Belle S. Wheelan, president of Northern Virginia Community College. Her college, like many other Virginia public institutions, had its faculty salaries and other spending frozen this year and had to halt construction projects.
The virtual university would cost under $400,000 to start up, and would be self-sustaining thereafter, according to the proposal.
"If they do it the right way -- do it slowly -- it shouldn't cost a lot," said Alan G. Merten, president of George Mason University. "What we don't need is another university, but if they're creating a mechanism for students to pick and choose among existing courses, then I'm supportive of it."
Roseann Runte, president of Old Dominion University, worries that the program will overlap with her institution's existing network for distance education.
"Old Dominion has set up a distance-learning system in the state of Virginia so that no one in the state is more than 50 miles from one of our sites," she said. "We believe that any [new] effort must build on what already exists."
Ms. Runte suggested that the virtual university could become part of Old Dominion's current online program. She questioned whether the university, with an unfamiliar moniker and individualized curriculums, would seem legitimate to employers.
According to Mr. Milam, however, the program's flexibility would be one of its greatest strengths.
"Every student proposes an individualized, personalized learning plan," he said. The plans would be approved by faculty members at the virtual university, who would offer academic counseling but teach no classes.
Tuition would vary by student and by semester, based on the costs of the online classes in which the student enrolled. Counseling by the university's faculty members would carry a per-hour fee. By paying the virtual university a lump sum instead of paying each course provider separately, students would be eligible for more financial aid, according to Mr. Milam.
Copyright 2001 Ó The Chronicle of Higher Education