July/August 1999 // Virtual University
Results and Challenges of Unique Field Trials
by Milton Campos and Linda M. Harasim
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source (http://ts.mivu.org/) as: Milton Campos and Linda M. Harasim "Virtual-U:
Results and Challenges of Unique Field Trials" The Technology Source, July/August 1999. Available online at http://ts.mivu.org/default.asp?show=article&id=1034. The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

The Virtual-U Research Project being developed at Simon Fraser University (Canada) is part of the Canadian TeleLearning Network of Centres of Excellence (TL?Ǭ?NCE). The goal of TeleLearning?Ǭ?NCE is to research and develop learning models, methods, technologies, and social practices that support the development of a knowledge economy and learning society in Canada. This national effort to advance telelearning theory and practice involves approximately 130 researchers from 30 Canadian universities. It is funded by public- and private-sector organizations; the primary funding source is Industry Canada. One of the four major technologies that TeleLearning?Ǭ?NCE is developing is Virtual-U.

Virtual-U is a Web-based learning environment that is customized for the delivery of online education; it aims to support active, collaborative learning and cross-disciplinary knowledge-building. Knowledge-building is the intentional process of solving problems progressively and developing and acquiring expertise (Scardamalia & Bereiter, 1994; Bereiter & Scardamalia, 1993). The software features a flexible framework and an integrated learning environment that links its conferencing system (VGroups) to pedagogical resources. These resources include a personal workspace in which users can manage their online learning tasks and activities, a course editor for designing and editing curriculum, a course viewer for course navigation, a file manager, a grade book, instructional tools, examples of how to teach and learn online, and online help and support.

Virtual-U software has been under continuous development since 1996. Field trials, which we believe to be among the largest in the world, were launched in that year to:

  • Develop state-of-the-art Web-based technology for postsecondary online course delivery;
  • Conceptualize teaching and learning models that are applicable to the learning environment; and
  • Highlight effective pedagogical models and methods for instructors interested in utilizing Web-based instruction.

Data Collection and Analysis

Data from universities, colleges, and private institutions in Canada have been collected and analyzed. Using a multi-methodological strategy, the Virtual-U research team examined a number of factors related to online learning in order to assess the software's support of collaborative learning and knowledge-building. These factors included:

  • General data about number of universities, professors, and courses being taught with the Virtual-U software, as well as general information about teaching and evaluation strategies;
  • The relationship between instructional design and user satisfaction and practice;
  • The patterns of interaction between instructors and students and between students and their peers; and
  • The form (structure) and content (topics) of dialogue between instructors and students and between students and their peers.

Researchers collected data through questionnaires, interviews, a limited number of case studies, analyses of the computer log files of some courses, and transcript analyses of a few courses. The collected information was (and continues to be) used to inform the conceptualization and design of Virtual-U's tools. For example, researchers discovered that online learners like to organize discussion forum messages in different ways. Consequently, the Virtual-U conferencing system allows users to sort messages by date, author, or threads. Researchers and developers are committed to ensuring that effective teaching and learning remain central to, and drive the design of, the software environment.

In addition, researchers analyzed course transcripts to examine whether the online learning environment supports knowledge-building and collaboration. Results suggest that conferencing systems (like Virtual-U VGroups) are a necessary but not sufficient condition for supporting meaningful online discussions and collaboration (Campos, 1998; Bakardjieva & Harasim, 1998). The results also suggest that the engagement of users and the active participation of professors is essential for achieving good results. In other words, the environment cannot foster knowledge-building and collaboration if proper teaching and learning strategies are not present. Because of that fact, developers plan to include templates in the conferencing system that will support specific teaching strategies and allow learning processes, such as hypothesis formulation and in-depth inquiry, to emerge. Moreover, in order to support professors in their educative action, and because of recent studies by researchers working on participatory design, developers also plan to devise a case library. The library will catalog concrete examples of good and bad teaching practices.

Indications from Research

By 1998, approximately 230 courses from 16 post-secondary institutions (mostly in Canada, but also in the United States and Europe) were analyzed from either general data collection or in-depth studies. More than 150 professors have taught courses using the software; 75% of these educators are well advanced in their teaching careers. Of that 75%, forty-seven percent are full or associate professors, 16% are workplace trainers, and 12% are college instructors or staff at distance education centers (Harasim, 1998). In recent interviews with approximately one-fourth of all professors who have used the Virtual-U learning environment, most reported that the conferencing system seems to positively affect student learning processes and outcomes. Further experimental research is needed to determine whether these perceived outcomes are really an indication that use of the software enhances learning.

Approximately 7,000 students have used Virtual-U. A sample of 40 students' questionnaires indicates that a majority of them (84%) are satisfied with their online education. Most students (55%) prefer mixed-mode courses—those taught with a combination of face-to-face and online activities—to those conducted entirely face-to-face (Harasim, 1998). Recent interview data collected at the universities Laval (Qu?ɬ©bec City, Canada), and Winnipeg (Winnipeg, Canada) confirm that most professors also prefer the mixed-mode format; they believe that personal contact with students is an essential part of teaching and learning. Not surprisingly, 72% of all courses taught to date using Virtual-U have been mixed-mode.

Educators from over 30 disciplines—from different artistic, scientific, and human knowledge domains—have used the software. Reports from 1998 data indicate that Virtual-U has been adopted most often for arts and humanities (53%) and education (23%) courses; because they are discourse-based, these disciplines are particularly well-suited to the software. Instructors in other fields, however, are increasingly adopting Virtual-U. Courses as varied as movie production, dance in cyberspace, cognitive science, justice and law enforcement, sexuality, and statistics now are being offered. Moreover, fields such as the health sciences are increasing their Virtual-U offerings (Harasim, 1998).

Collaborative learning seems to be the dominant instructional method adopted by instructors using Virtual-U. All of the 230 courses studied involved collaborative components such as conferencing discussions. Twenty-six percent of these courses were offered by discussion only; 11% included group project work; 30% included individual work; and 33% included group and individual work (Harasim, 1998). Additional studies should be conducted to test the use of collaborative techniques, since simply having a discussion does not necessarily mean that collaboration is taking place.

Current and Future Challenges

As Virtual-U begins to be adopted worldwide, researchers face new challenges, such as ensuring that the design has global relevance and usability. It is now available in two languages (English and French), and a Spanish version is being prepared in order to accommodate Spanish speakers in Europe as well as in North, Central, and South America. Another challenge is to ensure that the learning environment remains user-friendly. Both new and enhanced comprehensive tools are under continued conceptualization, development, and testing.

Significant challenges also face developers. Virtual-U is a state-of-the-art online learning environment; consequently, field testing requires accessibility that those without updated computers or telecommunications bandwidth obviously lack. An additional complication is the fact that educational institutions around the world use multiple computing platforms. These challenges bring new opportunities to the Virtual-U-developers to: (1) provide an online learning environment that is usable across multiple platforms and telecommunication capabilities; and (2) explore the possibility of creating of "virtual labs" to meet the needs of global online teaching and learning.

For everyone involved in the production of Virtual-U, working interactively with faculty and students to enhance the online learning environment is a priority. Developers have engaged a selected number of professors in participatory design. This strategy supports learning effectiveness and outcomes because educators, learners, and researchers share knowledge and advance each other's understanding of online learning processes (Breuleux, Laferri?ɬ®re, & Bracewell, 1998; Silva & Breuleux, 1994). Participatory design ensures that instructional tools and strategies fulfill real needs, not the extraneous interests of big companies or business-driven individuals acting from within the university system (Feenberg, 1999).


TL?Ǭ?NCE funding for the Virtual-U project extends to the year 2002. Over the next three years, research will focus on advanced learning models and technologies. The TL?Ǭ?NCE will continue to incorporate research findings into the development of both technology and pedagogy; as a result, the Network undoubtedly will create effective telelearning models—models that will prepare Canada to lead the twenty-first century knowledge society and establish the Virtual-U learning environment as a standard of excellence for worldwide online education.

Relevant Links


Bakardjieva, M., & Harasim, L. (1998). Collaborative meaning-making in computer conferences: A socio-cultural perspective. In proceedings from the Ed-Media & Ed-Telecom '98 conference in Freiburg, Germany. Charlottesville, VA: Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education.

Bereiter, C., & Scardamalia, M. (1993). Surpassing ourselves: An inquiry into the nature and implications of expertise. Chicago: Open Court.

Breuleux, A., Laferri?ɬ®re, T., & Bracewell, R. (1998). Networked learning communities in teacher education. Retrieved 5 February 1999 from the World Wide Web: http://www.coe.uh.edu/insite/elec_pub/HTML1998/ts_breu.htm.

Campos, M. N. (1998). Conditional reasoning: A key to assessing computer-based knowledge-building communication processes. Journal of Universal Computer Science 4(4), 404-28. Retrieved 5 February 1999 from the World Wide Web: http://www.iicm.edu/jucs_4_4/conditional_reasoning_a_key/paper.html.

Harasim, L. (1998, November). What are we learning about teaching and learning onlineand so what?: Lessons from the Virtual-U field trials. Keynote speech presented at the Third Annual TeleLearning Conference, Vancouver, Canada.

Feenberg, A. (1999). Distance learning: Promise or threat? Retrieved 5 February 1999 from the World Wide Web:

Scardamalia, M., & Bereiter, C. (1994). Computer support for knowledge-building communities. The Journal of the Learning Sciences 3(3), 265-83.

Silva, M., & Breuleux, A. (1994). The use of participatory design in the implementation of Internet-based collaborative learning activities in K-12 classrooms. Interpersonal Computing and Technology 2(3), 1-11. Retrieved 5 February 1999 from the World Wide Web: http://quest.arc.nasa.gov/misc/ipct.html.

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