This paper was prepared by Arnold Wade, Chair of ACPA's Technology Task Force at the request of Paul Oliaro, President.

"Renowned management consultant and author Peter Drucker say: `Thirty years from now the big university campuses will be relics. Universities won't survive. It's as large a change as when we first got the printed book. .... Higher education is in deep crisis. Already we are beginning to deliver more lectures and classes off campus via satellite or two-way video at a fraction of the cost. The college won't survive as a residential institution.'" (Forbes 10 March, 1997)

Is Drucker correct in his assessment? Or are there additional factors he has not taken into account? Using his own example and reasoning, the widespread use of printed books should have eliminated the need for oral instruction, but for some reason that particular revolution has not yet come to pass. There are undoubtedly major changes possible, and even likely, in the delivery of some educational services, but we need to be careful not to ignore what we have learned about learning styles, multiple modes of instruction, etc. in our quest to "stay on the forefront" of the possible. There is a strong move toward competency-based instruction and assessment, competency certification rather than blanket course or program certification, and "self-instructional" multi-media packages, but distance learning does not necessarily translate into totally distributed learning.

Regardless of whether virtual instruction brings exclusively virtual classrooms, or simply another tool to assist in the education of individuals, we must prepare for the future while not forgetting the lessons of the past.


While the term "virtual university" is becoming widely used, there is as yet no standard definition of it. This lack of a common definition leads to many possible misunderstandings and simply adds to the confusion surrounding the future of education in general -- not just student services. Among the virtual university models are the following:

Western Governors University has received a good deal of press lately, but it is not intended to replace, but rather to supplement, the instruction offered at more traditional locations. Current readings suggest that they intend to offer a variety of classes where they will certify competencies and current colleges and universities may accept those competencies in ways yet to be fully determined.

Virtual Sound University is being set up among a consortium of 12 Scandinavian institutions. The expressed intent is to allow students to take courses offered by other institutions for full credit at their home schools. Instruction would largely be through distance learning technology classrooms on each campus.

Virtual Online University has offered email classes for specific learning outcomes since 1995. They are applying for accreditation to offer liberal arts degrees.

ZDNET University is also on line with course offerings dealing with programming and computer applications using a moderated bulletin board approach.

California and Georgia and possibly other states are also in the process of developing their own state-wide virtual universities. These models seem to be primarily based on current campuses and oriented toward collaboration and expansion of offerings from those campuses.

GSAMS--the Georgia Statewide Academic and Medical System--Is an example of a distance learning network that provides classroom instruction, continuing education, cultural and artistic sharing, delivery of health care services, and senior citizen enrichment. As of April 1996, there were over 325 conferences taking place per week involving more than 900 locations.

These currently available or planned virtual environments serve to illustrate the wide variety of approaches and possible directions that institutions, systems, and private providers may take in the near future. It is interesting to note that a number of these models totally ignore the idea of providing any sort of student services, while others at least acknowledge the idea that there may be necessary services beyond the classroom instructional level. ZDNET, for example, has a Student Services link from their home page, but services are limited to enrollment and billing information. The Western Governors University has as one of its charges the development of "recommendations for adequate student support services." Georgia calls for "enhanced student services" as an important part of its model for a virtual university.


There are numerous examples of student affairs related areas which have already begun to move in directions compatible with virtual campuses and technology-based distribution of learning. While the following is not an exhaustive list, it does serve to illustrate some of the ways in which different areas are responding to the challenges of the future..

Career Development -

Counseling and Mental Health -


Obviously, there are a number of considerations other than the technology which must be taken into account when contemplating a complete change in the delivery of education. The technology brings a whole new set of ethical concerns into play. Can we maintain privacy of information? How do we verify credentials of practitioners? How do we validate any data received electronically?

Current trends toward outsourcing services such as housing, health services and mental health may accelerate drastically if fewer and fewer students are physically present in some central location. Virtual coursework, both academic and for self-help units on the web, is very "up-front intensive" in terms of preparation and layout of materials. After the initial time investment, much of it can be "user-operated" requiring fewer full-time professionals on the staff. Regardless of the extent of development of purely didactic coursework, it is difficult to imagine a complete education in many fields without face to face supervision and practice, some exposure to scientific laboratories, etc. A question not addressed at all in this paper has to do with the role of ADA requirements, learning disability specialists and the like in a virtual environment.

There are three primary possibilities that emerge from the models currently in existence or under development. Which one, if any, becomes a truly dominant form remains to be seen. The appropriate responses from student affairs will depend on the model under consideration at affected locations.

Least change model - This would emerge from those approaches which are based on current campus configurations and involve primarily the sharing of resources between and among campuses within consortia or university systems. Instruction would be enhanced primarily through the sharing of expert instructors in distance learning classrooms at each institution. At the least, we would need to become more responsive to the needs of transient students, determine ways to transfer credits "cleanly" and easily, assure that temporary housing needs could be met, etc. Offices such as counseling and career development units would need to focus on the development of user friendly, "teaching oriented" materials that can be accessed electronically for topics like time management, career planning, etc. But fundamentally, student affairs functions would continue to meet challenges as they appeared. Delivery methods would change and student affairs practitioners would need to learn and maintain currency in the new technologies.

Most change model - This model supposes the emergence of truly virtual campuses, and the death of residential institutions as predicted by Drucker. With no home campus and a worldwide student body, functions such as housing, student activities, recreational programs, Greek and judicial affairs and health services become irrelevant. The face of admissions, records and financial aid offices will change drastically, but the functions will continue in some form. Offices such as counseling and career development must be able to provide services through the new media if they are to survive.

This model could conceivably foretell a complete revision of the definition of "Student Services." For example, "student services" at ZDNET University are defined as traditional Records Office functions, plus billing, help with questions for the system operator, and technical support. As previously mentioned, the Western Governors University is developing a set of recommendations for "adequate student support services," but are considering the following services in this area:

Traditional areas Additional areas
Orientation Tuition and fee transactions
Admissions Evaluation of experiential learning
Records Bookstore services
Financial Aid Library services
Advising Grievance procedures
Tutoring Technical support
Career Counseling
Students with Disabilities
Student to student social interactions (?)

These are but two examples of current thinking, but serve to illustrate the wide range of potentialities before us.

Combination model - If history holds any lessons, this appears to be the most likely to dominate. While more and more courses will be offered through distance learning technologies, and students will be able to pick up knowledge at home (assuming they have the means to afford the proper equipment), traditional campuses will probably not totally disappear in the near future. We may, for example, move to a model where much of the didactic learning could take place at home, while students would come to "campus" for weekend or short term stays for supervision or experiential learning. As long as there are concentrations of students, they will require certain services. The focus would shift from year long housing contracts to short term arrangements - from intramural programs to recreational offerings, etc., and possibly to consortia collaboration in the development of judicial agreements, but if our services contribute to the educational process, they will survive. If, however, they are to continue to be useful we must also begin to anticipate changes both in direction and in delivery methods and incorporate them into our practice.


As we look to the future and attempt to determine the role of student affairs in the virtual environment, we need to continue to ask, "How do we contribute to student learning?" and act upon the answers to that question. We need to look at desirable goals and outcomes, consider what we have to offer that benefits students, and be vocal about our potential contributions. We need to attempt to make sure that we have representation on state boards and other groups that are planning for virtual campuses. We need to use our knowledge of student learning and development to supplement the instructional goals that planners are working towards.

Preparation programs will need to be ready to add modules or courses assisting the student affairs administrators of the future to understand and supervise areas that have not traditionally reported through the student affairs hierarchy. There is an immediate need for all of us to become knowledgeable about and comfortable with the new technologies and to translate many of our current functions into these new media. The knowledge of and need for practices based on learning and student development theories will not disappear, but we must be able to transmit that knowledge in new and different ways.


This paper is certainly not a comprehensive look at all possibilities for the virtual university and does not purport to provide any clear cut answers or direction for an uncertain future. It is rather, based on information and opinions that the author has seen, worked with, or run across while attempting to stay reasonably current in this rapidly emerging environment. If it raises questions or spurs the development of technological understanding among student affairs practitioners, it will have been successful. I would also like to acknowledge the contributions of John Salzman, Kurt Olausen and David Shinn to this effort.

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For questions about or problems with this page, please contact

Dr. Arnold Wade
Associate Vice President and Dean of Students
Georgia College & State University
Milledgeville, GA 31061
phone: (912) 453-5331 fax: (912) 453-1935

This page was last modified by Arnold Wade on May 9, 1997

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