• The emergence of virtual institutions is directly linked to the development of, and access to, information and communication technology infrastructure. However, major socio-economic and geographical disparities exist in such access. This disparity is perhaps the most critical issue of virtual education because those without access are likely to be increasingly disadvantaged in acquiring skills and knowledge. In spite of this obvious linkage, it seems that strategic planning for the development of information and communication technology infrastructure typically proceeds with little, if any, consideration for educational applications.
• The application of information and communication technologies to the provision of education is having a two-pronged effect on the marketing of education by institutions. First, there is now an emphasis on strategies that respond to niche learning needs rather than on a broad array of programmes to a common market group. In other words, the market is being fragmented. Second, there is an unprecedented degree of competition, Introduction 4 nationally and internationally, which is creating problems for those institutions that have historically used revenue from high-demand programmes to subsidise the low-demand programmes. Some jurisdictions are attempting to limit this growing competition through legislation, regulation, and accreditation requirements. However, the consensus seems to be that these measures will, at best, be effective only in the short term since the technologies being used do not honour political boundaries.
• It's generally believed that we will see the emergence of a relatively small number of international providers who will dominate the educational market through vast distribution networks and strategic partnerships. However, at this stage in the evolution of virtual institutions, this observation appears to be more rhetorical than real. While there is evidence of global providers and of their continuing emergence, there is, as yet, no indication that they will dominate the marketplace.
• The emergence of virtual institutions appears to be coming from four separate sources: 1. Institutions that have historically been involved in open and distance education on a single mode or dual-mode basis. 2. Traditional institutions, from schools to universities, that have never been involved in distance education. These institutions are now beginning to apply information and communication technologies to support their campusbased teaching in order to add quality and increase productivity and flexibility, with the belief that doing so may reduce costs and increase revenue by attracting new students. This transition is typically occurring on a programmespecific basis that, in many instances, is creating a virtual institution inside a traditional institution. 3. The corporate sector. Many large organisations have developed internal training programmes based on information and communication technology delivery and, increasingly, they, are marketing them using the virtual label. 4. Individuals who, for reasons ranging from altruism to profit, are motivated to use the technology to create learning opportunities for anyone who is interested. This study did not set out to either document or describe the emergence of this form of virtual education; however, it is becoming commonplace on the World Wide Web and deserves to be identified.
• Cost reduction is frequently cited as an objective to be served through the introduction of information and communication technologies within educational institutions. However, there is a paucity of valid and reliable data on the question of costs.
• There is rapid emergence, particularly in North America, of new forms of virtual organisations that do not act as direct providers of educational programmes. This observation reflects the shift to institutions "unbundling" many functions, such as the development and distribution of learning materials, tuition, assessment, registration and record-keeping, award-granting, learner support, and general administration. These functions can now be shared through a wide variety of organisational arrangements marked by specialisation and "added-value" partnerships involving both the public and private sectors.
The Global Context of Virtual Institution Development The evolution of virtual institutions is occurring in the context of a wide range of forces that, on one hand, are driving the need for change, and on the other, serve to constrain change or at least slow the pace. These changes range from those that are regionally specific to those that are globally pervasive. The importance of any one of them is determined by the specific socio-economic context of a given state or nation.
FORCES DRIVING THE DEVELOPMENT OF VIRTUAL INSTITUTIONS
Factors that influence the development of virtual learning models are as follows:
The increasing capacity, flexibility, and suitability of information and communication technologies to educational applications, together with the continuing decrease in the cost of hardware.
The enabling capacity of the technologies to "unbundle" functions (as described above) that have traditionally been provided by one institution.
The growth of knowledge, with its attendant consequence of the obsolescence of much of what was previously learned, placing an ever-increasing pressure on conventional models of education. People are seeking opportunities for lifelong learning, and with diverse personal circumstances, they require flexible access-to-learning opportunities and venues such as the home, the work place, the community learning centre, as well as the traditional campus-based institution.
The realisation that the quality of the learning experience can be enhanced by applying information and communication technologies. In the conventional classroom we find increasing use of the Internet to access information, which enriches the learning experience. Further, in the conventional distance education environment, we find the technologies being adopted to improve the learning process through interactive and collaborative learning to reduce the learners' sense of isolation.
The demand from isolated learners for more equitable access and service. This, of course, is not new, and was the reason for the development of correspondence courses. However, the context is broader now as the capacity of the technologies enables a remote, single-room school to access many of the instructional resources available to schools in an urban setting.
The perception of many institutions, particularly in Europe and North America, that the application of information and communication technologies will enable them to increase their market share in an environment that is increasingly competitive. The need to be seen to be "keeping up with the competition." Administrators worry that student recruitment, donations, and grants may decline if this expectation is not met. The expectation by policy makers and administrators that the development of virtual delivery models will reduce costs, increase productivity, and enable expansion without cost increases.
FORCES OPPOSING THE DEVELOPMENT OF VIRTUAL INSTITUTIONS
Opposing those forces that are driving the emergence of virtual learning models is another set of values, beliefs, perceptions, and realities that serve to constrain the rate of change. The following are examples:
In many parts of the world there is simply no access to networks and in many others Introduction 6 the cost of access is prohibitive. A related factor is the amount of bandwidth that can be accessed, which determines the possible information and communication technology applications.
Many learners have no access to the necessary information and communication technology appliances such as computers, telephones, and televisions. Even within developed economies, the disparity of access is so great that many policy makers fear that adopting these technologies will result in a widening of the gap between the "haves" and the "have nots."
Copyright restrictions on the use of instructional products and materials do not promote sharing through collaborative inter-institutional arrangements or through broad international delivery models.