The front-end cost of implementing high-quality virtual models constitutes a major constraint, even if it is believed that ultimate savings are possible through standardisation, resource sharing, economies of scale, and increased productivity. The cost of initial hardware, operating software, and instructional material development typically require capitalisation funds that far exceed the resources of most institutions. In some cases the problem is dealt with through internal reallocation of funds (e.g., from library acquisitions to technology support). There is also a widespread practice of passing these costs on to the student through tuition fee increases or special levies.
Current systems of learner support are not designed to function effectively in a virtual education environment, creating problems for all but the most capable of independent learners.
Perhaps the most commonly reported constraint is the reticence of most teachers and faculty to embrace the use of information and communication technologies. Lack of training in the use of the technologies is the most frequently cited reason for the reticence. However, concerns over job security, the need for greater preparation as a result of operating in a public environment like the World Wide Web, plus the need to manage an increased amount of communications with students are also contributing factors.
The educational philosophy of many teachers and faculty contributes to their reticence of communication technology applications. If they believe that learning should be structured and directed by teachers, then they are not likely to be attracted to using information and communication technologies, which enables a more constructivist or learner-centred approach to education.
The transfer of course credits among institutions is a problem for those students who would like to undertake a programme that might be available through virtual methods but would require taking courses from several different institutions. From the students' perspective, this is a serious constraint on their ability to function as true virtual learners.
Many people, particularly those who are younger and with less experience as independent learners, when given a choice prefer a traditional face-to-face learning environment. These learners tend to be more organised and vocal than older, part-time learners and, therefore, can be a significant political force against information and communication technology applications in education. While the above list is not exhaustive, it should remind educational policy makers and managers that, in many respects, it is not the technologies themselves that are at issue, but the purpose and manner of their use that are likely to influence opinion of virtual education.
Emerging Models of Virtual Education As stated earlier, the emergence of virtual education models is directly linked with the emergence of information and communication technology infrastructure. For example, the emergence of postal systems enabled by the development of transportation technology led to the development of correspondence models of education delivery. As the broadcast media evolved, first radio and more recently television, those technologies were applied to mass educational programming, typically those of a general and community education nature. Indeed many educators feel the potential for using these technologies has been, and remains, woefully under utilised. With the more recent development of real-time interactive media such as audio- and video-conferencing, there has been broad use of these technologies in formal education to reach underserved students. Applications have been particularly noticeable in North America and Australia. Now the phenomenon of the Internet and the World Wide Web is driving the broadest scope of interest and involvement in technology applications ever witnessed across all levels of educational institutions. With each of these developments of information and communication technology, the once-separate models of open and distance learning and the so-called conventional, campus-based education has increasingly converged. Tapsall and Ryan have elaborated on this phenomenon in their report on Australia, Virtual Education Institutions in Australia: Between the Idea and the Reality, suggesting an interesting model for looking at its evolution. One result of the convergence of teaching models has been the emergence of new forms of educational organisations. These models are not mutually exclusive and undoubtedly others will develop quickly. Here are a few current examples:
There has been rapid growth of virtual education within many so-called traditional institutions. Virtual programmes are offered by institutions that offer most other pro grammes in the traditional manner. More mature examples exist in the United States, Australia, and Canada; however, it is an emerging phenomenon in all regions.
Single-mode distance teaching organisations, using primarily print-based delivery and created originally with relatively clear and exclusive mandates, are now confronted with having to reinvent themselves. On one hand, their once-exclusive mandates are evaporating, and on the other, they are constrained in the use of information and communication technologies because their students typically have difficulty accessing the necessary appliances. Broker-type organisations, designed to acquire or broker programmes from a variety of institutional providers and add value through flexible entry and credit transfer policies, are emerging rapidly. Two examples are the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) Going the Distance project in the United States and the University of the Highlands and the Islands project in Scotland. Information and facility provider-type organisations have emerged in response to the support needs of learners as well as those of institutions. Examples include the Queensland Open Learning Network in Australia, the University for Industry in the U.K., the Maine Network for Education Technology Service in the U.S., the Confederation of Open Learning Institutions of South Africa, European Study Centres, and the Sylvan Calibre Learning Network in the U.S.
Institutions that are authorised to award credentials and to provide a variety of other services such as learning assessment, educational Introduction 8 planning, and learning records, but do not provide instruction directly to students, are becoming part of educational systems, especially in North America. Examples are Regents College in New York State and the newly created Western Governors University in the United States. (Note, however, that the latter is still moving through the accreditation process.) It is noteworthy that while the United States never developed a single-mode distance teaching institution such as the U.K. Open University or the National Open School in India at either the state or national level, it is there that we are seeing the most prolific development of these newer institutional forms. It is also noteworthy that these newer types of organisations, which are not focused on direct instruction, potentially transcend political, geographic, and legislative boundaries much more easily than the more traditional models.
The rapid growth of private sector providers is another dimension of the emerging model scene.
These are three types:
1. Direct providers of instruction, usually with a focus on a particular niche market, have become prevalent and profitable. Examples are The University of Phoenix and Jones International University as described in Distance and Virtual Learning in the United States, and National Institute of Information Technology (NIIT) as described in Virtual Institutions in the Indian Subcontinent.
2. Corporate training networks, developed initially to meet internal training needs, are now exploiting external market opportunities and are increasingly seeking formal recognition for the training they provide. Examples include Quantas Airlines, as cited in Virtual Education Institutions in Australia and South Africa Telecom, as cited in Virtual Institutions on the African Continent.
3. Specialised service organisations that are focused on providing consultation, project management, technical support, and private tuition have evolved on a fee-for-service basis. Examples are the IBM Global Campus and the McGraw-Hill Learning Infrastructure, as cited in Distance and Virtual Learning in the United States, Virtual University Enterprises as cited in European Trends in the Virtual Delivery of Education, and Real Education, as cited in Virtual Education Institutions in Australia. ( Note: Real Education no longer operates in Australia but remains active in the U.S.)