“Virtual” campuses are not really a new phenomenon. Educational courses and degree programs have been offered through correspondence courses for over a century, while courses combining class meetings or correspondence material with radio and television broadcasts have existed for decades. However, the introduction of modern computers and of the Internet marked a revolution in distance education. Modern technology offers exciting possibilities for greater student interaction and teacher feedback, and for tailoring lessons to each student’s pace.
Virtual campuses have some unique advantages over traditional classrooms. They make education available to people who would not be able to travel to a traditional campus because of geography, family or work responsibilities, or physical limitations. They allow students more flexibility in when they take classes and complete assignments, and allow them to integrate computer skills with course work. Virtual classrooms can bring together students from a wider geographic area than traditional classrooms can, and can make the offerings of a small or specialized institution available to the wider world.
The great advantage of traditional classrooms, of course, is the direct and personal interaction students have with the professor and their peers. It is easier for a teacher to monitor student progress in a classroom, and to get a sense of what difficulties students might be having in learning material. Face-to-face meetings offer teachers and students more latitude in communicating questions and explanations. For some students, traditional class meetings offer more camraderie and motivation than virtual classes can. The very experience of participating in a class develops communication and interpersonal skills that are crucial to success in most fields.
To date, accreditation is another issue that sets traditional and virtual campuses apart. Many accredited colleges and universities now offer some for-credit courses through virtual channels. However, it is unusual for a traditionally accredited institution to offer a degree program entirely on-line, and the accreditation status of programs taught entirely “on” virtual campuses remains a gray area. The Distance Education and Training Council sets standards for distance education and maintains a list of accredited on-line programs. In practical terms, however, it is not certain that on-line degrees will be recognized by employers or by other colleges and universities. (Many on-line degree programs voluntarily disclose that their classes will not transfer to other schools.)
Virtual campuses are an exciting option for students who want to learn a particular skill and who are not able to attend a traditional class. Students who are seeking a degree to advance their careers or to prepare for further education, however, should approach them with more caution until the accreditation issue is clarified.