Rethinking The Academy:

Financial Issues and the Virtual University

Unlike my discussion of financial issues and the traditional system, in which we may temporarily and conveniently forget just how expensive the traditional classroom is, the virtual university's costs are all too apparent and cannot be ignored by those responsible for making decisions.

Computers themselves are very expensive - a computer capable of handling the high volume data traffic generated by the web and the Internet in general costs between $2,000 and $3,000 dollars retail. Ideally, systems intended for multimedia should have 16-32 megabytes of memory, a one or two gigabyte hard drive, a large high resolution screen, an extended keyboard, and a good quality sound card with microphones, external speakers, and headphones.

These computers do not stand alone - therefore, they also need an Internet connection (preferably via a hardwire connection at 10 megabytes/second), and connections to one another via a LAN, and will need to housed in an open student lab or classroom. Universities who wish to provide computer services will need as many machines in labs as possible; having too few machines will result in student and faculty frustration as assignments are not completed on time and have too great an impact on access issues. Lab planners will also need overhead projectors, screen projection equipment, graphics tablets, and other high-tech solutions to possible pedagogical problems. Certainly the ability to project a screen and demonstrate the necessary series of mouse clicks for procedures is worth ten thousand lectures on the same subject.

Finally, on-campus computers will need both maintenance and replacement costs if public labs are not to become full of out-dated computers that break down far too often. And labs will need to be staffed with student computer consultants, lab managers, programmers, and a potentially vast number of other staff people, as will as instructional media planners and technologists who will work with faculty to integrate new technology into the classroom, and find ways to use these new technologies.

Off-campus, the university will either need to provide a large number of phone lines and high speed modems or contracts with Internet service providers to allow users to call in from remote sites and do some or all of their work from home.

Of these, the latter situation is by far the best - universities ought not to compete with Internet service providers by paying for their own phone lines and modems (as well as the staff expertise needed to maintain the equipment and to support client needs); instead, they ought to cut deals with existing local providers who can then provide the newest equipment and customer support and who are eager to work with universities as they recognize that students are a huge potential customer base. In other words, they are willing to offer cut-rate prices to students for the same reasons that credit providers will staff campus unions: make students customers now and they may well continue to be customers at full prices after graduation.

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Last Modified: August 2, 1996

Copyright 1996 by Keith Dorwick