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...Commodifying Virtual Education:
Virtual Classrooms, Universities and Virtual Organisational Existence

A.G. Greenhill
Paper presented to "Commodification" conference, Woollongong, February 1998.


The virtual classroom is currently being embraced as a new educational space for all students. These efforts reflect the escalated commodification of 'real - life' educational practice. The possibilities of the information superhighway touted by the promoters of 'silicon snake oil' have lured many educational institutions to risk educational credibility while exploring the 'new frontier' of cyberspace. The development of virtual classrooms and universities encapsulates the complexity associated with transforming the solid to the ethereal.

The commodification of virtuality for tertiary education relies upon similar meanings becoming associated with this space as are ascribed to the 'real' space of existent campuses. What differs between these spaces is the manner in which communication exchange is undertaken and the compression of time and space that occurs in the virtual environment. The traditional institutional university structure however has not altered its organisational practices in response to this compression. The monolithic institution continues to utilise traditional Weberian notions of the organisation to contain the unexpected. Efficient workers, business and organisations are configured to possess a economic worth. The organisation orientated towards virtual space however operates in a compressed space in which vast distance and individual elements of 'real - life' are immediately accessible. The associations of time and space formulated according to the scale of weeks, days, hours, minutes seconds is inappropriate for the virtual organisation (and university) requiring instead different configurations of scale and differing relationships to time and space. A reassessment of the economic value measures by these scales is also required. It is for these reasons, that the virtual classroom currently operates as an adjunct to conventional distance learning practices and does not reflect or embrace the full potentials available to the virtual organisation.

Keywords: virtual university, time, space, organisational existence, education.


1.1 'Real Life' Universities

The university and the manner in which a student receives their tertiary education is changing. Sharing information within an educational context, irrespective of the form it takes, fulfils the specific task of fostering a learning environment and a community of scholars. These issues of pedagogy and the consequent learning outcomes are governed by the rituals of discourse (Foucault 1990,1162) This discourse restricts and structures the fluidity in which specified learning objectives can be achieved. These structures and restrictions impact upon the form and context of educational activity by which information is transmitted and received within the classroom. This form of information sharing is however quite different to those information systems operating at an administrative level. The distinctions that exist for educational practice are more apparent in 'real life' universities than those which are currently found within the processes of virtual university. These typers of distinction also hallmarks the difference of 'real life' from a virtual existence. Specific outcomes, beyond the generation of tertiary graduates, must also be accommodated by such universities. Educational imperatives such as excellence in teaching and international research position must continue to be achieved if the guiding rationale of an academic cultural foundation is to continue. The contemporary practices of universities have dramatically shifted from popular and traditional perceptions of the university. Australian tertiary education and university existence is now positioned within a primarily economic rationale. The defining goal of educational practice in the late nineties, in Australia, has been flexible learning practices, where information is supplied to the student, now redefined as the 'client', via an array of mediums. The ritual of discourse in 'real life' university existence directly informs the construction of virtual universities. Although educational practice has now branched into many mediums including, written and spoken word, which appear not only via print but which is also recorded, televised and electronically transmitted. This paper will explore the utilisation of virtual space and, more specifically, the spatial adaptation of MUDs (Multi User Dungeons)and MOOs (Multi user dungeons Object Oriented) as electronic classrooms. Electronic transmission of text is the new medium being embraced by universities to distribute information to remote, and not-so-remote, students. It contests that regardless of the potential that virtual existence provides for educational practice, if the structured and restrictive organisational practices associated with monolithic and modernist institutions are transposed to this space, the educational potential of the virtual environment will not be realised. In this process comodifying education and educational practice is restricted by existing measurement bounded by linear and repetitive notions of time and space.

1.2. The Virtual Classroom as a Distance Education Tool.

The presence of an electronically mediated virtual environment impacts on the educational practices operating within the university. Virtual classrooms currently operate as adjuncts to more conventional distance learning practices (Tiffy 1996, [2]). As a result, the educational practices operating in the virtual classroom are an extension of the educational practices of the 'real world' and do not embrace the full articulation of virtuality that is possible. The traditional and hierarchical organisational structures of universities, and the classroom, when contrasted against the dynamic forms of virtual social space and virtual organisations are less fluid and impede the development of educational possibilities in a virtual environment (Jorn 1996, 190). Institutional virtuality a particular form of virtual presence, incorporates the compression of time and space as part of its organisational formation. Virtual space as an interactive medium and educational tool is most suited to those university services and courses that are more transient or more dynamic in nature. This situation is reflected in the types of information that is being adapted to the virtual face of 'real life' universities, for example information relating to academics and their current research, as well as existing courses and administrative advice. The application of virtual billboards for the dissemination of information has been relatively successful. The challenge for educators has been to successfully transform the experience of interactive 'real life' learning environments into a virtual learning environment. This task has seen total electronic environments such as MOOs and MUDs being adapted as the shell or outer construct of a textually driven classroom.

The virtual university as it currently exists is an amalgam of electronic rooms and electronically warehoused information. These structures however are still restricted by the traditional organisational models of the monolithic tertiary institution. The traditional and hierarchical structures of the university are reliant upon rules and regulations which stem from older educational practices. For example, the conceptual framework of the 'lecture', and the lecture theatres themselves remove any doubt as to who will provide the information from which the student will then be expected to learn. These rooms maximise the hierarchical position of the lecturer and reinforces the students involvement in the machinations of mass education. These relationships construct and reinforce the cultural norms and relationships that hallmark the university and distinguish it from other elements of contemporary society. The virtual classroom, driven by a lack of corporeality, quickly distorts and challenges these social structures (Penny 1993, 19). Virtual universities construct rooms as an environment of exchange for prospective students. These virtual rooms are expected to induce traditional classroom conduct through the cultural associations evoked by a rudimentary simulation of such an environment. However, it is for this reason that the term virtual university is an oxymoron that cannot represent a serious educational organisational structure. The adaptation of existing 'real life' information systems does not serve as an adequate model for the fluidity of virtual space. The development of a virtual university is a vastly more complex proposition than the juxtapositioning of the two words. It is a challenge which seeks to translate the solid to the ethereal. Similarly, it is not possible for an organisation operating under modernist frameworks to mimic the structures of commercially orientated virtual organisations The loose application of extending boundaries through the application of information technology (Olson 1997, [1]) does not automatically predicate a virtual organisation. The Australian national virtual university, otherwise known as Open Learning Australia, in its current form more closely resembles a series of federated external studies department which operate under the divergent agendas of it's various shareholder institutions. It is not a fluid or interactive entity defining a post-industrial virtual organisation, although some elements could possibly be discerned. Information flow is heavily governed by the proclivities of academic departments, the operating charter of Open Learning and by university protocol. Until organisational and departmental formations can accommodate the full potential of cyberspace the virtual university will remain a concept or, at best, an information warehouse, in which inappropriate information systems operate across digital boundaries.


2.1. Methodology

This paper adopts an exploratory focus in discussing the impact of virtual space upon information systems within the so called 'virtual university'. The information systems of virtual classrooms operate within an educational focus which is apparently disentangled from the geographically and culturally specific frameworks of 'real life'. By utilising qualitative analysis and drawing upon existing literature in the field of Information Systems, Organisational Analysis, Virtual Organisations and Systems theories a range of considerations can be identified. Significantly much of the theoretical grounding is developed from the considerations of time and space developed individually by Elias, Lefebvre and Landers. To develop the concepts presented in this paper material from the discussion of a specific virtual classroom located at http://ultibase.rmit.edu.au/Articles/maher1.html has been utilised. This discussion and report which has been supplied by the authors and developers of this site contributes valuable evidence to this paper. This work is an adjunct to my current research regarding Information Systems and Cyberspace.

2.2. Virtual Space & Cyberspace

To appreciate the changes that virtuality imparts upon an information system it is important to position virtual space as a phenomena which is not synonymous with the Internet (Adrian 1995, [5]). Cyberspace is the spatial phenomena created through the processes of contemporary high technology and is utilised to facilitate human interaction in a manner that is proxy to the capabilities of their bodies. Cyberspace encompasses, for example, the space crafted within video games, the operating theatre of remote surgery and the virtual lathe of Computer Aided Manufacturing. Much of the popular media coverage which equates cyberspace with the Internet consequently avoids comparative or inclusive considerations of other spaces (Hearn 1995, 92). The popularisation of cyberspace seeks to maximise the useability of the environment and has driven the development of automatic and transparent commercial transactions. Information in this context is understood purely in terms of its consumerability and economic value. The hope, if the 'Internet Press' can be believed, is to reflect a space in which virtual business is maximised by simulating safe shopping environments that are familiar to consumers in the 'real' world. Information is reduced in this equation to a coarse dichotomy of objects which are desired and obtainable and those that are not. Beyond this bifurcation of desire, Frampton (1985, 17) describes what we see as "increasingly polarised between, on one hand, a so-called 'high-tech' approach predicated exclusively upon production and, on the other, the provision of a 'compensatory facade' to cover up the harsh realities of this universal system". This facade, found in the abundance of "graphical" web browsers, overlays existing information systems and permits organisations to translate existing functions and the rationale of capitalism into virtual space. Netscape, an example of one of the windows onto cyberspace, encapsulates the borrowing/plug-in philosophy of post-modern architectural design by technically enabling a facade which is extendible, customable and readily changed.

2.3. Virtual Universities as Virtual Organisation

The development of the term, "Information Superhighway", and its associated imagery, suggests that tensions exist between 'real' space and virtual space which does not permit the mutual interchange of cultural construction between these spaces. This contradiction encapsulates the problematic possibility of creating a total educational infrastructure in virtual space, where the imperative is to achieve higher learning, yet at the same time provide all the institutional prerequisites that are expected of the university. Jones (1995, 1) emphasises that the virtual university needs to maintain comparative academic legitimacy in order to provide reassurance to both employers and the institutions of higher education. Information, as an object of desire, and existing information systems must conform to existing protocols to achieve legitimisation.

This issue, in itself, is of importance with the development of further tertiary based places which add to an already relatively well catered market. Alternative positions on this situation address the feasibility of these developments and the use of the virtual university as an education medium. However, the emphasis of this paper, is to discuss the operation and presence of information systems within virtual environments and the impact of this form of space upon educational practice. A core component of the university is being altered and this necessitates a re-examination of what defines a university as a university. Changes to the systems through which information is disseminated within universities also holds a bearing upon how learning will be undertaken in these new environments (Jorn 1996, 190).

2.4. Mechanisms of Exchange in Cyberspace

In cyberspace, information is transferred from one computer to another through dynamic mechanisms that are formed in the complex amalgam of human agency and software. The transference of knowledge in the form of information 'atoms' is the founding rationale for this space. This spatially dislocated culture of exchange is not a unique phenomenon. The maintenance, evolution and dynamism of meaning that formulate social constructions such as gender, power and language all rely upon these exchanges. Myth, legends and other cultural knowledges require the maintenance of social networks that extend through time and space (Jones 1993, 25). The element that differs within these exchanges is the method and medium of communication that are utilised and the form that the exchanged information assumes. Were the form of exchange to be the only significant distinction that was present among these information systems the shift from 'real' to 'virtual' may not represent such a problematic transition. However, the presence of virtual space is achieved within an environment of compressed of time and space (Baudrillard 1988, 35). The social construction of time and space can only exist in relative terms. The division of the conventional clock into twelve is itself an arbitrary construction. It is claimed to be the combination of the four cardinal points with a Babylonian fascination with the number 12 (Borst 1993,7). However, there is no day or night in cyberspace to mark the passage of time. Time is instead arbitrarily divided between the two definitive states of being 'logged in' or 'logged out'. The ability to interact is bound to the technologically defined speeds at which information can be 'physically' transferred across the network. Time and space are compressed in the interplay of maximum information being transacted in minimum time. These transactions are not necessarily technically or interpretatively linear. This is a significant factor in developing approaches to teaching and learning in cyberspace and, in a wider framework, for the possibility of a virtual university.

2.5. Objects in Cyberspace

The virtual environment and its configuration as a compressed form of time and space is heavily reliant upon the continuous availability of technologically based exchanges (Barrett 1996, 42). This is an important consideration for defining space as a series of bounded differences. Being "virtual" is similarly understood with the association of specific notions of time and space. An object in real life is understood in terms of its associated existence, its connection to 'reality' or its mathematical or scientific representation (Lefebvre 1991,1). A virtual 'thing' has no physical existence, as such, but is made to appear so through software applications (Jones 1993, 29-33). The object in virtual space has no physical or touchable construct although physicality can be simulated. The object can be understood to exist in a space that is present through the linking of the computer and telephone. Mackenzie Wark (1991) describes this specific spatial development by claiming that "where we no longer have roots we have aerials. Where we no longer have origins we have terminals." Spatial positioning, even positioning that is undertaken virtually, is understood in terms of the relationships to objects and to the human self. More particularly, this understanding of the spatial relationships of cyberspace draw on the notions of Humanism and the absence of the Cartesian object (Jones 1993, 25). The existence of virtual spaces challenges existing notions of bound space by blurring the edges of 'reality'. The reality that is constructed through those 'things' which dominate the spaces of daily life can be critically presented as meaning-stabilising entities. The existence of objects in cyberspace do not utilise a physical presence for a social meaning to be determined. This dissolution of the solid and physical also presents a challenge to modernist organisational constructs. The utilisation of MOO's are among recent attempts to overcome the lack of a physical presence within the virtual learning environment (Falsetti 1995, 2; Maher & Skow 1997, [1-4]).

Elias's (1978) description of 'spatialisation' describes space as an empty container which we are always attempting to fill. The separation of the individual from the social system reinforces constructs which assert that an ego resides 'within' or somehow 'inside' the individual, whereas, and in distinction, society is somehow positioned 'outside' (Elias in Cooper,1989; 484). In this form of analysis social systems occupy a space outside the individual and are disjointed from a bounded space within the body. Virtual reality challenges this dualism. The individual's presence and notion of self are not so easily contained while they are interacting in cyberspace (Meyrowitz 1985, 117). The participant cannot locate their interactions as solely being conducted at the terminal on which they are working, or at the many hundreds of terminals in which their message might be posted to, or along the electronic cables creating global (or at least Western) connectivity. This situation makes notions of place increasingly complex as the decreased need for the association of communication with bodily presence challenges dualistic representations of physicality and spatiality. Modernist organisational forms, however, tend to be analysed and constructed within these same dualistic positions.

2.6. Processes and Interactive Work Practices in Virtual Universities

Knowledge-based information is not the only item that is shared within a university. Other interactive processes and information exchanges are necessary for the conduct of the business and administration of the university. It is, however, the consumption of material goods and physically bound services that separates the interactivity of organisations located in "real-life" from those occupying virtual space (Meyrowitz 1985, 94-95). Organisations occupying virtual space differ from 'real-life' organisational structures as all forms of exchange assume a common screen-mediated form that is distinct from a physical item but is still being transacted. No paper is needed to communicate, and emotions must be spelt out or textually represented : ^) Presence "on the screen" as a textual nickname, an avatar or through a Web home page does not, however, guarantee incorporation into the exchange economy or information systems of the Internet. A virtual organisation irrespective of its motivating force or projected goal relies upon the reciprocity of mutually shared and traversed space to legitimate a virtual presence. A comparison can be found in the varying presences that are generated in having an Internet or Intranet presence. In cyberspace, the processes of communication differs from those of 'real-life'. Maher & Skow (1997, [5]) explain the problems that occur with a lack of physicality in the educational usage of a MUVE at the University of Sydney. They stress that problems relating to the relaxation of inhibitions and corporeality are more acute in an educational environment because these forms of interaction heavily rely upon structured activities such as lectures and class discussions. Their emphasis upon rules and regulations resembles shadow boxing as cyberspace is cajoled into the conventional structures of tertiary teaching. Educational designers, through their various works, are reinforcing, perhaps unconsciously, modernist conceptualisation's of the organisation.

2.7. Virtual Universities & Virtual Organisation

All organisations unbounded in the physical sense from a single location can be described as virtual. In this way all organisations have an element of virtuality to them. Organisations, as part of their rationale, seek to minimise discrepancies in time and space consensus (Cooper & Burrell, 1988; 93). The traditional Weberian notion of the organisation and its structured efforts to contain the unexpected relies on a calculation of efficiency directly related to time and space. Efficient workers, businesses and organisations are configured to possess a economic worth. Operations in virtual space however, are conducted in a compressed state in which vast distance and separate aspects of real life spaces are immediately accessible. The associations of time and space formulated according to the scale of weeks, days, hours, minutes and seconds is inappropriate and requires different social constructions of scale and different associations of time to space. A reassessment of economic worth within the measure of these scales is also needed. Kraft and Truex (1994, 113) describe such organisations as possessing many names, "the disparate organisation, the imaginary organisation, the adaptive organisation, the learning organisation, the flexfirm, the agile enterprise, the pulsating organisation, the network organisation and, inevitably, the virtual organisation." These organisational forms are constructed as fluid entities and integrate the knowledge of inevitable and continual change into their structure (Kraft & Truex 1994, 110). The structures and boundaries of these organisations is always at a point of emergence and realignment. Rigid, set and hierarchical rules and regulations that lay the foundation for large institutions such as universities, are not found in those organisations who are forging a virtual existence. From within the organisation the employee, employer and consumer all carry, convey and perpetuate particular representations of an organisation. However, the university for these people is understood as the traditional procession of rules and tasks completed by a number of individuals in a co-operative manner.

2.8. Organisational Form & Virtuality

Organisational form and its understanding have been dominated by Weber's interpretation of the modern bureaucratic organisation as a process (Cooper & Burrell, 1988; 92). This process reasserts the continuing mastery by the organisation of the social and physical environment rather than the organisation per se. This description suggestions that the rational organisation exists as a form of response to forces which cannot be understood or controlled. The organisation develops as a series of responses to 'errors' and as a counter-manoeuvre to uncertainty. The organisation then establishes within this process maximum stability and consensus (Cooper & Burrell, 1988; 93). This position typifies the existence of an 'us' and 'them' organisational form. Constructed so as to position those within a rational organisation as different from those outside it. The members of an organisation understand its machinations from within this bounded existence. Those experiencing a social reality within the organisation adhere to particular rules of existence for the organisation while those outside this border may not. Maintenance of these boundaries minimises irrationality and unpredictable occurrences within these boundaries (Barrett 1996, 44). However this process is meant only for those experiencing the social reality found within these boundaries. This positioning problematises the understanding of organisational structure including the university. This view establishes a minimalist perspective and potentially reduces prospects of development. As shown in the development and usage of MUVES and MUDs as electronic classrooms, the educational potential is not fully explored by reverting back to existing expectations associated with the usage of space in an educational setting (Jorn 1996, 184). Ricoeur explained this situation when he wrote in 1962 that "the discovery of the plurality of cultures is never a harmless experience".

When we discover that there are many cultures persisting at many levels, it is also a discovery of the end of illusory or real cultural monopolies and brings the threat of destruction through our discovery. These realisations allow the entertainment of the idea that there are "just" "others" and that we ourselves are an "other" among others. The possibility for globalised earning dissolves. Human existence is reconstructed as a museum for the voyeur "other" in which the Angkor ruins or the Tivoli of Copenhagen are momentary pleasures within a decontextualised and desensitised worldview. (Ricoeur in Cooper 1989)


The prevailing definition of an organisation, and particularly in its administrative and economic role, has the task of producing systems of social rationality (Cooper and Burrell 1989; 92). Modernity and organisations such as universities seek to perfect themselves through the power of rational thought as the claimed essence of humanity. The university structure as we know it typifies this position making the possibility for the complete transformation of such a large scale institution into a virtual existence appear highly improbable. The ever increasing usage and globally spanning existence of electronic networks of social exchange cannot be not defined through simplistic methods of categorisation. The development of organisations in virtual space and equally the development of virtual organisations in "real-space" reveal the contradictions found in organisations constructed within a modernist framework. The virtual organisation is not a fixed entity bound to a physical location or pre-determined system. The contradictions of the terms, "virtual organisation" and "virtual university" reveals the difficulty in effacing spatial physicality or geographical location from an organisation or bureaucracy which is built around assumptions regarding persistent physicality. The shift to a virtual existence, where information systems are altered due to a virtual presence, is not simply a smooth transition from existing modernist bound rules and regulations. Information does not have the same protocols that both limit and encompass it in the geographically and physically bound existence of 'real life'. It is for this reason information in a virtual environment both for educational and business purposes can be utilised differently. A break from modernist structures will enhance the non-linear and dynamic spatial configuration and therefore mould the information system that can exist in virtual space.


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