Virtual University: Literature Review
Technology today allows us to record, analyze, and evaluate the physical world to an unprecedented degree. Enterprises in the new millennium are increasingly relying on technology to ensure that they meet their mission requirements. It is important to note here that, “Educational organizations have been referred to as complex and arcane enterprises” (Massy, 1999). For educational institutions, this reliance on technology will require new mission statements, revised catalogs and other materials, different learning environments and methods of instruction, and, perhaps most significantly, new standards for measuring success. To achieve these objectives, several initiatives in the form of web based systems, simulations, games etcetera are being developed and tested. Among these approaches, simulations and games are found to be the most effective ones (Massy, 1999). The author will review one such initiative, namely ‘Virtual U’ also known as Virtual University (Virtual U Project, 2003). The author will begin with a brief review of the use of simulation and gaming approaches in educational institutions.
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In the last decade, behaviorist approach has given way to constructivist approach in the field of instructional design. Behaviorist approach is an instructor led approach in which formal concepts and systems can be transmitted to students by giving them formal descriptions in combination with the presentation of examples (Leemkuil et al., 2000). On the other hand, Constructivist approach is a student led approach in which the students learn through activity or social interaction such as games, simulations, and case studies (Jacques, 1995).
Gaming is considered to produce a wide range of learning benefits like, improvement of practical reasoning skills, higher levels of continuing motivation, and reduction of training time and instructor load (Jacobs & Dempsey, 1993). Games are effective communication tools because they are fun and engaging (Conte, 2003). Simulations are also very close to games. Simulations resemble games in that both contain a model of some kind of system and learners can provide both with input and observe the consequences of their actions (Leemkuil et al., 2000).
Virtual U was conceived and designed by William F. Massy, a professor and university administrator and the president of the Jackson Hole Higher Education Group (PR Newswire, 2000). The project was funded by $1 million from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation in New York. Data were provided by the Institute for Research on Higher Education at the University of Pennsylvania (Waters and Toft, 2001). In designing the game, Massy and Ausubel (Program Director, The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation) included detailed data from 1,200 U.S. academic institutions, as well as information culled from government sources (Schevitz, 2000). The first version of Virtual U which was released in the year 2000 was produced by Enlight Software of Hong Kong and was sold commercially for about $129 (Goldie, 2000).
The Virtual University system was developed along the lines of the popular game known as, ‘SimCity’. The primary objective of the Virtual U game was to develop the skills of the players for managing an educational institution. According to Moore and Williams (2002) ‘Virtual U will let you test your skill, judgment, and decisions’, while managing an educational institution. This game based environment has been designed specifically to enable any person to tackle various scenarios and problems that are usually encountered in an educational institution. “The game is driven by a powerful simulation engine that uses a combination of micro-analytic and system dynamics methods and draws on an extensive compilation of data on the U.S. higher education system” (Massey, 1999). Technically the system was developed using C++ in a windows based environment. Virtual U in its current state does not run on the ‘Macintosh’ based systems due to the usage of proprietary windows based graphics. However, it is envisaged by the authors that a version for Macintosh users will be developed in the near future.
The Virtual U game employs several strategies and allows the user or the player as per his/her requirements (Rainwater et al., 2003). In general the player is appointed as the University president and allowed to manage the University as a whole. In this role the player is concerned about institution level policies, budget etcetera. Then there are scenario based strategies like improving teaching or research performance in a particular faculty, where the player assumes the role of a faculty head (Rainwater et al., 2003). Lastly there are a possible 18 chance cards. Chance cards are emergency situations that arise during the game play and require immediate attention. Overall, Virtual University not only allows players to explore secondary and tertiary effects of a couple of years’ worth of actions they might take as academic administrators but they can also customize it by adjusting everything from the size of the faculty and student body to the cost of maintaining campus roads and buildings (Conte, 2003).
Moore and Williams (2002) identify a few limitations in the Virtual university system.
1. One needs to have extensive administrative knowledge or experience to play Virtual U effectively. The amount of prior knowledge required may prohibit some of the audiences to use the system.
2. Second limitation is pertaining to performance indicators. There is lack of assessment-informed decision making in the game. The “teach better” goal is one of the game scenarios, yet there is nowhere a link between the teacher quality and the student learning.
3. Educational quality and prestige indicators are the two performance indicators the developer advises the player to pay close attention to. Within the educational quality framework, one has access to quantitative inputs and outputs (for example, number of degrees granted) rather than measures of quality. Also there are a limited number of variables which a player can chose or adjust (course mix, number of students shut out of courses, level of faculty teaching talent, class size, faculty morale, and faculty time devoted to teaching activities). The prestige indicator is even more limited.
4. A final Virtual U limitation identified by Moore and Williams (2002) is its lack of flexibility in the area of faculty management. While a player may reallocate departmental resources, teaching loads, and priorities in hiring new faculty, he cannot actually fire or remove faculty.
The developers acknowledge on several occasions that the game is fairly complex and is not easy for beginners to start with (Massey, 1999). The author of this review believes that learning a complex game will be fairly difficult and time consuming for the users (administrative) who are already on a tight time schedule. Even postgraduate research students seldom get time or would like to play games if not related to their own research. Younger students would be easily attracted to such complex games and learn them quickly even though it might not be of much use for them in the short term. In addition to these factors the availability of a windows only version of the system will restrict an ever growing community of ‘Macintosh’ users in the United States educational institutions. Despite the above mentioned limitations, Virtual U is a useful and laudable effort (Moore and Williams, 2002). On the whole the Virtual U is a good introduction to those that wish to get a feel for the day to day operation of a university (Waters and Toft, 2001).
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