Thursday, December 02, 2004

Real or virtual universities?

I had the opportunity to visit the amazing campus of Monterrey Tech (I.T.E.S.M., after the initials in Spanish for the Technological Institute of Higher Studies of Monterrey) in Mexico City. It is just one of the thirty campuses that this private university, founded in 1943, operates, in which more than 100,000 persons study. Given that the ITESM, in addition to its traditional classrooms, operates one of the most important virtual universities of the world, the conflict between what is real and virtual should provide for some heated budgeting discussions. 

I can imagine the discussions. On the one side, the traditionalists take their stand, the ones who advocate more and better classrooms. They must still constitute by far the larger part of the faculty. On the other side, the virtual crowd must be growing, they who most probably argue for faster and more potent servers and for more publicity to assure ITESM’s place in the list of the surviving and thriving virtual universities. And, in this sense they are right, since in the coming years—or even months—it could be decided who will be the leading virtual university for decades to come. 

To this date, the traditionalists would have surely based their demands on the grounds that a university with a strong physical presence is the only one capable of producing the expected results. Most of us would have had to agree with them. Nonetheless, the corridors are starting to fill with rumors that analyses of early generations of virtual students have demonstrated a surprising and very real academic superiority over traditional students. I have no real proof of this, but the rumor could end up being true, since obtaining a degree through a virtual approach must surely require some very special motivation. 

What would happen if, in the not too distant future, alumni of these virtual universities were considered to be the best? To begin with, we should remember that it is the professional quality of the graduate which really matters to the labor market and not the fact that he or she enjoyed the university years. Thus, if the business sector starts demanding graduates of virtual programs, well, students might need to go the virtual route, even if it means doing it hiding in the old classrooms. 

Traditional faculties need not panic. Studying the “virtual way” requires plenty of individual assistance to students by faculty members. Thus such professors will not only be necessary, but also they could even have the opportunity to teach from the beach! Considering that a certain amount of interaction among students seems important, many traditional classrooms could still be used when converted into hotel rooms to house the virtual students for weeks at a time and provide them with some real physical contact.