Ethical Issues for the Virtual University


Philip Brey


Educational computing and distance learning initiatives have given rise to what has been called the Virtual University: a university without a (single) physical campus, that is cemented by electronic networks, including electronic mail, bulletin boards, video conferencing and shared electronic environments (Freeman et al., 2000; Tschang and Della Senta, 2001). The Virtual University has already been the topic of extensive research that focuses on topics like institutional organization and policy, technological infrastructures, curriculum development and quality control. In this study, the focus will be on normative dimensions of the Virtual University, a topic that so far has not received much attention. It will be considered how the emergence of Virtual Universities may impact on cherished values, such as liberty, justice, privacy and sociality. This study is “ethical” in a broad sense. It broadens the scope of ethics to also include issues in social and political philosophy that address the way that we want society to be organized. It is concerned with fundamental conceptions of what Aristotle has called the Good Life, and with how different conceptions of education may impact the Good Life. Its central focus is how Virtual Universities may be developed and managed in a way that respects and promotes basic societal values as well as values particular to higher education. Therefore, the moral behavior of individuals in the Virtual University is not a major focus of this study.

The following two questions are central to this study

Can and should Virtual Universities have the same role in promoting the public good as conventional universities?
How are core ideals of higher education, specifically academic freedom and equality, affected in the Virtual University?

The first question is addressed in sections one and two of the paper. Section one centrally addresses the role of the university in society, and considers whether Virtual Universities can and should fulfill the same role in serving the public good, by fulfilling the wide variety of societal functions that conventional universities have. Section two considers the acquisition by students of academic and social values in the university, and asks whether virtual universities can be as good as conventional universities as places where students acquire and develop academic and social values.

The second question addresses two fundamental values embodied in the higher education system. In a study of values in higher education, Clark (1983) has argued that three values are fundamental in the institution of higher education: competence, social justice and liberty. Discussions of higher education have been dominated by these three concerns: that universities are to promote scientific and professional competence in its students and faculty (“competence”), to provide equal access to students and equal treatment to students and staff (“social justice”) and to provide a climate of academic freedom while retaining institutional autonomy from the state and outside groups (“liberty”). Competence, which is not a moral value, will not be addressed (directly) in this study. Liberty and social justice, however, are moral values, and will be considered in sections three and four, respectively. In section three, it is studied what new challenges and opportunities the Virtual University poses for academic freedom and what consequences distance education may have for the institutional autonomy of universities. Section four focuses on equality and equity, and considers possible consequences of distance education for equal access to higher education and equal treatment in higher education. It includes a special discussion of the challenges and opportunities involved with the development of a Virtual European University. In a concluding fifth section, policy issues will be identified and policy recommendations will be made, based on the discussion in sections 1 to 4.

The literature that will be used for this study does not constitute a coherent body of research. Publications that consider social and ethical aspects of distance education and computer-aided instruction are few and scattered. For the most part, they are found in education studies journals, particularly in journals on distance education or educational technology, and in the literature of computer ethics. In both educational studies and computer ethics, however, the study of social and ethical aspects of distance education and computer-aided instruction has not been a major concern. Nevertheless, a number of relevant studies have been done, and these point to a number of emerging themes that are discussed in this study.

The conference paper and presentation will be based on a longer report for the European Commission that has recently been completed by the author. This report is part of the Collaborative European Virtual University (cEVU) project, a project sponsored by the European Commission and coordinated by EUROPACE.


Clark, B.R. (1983). The higher education system: Academic organization in cross-national perspective. Berkeley: University of California press.

Freeman, B., Routen, T., Ryan, S., Patel, D., Scott, B. (eds.) (2000). The Virtual University: The Internet and Resource-Based Learning. London: Kogan Page.

Tschang, F. T. & Della Senta, T. (eds.) (2001). Access to Knowledge. New Information Technologies and the Emergence of the Virtual University. Amsterdam: Elsevier.