State-level virtual universities
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Distance education is no longer a novel learning format for higher education, with over two thirds of colleges and universities in the United States offering distance educations to 12 million students in 2007. Accompanying the exponential growth of distance learning in higher education is the phenomenon of virtual universities, especially state- or system-level virtual universities. From the rush of experimentation came a wealth of knowledge, and yet more formal research studies of the virtual university phenomenon have been few until now. To address this gap in the literature and gain a thorough understanding of the consortial approach to distance education, this study employed a comparative case study design to examine the organizational aspects that influenced three relatively long-lived state-level virtual universities in their ability to sustain. The purpose of this study is to identify the structure of the virtual universities in supporting their mission, the mechanism and strategies in serving member institutions, and the conflicts within these virtual universities. This study was designed as a comparative case study, with a focus on three exemplary state-level virtual universities, including: Kentucky Virtual University, Ohio Learning Network, and UT TeleCampus. A total of 43 people from the three virtual universities participated in this study, primarily representing three groups: the state higher education board, the management teams of the virtual universities, and the administrators from higher education institutions participating in the three distance education consortia. Data were collected from various sources, including site visits to Kentucky and Ohio, 33 individual and group interviews with the participants, analysis of written documents, and informal observations. Using Bolman and Deal’s theory of organizational frames (1997), each case was analyzed from the four perspectives, structural, human resources, political and symbolic. The findings help to better understand virtual universities in terms of the perceived needs, mission, structure, services, challenges, and changes in the past decade. The findings will also inform leaders of higher education as they plan, develop, and maintain administrative goals and structures for statewide online learning initiatives.