What Is a Virtual Campus?

One of the reasons I’ve put off starting this blog for years is that nobody’s coined a term yet for what I want to write about. Google “virtual campus” and the top results will be either a university’s online course offerings or its campus tour.

That’s not at all what I mean. For me, “virtual campus” is a way of thinking about a university’s web presence: approaching it not as collection of documents and web apps but as a collection of virtual buildings, rooms and property managed in a manner comparable to the best practices of physical plant operations.

At this point more than a few people will be thinking, “Huh? Web sites aren’t anything like buildings. Has she been smoking the tech manuals again?”*

But before dismissing this idea out of hand, consider your campus as an interface.

  • People arrive by various methods through various entrances.
  • They head to a destination: a classroom, a library, an office, an auditorium.
  • If they don’t know where they’re supposed to go, they follow the signs, check a map or ask for directions.
  • Once they reach their destination, they attend their class, study, transact their business or attend an event.
  • When they’ve finished, they leave.

Doesn’t that sound a lot like what happens on a web site?

Both are interfaces for the people interacting with the university, only one exists in the physical world and one in the virtual. Both may be planned, designed, constructed, furnished, used, maintained, vandalized, repaired, expanded, remodeled and eventually demolished.

The better analogy for this concept is “virtual plant,” but the term evokes an image of a giant Little Shop of Horrors-style monstrosity created in Flash. So “virtual campus” it is.

University administrators and web professionals have trouble communicating effectively for several reasons, not least of which is that the web is intangible by nature. Similar to the way that the metaphor of the desktop made personal computers comprehensible, the metaphor of the virtual campus has the potential to help people with vastly different levels of technical expertise grasp the issues of university web management.

*If you can’t grok ’em, smoke ’em.

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