What “Western Governors” Does Well

asking questions.jpgOn most any college campus, first-year courses with more than a few dozen students have a high proportion of bored, disaffected, and/or uncertain students. Sometimes they feel that way because course materials just don’t excite them, or because they don’t seem relevant to their backgrounds and futures. But another reason is that neither the pace of the course nor the style of the instructor fits their capacities. Some students need the course to move more quickly, others more slowly, and some can’t communicate with the teacher while others communicate too much, asking irrelevant questions and interrupting the presentation.

The solution begins with this: instead of asking 35 students to
squeeze into the schedule of the semester and jibe with the manner of
teachers who are often harried and unhappy, customize instruction to
each enrollee. Therein lies the great advantage of digital tools in
higher education, and it’s being implemented best by Western Governors
University, the nonprofit online school founded by the governors of 19
U.S. states. WGU has enjoyed tremendous success in recent years (as
detailed in this profile by John Gravois in Washington Monthly
a few months ago). At WGU, students are able to enroll and work on
their own schedule, one that accords with other demands (family, work,
etc.) and adapts to the skills and knowledge they bring to the courses.

It works this way. If a student enrolls in a course, the student first undergoes a pre-assessment, a test that measures the student’s preparation for the material the course covers from beginning to end. Every student scores differently, of course, but that’s the point. After the results are tabulated, each student meets with a “personal mentor” who has been assigned to the new student to discuss his or her performance and develop a plan for learning the things the student needs to learn in order to complete the course successfully. Each course has a set of “learning resources” that includes books and other reading materials, instructional videos, online simulations, and a WGU “course mentor,” an individual knowledgeable in the field of the course and ready to answer questions through online contact. (Gravois notes that, as opposed to adjuncts teaching courses at regular colleges, WGU mentors work full-time with benefits.)

The advantage is obvious. If a student knows half the course material already and can complete assignments and pass tests related to it, then the student can proceed straight to the other half of the course, to things not known. Students who know nothing about the materials start from scratch. The teacher doesn’t have to go through the usual somersaults keying instruction to students of widely varying capacities, and students themselves don’t have to cope with the variations that match others’ levels, not their own. One student in the Washington Monthly article, a 39-year-old Gulf War vet with a family and money-troubles, well expresses that frustration:

No offense to the younger kids, but you know, I’m in my thirties. You go in with eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds, and it’s more of a social thing for them. You sit in a classroom and listen to people ask stupid questions, and the teacher has to go over things, over and over. I was like, oh my gosh, this is just breaking me.

Much better to work with the subject matter independently, consulting with a mentor familiar with your abilities and progress.

The format converts seat time into competency time, too, which is perhaps the best innovation in terms of productivity and efficiency. In the traditional seat-time model, a student enrolls in a course, attends for three hours for fourteen weeks, gets a passing grade, and earns credits. If the student can master the material in nine weeks, though, why spend another six weeks in attendance? If the student enrolls and, after six weeks of normal progress, finds that she must skip out for three weeks to care for an ailing parent, she can return to her studies with no penalty. Time and success are measured by competency exams, not by presence in a classroom. Fewer students drop out and learning is monitored more reliably than by end-of-semester grades.

The school benefits precisely on the grounds on which for-profit online campuses are most vulnerable: quality of education. WGU has determined competency in different subjects by consulting with pertinent employers, professional organizations, and college instructors. If they say that nurses in a particular field and at a certain level should know X, Y, and Z, WGU designs courses and assessments accordingly, and they can be evaluated not on inputs such as faculty-student ratio but on outcomes, especially the performance of WGU graduates on external examinations such as the Praxis national teachers’ exams and the national human resources management certification exam (both mentioned by Gravois). This carries the added benefit of the judgment of WGU coming from recognized national authorities in different fields, not from university administrators, U.S. News & World Report, or the Federal government.

The system functions best when a field has a more or less stable body of knowledge, so that WGU’s assessments may be standardized for each course and respected by employers. But even in fields like my own, literary studies, the system improves upon aspects of traditional instruction. I am teaching an upper-division English course right now at a state university that has students of wildly divergent levels of skill and knowledge. Their preparation is so different that it has made the course an exercise in diversified instruction. Any time I address a poem in class, I know that if I key the presentation in one way or another, half the class will tune in and the other half will tune out. My only solution has been to schedule as many one-to-one tutorials in my office as I can and match the conversation to each student individually. How much easier it would be to deliver a lecture that contained basic empirical knowledge of American literature (Who was Wallace Stevens? What are his major poems? What are the characteristic features of them?) and then let course mentors work with students case by case and tailor the material accordingly. I could then consult with course mentors to determine strengths and weaknesses in my own presentations and adapt as the semester proceeded.

I see no reason why Western Governors University isn’t the future of higher education. The delivery, flexibility, low-cost, and quality-control are too strong not to become a national model. The only things to resist it are, one, the prestige factor, and two, the “college experience” factor. The first one applies less and less in a world in which employers are thinking more about whether a new hire can do the job than about where the hire went to college. And the second factor, that is, the idea that college should be a time of intellectual and personal growth and pleasure, matters in a tough economy to an ever-smaller segment of the college-going population. Yes, prestige and experience will linger, but for anybody who wants coursework to provide what it takes to garner a decent paycheck two months after graduation (“to get a better job” and “to be able to make more money” are top reasons for going to college, according to The American Freshman Survey), prestige and experience are secondary or immaterial.


  • Mark Bauerlein

    Mark Bauerlein is a professor emeritus of English at Emory University and an editor at First Things, where he hosts a podcast twice a week. He is the author of five books, including The Dumbest Generation Grows Up: From Stupefied Youth to Dangerous Adults.

7 thoughts on “What “Western Governors” Does Well

  1. The mentors at WGU have at least a Master’s degree and several have terminal degrees. They are indeed experts in their fields. The curriculum is aimed at obtaining the highest competency since the school operates in every state. For example, students working towards a teaching certificate have to meet the expectations for the states with the most rigorous standards for teacher education. WGU is a perfect place for the older students who don’t want to have to sit in a classroom with 18 year-olds or don’t want to have to quit work to get that needed degree.

  2. This is a really interesting post, and I’ve enjoyed the comments.
    I currently work as a Course Mentor at WGU, and I agree that we are forging the way into a new model of education. There is something to keep in mind when reading Bauerlein’s article.
    First of all, our student population is diverse, and we really specialize in helping students who are not able to attend school in a traditional setting: those in rural areas, those who already have already had “the college experience” but found it wasn’t a good fit, and those needing to balance work-life, family, and education. Unsurprisingly, our average student age is around 36.
    For these reason, it is necessary to look at WGU as a new model rather than trying to compare it to what we traditionally think of as higher education–just something to keep in mind as this discussion continues.
    Oh, and about the question of the talent and knowledge of the employees, all course mentors have their Ph.Ds and/or very significant experience in their fields.

  3. Mark:
    I just interviewed a young math teacher at Richland High School, Richland WA. Her name is Jennie Gatherer. By instituting in the classroom what she learned at WGU, her students are doing twice as well this year over last. How does she know? She is tracking her students competency in the math subjects she teaches. I think there is a lot to learn from this program. She absolutely raved about it because she was able to immediately implement what she was learning at WGU (she just got her masters degree) in her classrooms. I was so inspired by her story that I am signing up for the MBA program at WGU.

  4. From reading this and a few other sources it seems the WGU model may best be suited to credential a knowledge base. “Mentors” can manage content-knowledge if they can read yet I would venture few are experts in their fields. Not that most PhDs in higher ed are either.
    Perhaps half the students in your upper-level course at Emory would be better served at a WGU-style class. Of course that would mean fewer upper-level English students at Emory and thus less of a need to have a tenured PhD in English.

  5. Actually, JimD, it only took me about 5 minutes to find the competencies and textbooks for any program at the university on the public website.
    The courses are Pass/Fail, but a Pass is a B or higher. Google ‘grade inflation’ and then come back and tell us how much a letter grade really means anymore.

  6. My concern about WGU is that the program is so non-transparent that it is impossible to judge quality. They don’t publish the syllabi/competencies for their courses or even indicate what textbooks are used. And while external exams provide some check, few fields have those.
    Furthermore, classes are all graded pass/fail which means that the target level for the course is the minimum competency.
    My guess is that WGU (or similar schools) will play a significant role in education, but more as a GED for college.

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