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Online School Spotlight: Western Governors University, Part One

When Western Governors University was conceived in 1995, online learning was still in its infancy. So how has the online program changed from then until the present day aside from the obvious changes (i.e. Internet speed, technology improvements)? How much has the actual program changed?

Across much of the online learning landscape, the biggest change has been accessibility – faster connection speeds, better sound and video quality, access to the Internet in more places with more devices – while the education being delivered hasn’t fundamentally changed much. It’s essentially been remote delivery of the same classroom-style, time-based education students would receive on a traditional campus.

For us at WGU, the evolution of online education is really about the broader evolution of education as a whole. Unlike other online universities, WGU uses technology to facilitate learning by making a variety of learning resources available through the Internet rather than simply using the Internet to deliver traditional classroom instruction.

We know two things about learners: They come to higher education knowing different things, and they learn at different rates. But our country’s higher education system says, “Everybody needs 120 credit hours; they all need the same required courses; and every course takes four months.” This is the exact opposite of what we know about how people learn.

We’ve blown that model up. We don’t have credit hours. We don’t have grades. We have defined competencies that must be mastered for a student to earn a degree, and then we develop assessments that allow students to prove they’ve mastered those competencies. Once a student achieves those competencies and can prove it, she graduates.

One of the basic tenets of the university is that higher education be delivered in a more affordable, cost-effective way. What are some of the ways that Western Governors is able to reduce costs for its students? Are there future plans in the works to find ways to reduce costs even more, if so, what are they?

The competency-based model helps students save time and money because it measures student learning rather than time spent in class. So students can apply prior knowledge and experience to move quickly through material they already know and devote their time to focusing on the things they still need to learn. Once students have demonstrated mastery of a course subject, they advance to the next course. Tuition is charged at a flat rate for each six-month term, just under $3,000 for most programs. Students who can commit additional time to their studies can accelerate – they may take as many courses in a term as they are able to complete.

WGU is self-sustaining on its tuition, which hasn’t increased in six years. Because we’re a nonprofit, all of the money a student pays for tuition goes right back into our programs and technologies. We’re saving money on the overhead of a campus, of course, but we’re also not spending money on costly efforts that become entrenched at traditional schools.

WGU also avoids costly development of online courses by using best-in-class learning resources created by others. There are currently some 2 million online courses available, many of excellent quality. Our academic teams find the superior ones that align with our competencies, and we license them, make them available to our students, and include them as part of our tuition and fees. Similarly, we’ve recently included over 150 electronic textbooks in one low resource fee, a huge saving for students.

Where other institutions often expect students to pay themselves for everything except instruction, because of economies of scale, if a learning resource is core to our students’ learning, we try to include it as part of the program. Technology-based learning offers advantages that can scale better than the traditional model, but it requires us to remain adaptable and flexible.

A big question we always get is how teachers are trained for online learning and whether they like it. How does the university go about ensuring that their teachers are not only trained in their fields but also capable of administering and teaching an online class? What is some of the feedback you have received from teachers who had experience teaching in a regular format before online?

The faculty role at WGU is very different from the role of faculty at other schools, including other online schools. Rather than serving as instructors in front of a class, WGU faculty members serve as mentors, working one-on-one with the students to support their learning and progress in their programs.

Each student is assigned a personal mentor, who we call a student mentor, who follows them throughout their WGU career. Students speak via telephone with their mentors weekly or biweekly throughout their programs – or more often as necessary – and are in contact via email, chat, and even text messages. These mentors provide continuous academic support from enrollment to graduation, guiding the student through the program and offering coaching and practical advice.

For academic support, we have course mentors – subject-matter experts who support students as they work through specific sections of the WGU curriculum. Each student determines how much or how little they rely on a course mentor, depending on their specific needs in any given course.

This could range from help with specific questions to more fully engaged tutorial support. Course mentors don’t develop WGU courses; instead, they focus on bringing the courses to life via one-to-many or one-on-one interactions. Their education, experience, and training are specific to the subject matter of the courses they support.

The program faculty works with industry experts to define the essential competencies for each subject area, develop courses of study, and identify the best learning resources for each degree program.

WGU employs a separate team of graders whose role is to evaluate all of the course assessments. Separating the grading function from the mentors’ responsibilities helps ensure objective evaluations and frees the mentors to focus on supporting students and helping them achieve success.

Many students first think about online learning and have absolutely no idea what it entails? Does your university have a specific onboarding process to ensure that students are fully aware of the program and what is expected of them before they enroll? Are there specific things students should know before they enroll in an online university?

It’s very important for prospective online students to be prepared for their experience, particularly adults who may have been away from school for some time, and to get involved with their eyes wide open! At WGU the preparation begins from the beginning of the enrollment process, through conversations with an assigned enrollment counselor whose job is to help each prospective student determine if WGU is a good fit, to set realistic expectations of the challenges ahead, and to facilitate the admissions process. We also screen out individuals who are not a good fit.

Then, before students begin, they go through our Education Without Boundaries orientation that shows them up-close the academic model, practical aspects of studying online at WGU, and technical aspects of the systems and student interface that will become part of their daily school life. Typically, they also will meet their assigned student mentor.