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Online School Spotlight: Western Governors University, Part Two

Western Governors is routinely looked upon as one of the institutions of higher learning that got online education right and is actually providing excellent education to its students online. What do you think it is that sets your online university apart from others that are trying online education?

As I’ve mentioned earlier, the biggest difference is that WGU uses technology to fundamentally change the way we teach. Education is perhaps the only industry that hasn’t been dramatically changed by technology over the centuries. Sitting in a lecture hall on a campus would be a very similar experience today or 300 years ago. Watching that same lecture on your computer screen isn’t much different.

Innovators in online learning are creating all kinds of new ways to reach different types of learners in new, more effective ways. By focusing on the competencies that make a graduate successful and then providing our students with access to those third-party innovations that will help them achieve the competencies, WGU is shifting the balance from educator-centric to student-centric.

The U.S. higher education system needs to support development of models like WGU’s. Our model is demonstrating how we can increase the productivity and reduce the cost of quality higher education—something that must happen if our country hopes to meet its goals for increasing the number of college graduates.

How many students are enrolled at the university right now roughly? Assuming the number is large, how is it possible to balance a quality education when you have so many students? It would seem more difficult to manage an online class of 60 students and still give them the personalized education that most online classes are supposed to provide.

Near the end of 2011, WGU’s student enrollment surpassed 30,000, just under seven months after reaching 25,000 for the first time. It’s tremendous growth, but it’s sustainable growth. “Class sizes” don’t really apply at WGU, because each student is progressing through his or her program independently. When a student mentor or course mentors works with a student, it’s one-on-one, addressing the specific questions or challenges that particular student is facing at that particular time – whether it’s grasping a complex math concept or life struggles that have them contemplating dropping out of school altogether.

Because faculty members are not each serving the multiple roles of curriculum development, lesson preparation, classroom teaching, and grading, we’re able to work strategically to keep the faculty-to-student ratio where it needs to be to serve students as completely and efficiently as possible. Expanding faculty to meet students’ needs at WGU is a fundamentally different proposition when compared to other institutions.

Some subjects, like Math and English, lend themselves to online formats really well. But you also offer programs like the Teachers Program, which is relatively unique for an online university? How are you able to ensure that your students in the Teachers program are receiving the same education regular students might receive, especially when you consider actual teaching experience in a classroom as a prereq to graduation?

Our Teachers College offers two types of programs: bachelor’s and master’s degrees that lead to licensure for new teachers, and master’s and endorsement preparation programs for already-licensed teachers. In our programs that lead to teacher licensure – the first such online programs to earn accreditation by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education – students must complete demonstration teaching experience in physical classrooms, and our students’ in-classroom work is observed and evaluated against high standards. WGU helps place students in a school district near where they live.

Demonstration teaching is one of the few elements of a WGU education that isn’t completed entirely online. Similarly, in our nursing programs where clinical work is required, it’s carried out in hospitals and clinics through special partnerships with WGU.

Was there ever a stigma that the university was forced to fight regarding its graduates? Did companies and corporations ever express their doubts in online education? And how were you able to prove your students were just as competent?

As with anything new and different, there are always concerns with how it will be received. One of the main reasons our governors founded WGU was to address workforce needs. To ensure that we are producing graduates with the skills and knowledge employers need, we work with representatives from industry and academia to identify the required competencies for each degree program.

In addition, WGU has quickly gained a reputation for producing highly qualified graduates who have the skills employers need. In a 2011 survey by Harris Interactive, 98% of employers who had hired a WGU graduate said that graduate met or exceeded their expectations; 100% would not hesitate to hire another WGU graduate. As more and more of these outstanding graduates bring the experience of their WGU education to the workplace, our reputation as a quality institution continues to build.