Some interesting things about Western Governor’s University

Last week I had the pleasure of attending the summer conference of the Association.  One of the sessions featured a panel of speakers from Western Governor’s University, a four-year degree granting online university.  As of April, 2011, WGU is officially endorsed by the legislature of the state of Washington.

One of the unique features of WGU is that it is competency-based.  Students can progress when they can demonstrate competency, allowing great flexibility to either proceed quickly through the curriculum or to take more time when it’s needed.  Honestly, that may be just about the only thing I really understood about WGU, that and that students can earn a flexible number of credits in a “term” that lasts for six months.  So, I was happy to hear more from this panel, which included the new chancellor Jean Floten, two “course mentors” and a current student.

Here are some things I learned, which provide much food for thought.

Course mentors:

  • Course mentors are the instructors for the course.  They are subject area experts and are responsible for the course of study.
  • They work 40 hour weeks, which they say looks pretty much like 40 hours of “office hours” a week.  They are in chat login all day to be connected to students and to other WGU staff, and also have phone and email (of course).
  • During the week they are busy but not overwhelmed.  When they aren’t web conferencing with students, they may have scheduled group chats with students or offer focused lectures on particular parts of the course material.
  • Each course mentor is responsible for about 2,000 students.  Not all students need attention every week. (And they aren’t doing grading…see more below on that!)

What are the differences in the teacher role between the traditional model and the WGU model?  (As relayed by panel members.)

  • The 4o-hour work week.  Because teachers basically have 40 “office hours” they have more one-on-one time with students, they get to know students and provide individual attention that this panelist and the students thrive off of.  Part of the work is “reactive” – that is, students are working through the learning activities and are connecting as needed via phone, email, and web conferencing.  Part of the work is “proactive” – that is, they are conducting outreach to struggling students.
  • They are not “delivering instruction.”  The heart of competency-based teaching is that content and resources are developed to create a directed learning environment.  Students move through highly developed learning modules (designed by content experts and instructional designers and technologists).  The teacher is guiding students through the content more than teaching prepared content.  They do present on specific content to supplement the modules, but their approach is less about delivery of material and is about guiding acquisition of knowledge and skills.
  • No grading.  The interesting thing about this is that it shifts the dynamic between the student and the teacher.  The course mentors have no grade authority over the student, just authority over the content itself.  WGU uses an assessment model designed by Peter Ewell, an internationally known and respected expert in higher education assessment.  Based on this model, they have a bank of graders (all of whom master’s degrees or PhD’s in the relevant content) who use established rubrics along with grader notes provided by mentors.

There are some other things I learned that I see would be really appealing to students.  They reported tuition to be about $2,800 for a six-month period.  A person could complete their bachelor’s degree for $14,000.  The big deal?  They don’t use textbooks.  They have all open source material and locally developed learning modules.

Another interesting note: they do screen students pretty seriously at admission for motivation and readiness to be successful.

It was definitely interesting to hear more in-depth about what they are doing at WGU.  Lots to think about!

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