Western Governors University, the “Competency” Model, and the Next Wave of Higher-Ed “Innovation”

Between 6:00 a.m. and 7:30 a.m. this morning, the Discovery Channel aired the following three 30-minute infomercials:Sexy in Three Weeks!; The Graduate: Learn about Innovative Grad and Undergrad Degrees; and No More Wrinkles!

The middle of those three infomercials has been produced by Tribune Media for Western Governors University.

One alternative to conventional, on-site delivery of courses is to combine the “competency” model, the awarding of credit (though not necessarily of credit hours) for demonstrated knowledge, with online education.  This model is most singularly illustrated in Western Governors University (WGU). a non-profit online university co-sponsored and overseen by the governors of 19 states—all of the states of the Great Plains, Rocky Mountains, Great Basin, Desert Southwest, Pacific Coast, Alaska, Hawaii—and, most recently, Indiana. Since its founding in 1997, the enrollment has grown from 1,000 to about 35,000.

WGU is different from most universities–and from the online for-profits–in a number of fundamental ways. Students pay tuition for six-month terms (in 2013, about $2,900 per semester) regardless of the number of courses that they complete in any given “term.” Upon enrollment, each student is assigned a “mentor,” or academic advisor, who oversees the student’s progress throughout his or her enrollment. Students must accumulate between 120 and 132 “competency units” in order to receive one of the four dozen or so baccalaureate degrees that the university awards. A student takes one “course” at a time, and all of the course modules and supplementary materials have been developed and are provided by corporate “educational providers” such as Pearson and McGraw-Hill. When the student feels that he or she has mastered the material and can demonstrate “competency,” he or she submits a “written work” that is evaluated by a “contracted evaluator” or takes an objective test developed by Pearson or McGraw-Hill and administered at a commercial testing center. In consultation with their mentors, students who believe that their previous education or professional experience has adequately prepared them to do so can either submit written work or take an objective exam to demonstrate competency even before opening a course module. So an individual student’s rate of progress toward a degree is largely if not entirely self-determined. This model is the exact opposite of the common use of cohort groups within specialized degree programs in conventional institutions.

Moreover, up until a decade or two ago, the awarding of credit for professional experience or for demonstrated competency was almost entirely confined to technical programs, which were once almost entirely confined to the associates level but have been increasingly expanded to the baccalaureate level. Those programs have been the mainstays of one of the three models of “Accelerated” or three-year baccalaureate programs, the “Prior Learning” model, which until very recently has been regarded as having dubious merit outside of the technical disciplines.

Of course, the major thing missing from the entire WGU model is the faculty. So it is worth asking why “contracted evaluators” provided by Pearson and other “educational providers” should be considered adequate substitutes for faculty. It is a broadly accepted truism that a degree’s value is determined to a large extent by the reputation of the institution at which it has been earned, and the major part of an institution’s reputation rests on the accomplishments of its faculty. So, although WGU may serve a niche need in sparsely populated Western states where other alternatives are less available, it has limited value as a broader model. Its main selling points, affordability and the allowance for students to progress at their own pace, diminish in proportion to how directly involved faculty are involved in providing instruction—and more so if those faculty are expected to integrate elements of their research, scholarship, and service into their teaching. In effect, student flexibility and faculty productivity are inevitably at odds in this model.

Nonetheless, the “reformers’ and “innovators” keep insisting that this model is on the horizon—and that is something quite different from, something much more academically legitimate and sustainable them, the online for-profit institutions that have now been so thoroughly exposed as little more than extensive and intensive Ponzi schemes.

But, if Western Governors University is so different from the online for-profits, why is it being advertised in an infomercial that is being aired between Sexy in Three Weeks! And No More Wrinkles!



3 thoughts on “Western Governors University, the “Competency” Model, and the Next Wave of Higher-Ed “Innovation”

  1. As a former WGU employee who has a nearly complete disdain for the place, there’s a few inaccuracies in this piece. The inaccuracies are understatements on the part of the author of some of WGU’s policies. However, there is no way the author could have known about it, so it’s no fault of the author.

    In particular, the author says that students work through learning modules (in WGU parlance “learning resources”) and then submits written work to an evaluator. On the surface, this is true in that this is what WGU says happens, and it is what one expects. We all expect that students will study before taking a test. However, under the microscope, none of this holds up.

    One major problem is that the majority of WGU students do not look at the learning resources before taking the exam, and the majority that do, never complete the learning resources before taking the exam. Typically (though the numbers fluctuate) 30% of students work through the learning resources before taking the exam. The number is higher for courses that have objective examinations, verses written, performance examinations. Students typically go to the performance exam, look at the question and look at the rubric, and then reverse engineer the exam. They have the question and rubric in front of them, and then go back into the learning resources for the answers.

    A second strategy, and perhaps the most heinous, is that students can submit written, performance exams, as many times as they want until they pass. Every time a student’s submission does not pass, the evaluators give feedback and notes as to where students need to improve, or where in the learning resources they might find the answer. The evaluators do not simply “give the answer,” but they provide enough clues that a student can make adaptations and re-submit rather quickly. Often, students simply work with the rubric, and comments, to pass the exam, never cracking the learning resources. There’s more, but I’m sick of writing.

    The reason all of this happens is that the competency model perverts the learning incentives. The incentives are not to learn, but rather to pass, and to pass quickly! The incentive structure of passing a competency exam is to take the shortest route to pass the test, not really to learn.

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