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By KathyWitkowsky
Salt Lake City
n a recent installment of the popular comic strip
Dilbert, the pointy-haired office boss announces that he has
enrolled in a distance-learning class to obtain his master’s
degree. “Is the online degree hard?” someone asks. “Not so
much,” the boss replies nonchalantly, coffee cup in hand. “I’m
taking my midterm exam as we speak.”
Funny? Not to students at Western Governors University,
a private, nonprofit distance-learning institution based in Salt
Lake City. Western Governors University (WGU) opened
its virtual doors in 1999 with much fanfare and, as its name
suggests, the political backing of 18 western governors plus
the governor of Guam, each of whose states contributed
$100,000 in startup funding. What the name does not convey
is the institution’s lofty goal: to create a newmodel for higher
education, one that not only harnesses technology to increase
access and reduce costs, but maintains quality by measuring
learning outcomes rather than credit hours.
“We wanted a university that was available through
modern communications, and we wanted it based upon
performance. And that was the essence of the experiment,”
recalled former Colorado Governor Roy Romer, who,
together with former Utah Governor Michael Leavitt, had
the initial vision for WGU. Leavitt was most excited by the
flexibility that new technologies could provide, while Romer
was focused on the competency-based curriculum. “We
wanted to be sure that
we created a system
in which you didn’t
get credit for a degree
based just upon
hours of exposure but
based upon proven
competence that you
demonstrated,” Romer
Since WGU’s
inception, online
programs have become
commonplace, and
their widely varying
standards have made
them easy targets
for comedians and
comic strips. But WGU students and administrators say the
school’s unusual competency-based approach ensures that the
institution is no joke.
Instead of earning credits based on the number of courses
they take, students progress by successfully completing
required competency assessments related to their degrees.
Spring 2006
Remote Access
Western Governors University offers “competency-based” higher education, at a distance
These come in
different forms: written
assignments completed
online; objective and
essay exams administered
at secure testing centers;
and, in the case of student
teachers enrolled in
WGU’s teachers college,
supervised observations
in local schools.
Bachelor’s and master’s
degree candidates must
also complete a final
project and defend it
The school doesn’t
care where or how
students learn the
material. They might
already know it, or they
might have to learn it
from one of the 200
learning resources—a
mix of online courses,
CDs with website
components, and
self-paced “e-learning” modules—that WGU licenses. The
important thing is that they prove their mastery of the subject.
“Just because it’s online doesn’t mean it’s easy. There
was a lot of work involved,” said Amanda Clark, 25, of
Dallas, Georgia, a suburb of Atlanta. In January, Clark was
one of 44 ecstatic graduates to attendWGU’s most recent
commencement ceremonies, which were held in a rented hall
at the University of Utah, about seven miles from the sleek,
eight-story office building whereWGU is headquartered.
(Another 199 graduates were able to watch the ceremonies on
a webcast.)
There to cheer Clark on as she received her bachelor’s
degree in interdisciplinary studies fromWGU’s teachers
college were her husband, two children and parents. The
occasion marked not one but two important milestones:
They had flown on an airplane for the first time to be in Salt
Lake City; and Clark, an honors student who had dropped
out of high school shortly after getting married and giving
birth, went through her first graduation ceremony. It probably
won’t be her last: She has since enrolled in another distance
institution’s master’s degree program, which she plans to
continue when she starts a new job teaching first grade next
Also in attendance was former Governor Romer, who was
WGU President Robert Mendenhall says the
largely online university is small but influential:
“Demonstrating a different model is more important
than our size or enrollment growth.”
Contrary to early
predictions that
tens of thousands of
students would rush
to enroll in Western
Governors University,
for the first four years
enrollment remained
in the hundreds.
Photos by Patrick Cone, Black Star, for CrossTalk