Today I had a chance to visit with Western Governors University. Set up a more than a decade ago, it’s gradually grown to an enrollment of more than 10K students. It’s purely online, but supported by 20 states, which gives it some interesting opportunities (read: political clout).
At the core of their model is the fact that their curricula are entirely competency-based. They build their programs around specific outcomes (developed from an industry-based advisory board, whether the industry be IT or education), align assessments, and design the course materials towards those assessments. It’s a refreshing focus on meaningful outcomes, beyond that which many programs claim, and they’ve been able to get accreditation on that basis (not despite it). It also allows flexibility in schedule, and testing-out.
They’re also working on developing the social learning around it, both supporting content discussions and learning discussions. They’ve got a goal of helping learners succeed, and to this end are pretty up-front about what it takes to succeed in a largely self-directed learning environment, despite the mentors. Still, it’s an ongoing learning process (the law of unanticipated consequences).
Which is not to say that they don’t face challenges. They want to keep costs down, and not become a development house, so they’ve focused on sourcing the learning resources, and have largely been tied to what’s available off the shelf. The learner experience in terms of the prepared materials could be enhanced from a motivational standpoint. Also, it’s hard to develop and maintain a focus on higher-level learning objectives. Further, the technology environment is a moving target that demands continual improvement. They’re taking systematic steps to address these issues.
Overall, it’s an impressive endeavor, on both principled and practical grounds. Robert Mendenhall, the President, set out to change the model after many years experience, believing that competencies and technology could provide a viable alternative to existing practices, and WGU is a testimony to his vision and ability to sell and deliver it. A worthy challenge to the status quo.