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WGU blazing trails toward competency education

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The current issue of Modern Maturity, the nation's largest-circulation magazine and the bimonthly publication of the American Association of Retired Persons, ranks Western Governors University among the top 10 electronic learning sites in the country, grouping it with California Virtual Campus and the electronic versions of Penn State, Berkeley and the University of Washington.

But the magazine misstates the mission of the school, saying its "program awards college credit for life experience." Actually, WGU awards seven competency-based — not credit hour-based — degrees. Where that competency comes from, be it life or the classroom, doesn't matter.

Such is the reality for the country's first completely virtual university — even those who have heard of it often don't get it.

WGU was highlighted in the weekly Chronicle of Higher Education in March as part of a story about competency-based education. But recent issues of other magazines, including The New York Times Magazine and The Economist, don't mention WGU. They talk about the Global Education Network, the University of Phoenix and its online offerings, or DeVry Institute, Motorola University and a bunch of corporate universities like it.

WGU co-founder Gov. Mike Leavitt said most establishment publications are naturally not going to take WGU seriously at first because they are more concerned with brand name universities than with content. And higher education administrators who are rapidly getting involved with e-learning aren't going to mention WGU or will rank it low because they know a threat to their system and traditions when they see one, he adds.

But 500 WGU students don't amount to a droplet in the estimated 15.6 million Americans in college.

The threat lies much deeper than enrollment stats, Leavitt says. WGU is creating a national debate over competency-based degrees. "We're out front clearing the trail, not just walking it."

"The story here is the world is changing, and today education is about competency, not how long you've sat in class," says WGU Chief Executive Officer Robert Mendenhall, bristling a bit after sensing he's facing another fight to defend the merits of his 5-year-old school. "That should determine if you get a degree. It doesn't matter where you learn; what matters is that you are competent," Mendenhall says, pausing a moment before adding, "and it's about time."

Dot college

The changing world via WGU is that teachers don't have to teach and the students don't have to take classes. Its 40 faculty members act as mentors, not as traditional instructors. Students can enroll in any of its 900 courses, but as long as they can pass a series of competency exams, they can get a degree.

Gone is the expectation of sitting for hours in class, then passing midterms and finals to rack up enough prescribed credits to get a degree. Students, "learning independent of time and space," as Mendenhall likes to say, can get a degree by showing competency in — not time studying — a number of "domains."

Students have mentor professors who communicate regularly with students via e-mail. But in an ironic twist on the old gripe in higher education that professors don't spend enough time with students, WGU faculty members who ultimately grade exams have had no prior interaction with the students.

Competency is the bread and butter of applied technology education — i.e., you have to be able to plumb to be called a plumber. But it represents a key shift in academia, and the more that online schools push for it, the more they will shift the culture of education, and the criticism that competency is job training posing as academics simply won't matter.

Insiders and observers say that competency is the monster under higher education's bed. Making competency an issue combined with paring down its vision was necessary, said Sally Johnstone, a director with Western Interstate Commission on Higher Education in Boulder, Colo. "It was a product of multiple visions, and had silver bullet status for a while, but it has to focus to survive."

Corporate academia

Competence is not only expected, it is demanded by employers, says Leavitt, who is old enough to remember a day when a guy was considered lucky just to get to go to college. He now views higher education as a necessary ticket to higher-paying jobs and the turbo-charger on his and other Western states' economic engines.

A lot of businesses must agree with him; WGU has 22 corporate and foundation partners, including America Online, Apple Computer, AT&T, Cisco Systems, Convergys, Drake International, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, IBM, KPMG Peat Marwick, Micron, Microsoft, Novell, Oracle, Qwest, Sun Microsystems, the J. Willard and Alice S. Marriott Foundation and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. The last three on that list in May gave WGU grants totaling $685,000.

But bucks do not an accredited university make. And even if WGU likes the notion of kicking traditional higher education in the shins, it must also obtain their endorsement if its brand on a diploma is going to mean anything. WGU received candidacy for accreditation — which is tantamount to being accredited — last year by the Interregional Accrediting Committee, an association of four regional traditional accrediting commissions.

Earlier this month, it was accredited by the Distance Education and Training Council, a worldwide agency that promotes educational standards and ethical business practices for schools offering distance education.

As far as Mendenhall is concerned, WGU has been moving at the speed of light in a system that normally advances like a glacier and hates risk.

Lofty vs. short term

Critics say basing degrees on competency is a short-term answer to the need for training but that the solution is barbed on the end and could ultimately deflate higher education's higher purpose of providing an educated citizenry.

What makes an educated person is a question that for about 10 years has daunted members of a special task force set up by the state Board of Regents.

Anne Leffler, chairwoman of the Task Force of General Education and interim dean for the College of Humanities at Utah State University, says the advent of WGU has helped propel the discussion by its promotion of competencies over time in class.

"When you are certified with a grade, that should mean something, and when you are certified with a diploma, that has to mean something, too," Leffler said, voicing the usual hesitancy many in higher education have about WGU. "I'm really concerned that when we certify based on competency that we're certifying educated citizens. (Education) is an important process in this country, and we need to all protect the integrity of it. Otherwise, we fall into that terrain of how do we train for jobs and educating people not on merit but for what might be the politically or economically expedient."

"The attitude in traditional education is that the market generally does not belong there," Leffler said. On one hand, traditional educators try to protect themselves from being seen as worldly and something to be marketed, yet they spawn for-profit companies and labs and sell patents by the score.

They hesitate even hinting that what they do is job training, yet all three major universities in the state happily threw support behind Leavitt's initiative to jump-start the new economy by producing several times more engineers and computer technology graduates in the next five years. Mendenhall says he isn't looking to draw battle lines. "It's just shifting education from institutions to individuals. In the end, if students can define, obtain and validate their own learning, and employers find the validation reliable, then the meaning and value of a college degree is redefined."

E-mail: jthalman@desnews.com; spang@desnews.com