Bill would partner state with online university
At a time when Washington's higher-education budget is being slashed, some lawmakers believe a partnership with Western Governors University, a private, not-for-profit online school, could provide more access to college programs without costing the state any money. Critics say the legislation raises philosophical questions about just what constitutes a college education.
Seattle Times higher education reporter
Western Governors UniversityEnrollment: 20,000 students nationwide, 900 of them in Washington state.
Degrees offered: More than 50 bachelor's and master's degree programs in subjects such as business, health, information technology and teacher education.
Time to completion: On average, students complete their bachelor's degrees in 2 ½ years.
Tuition: $5,870 in tuition and fees for the 2010-11 school year — higher than the $3,000 tuition at a state two-year community or technical college, but less than a year's tuition at the University of Washington, which costs about $8,700.
Location and president: WGU is headquartered in Salt Lake City. According to the school's federal tax forms, its president, Robert Mendenhall, made $689,150 in compensation in 2007-08.
Source: Western Governors University
Railroad mechanical worker Luke Trapp has a schedule that changes from week to week, and the 24-year-old Seattle resident doesn't know if he'll be living in Seattle next year — or next month. So when he wanted to get his bachelor's degree in business management, he decided he could not be tied down to a class schedule at a single location.
Trapp signed up for classes at Western Governors University (WGU), a private, not-for-profit online school founded in 1997 by the governors of 19 Western states, including Washington.
The classes arrive through his flat-screen computer in his bedroom, and they include lectures, readings, interactive forums and Web chats — the information presented in a variety of different ways, but all online.
At a time when Washington's higher-education budget is being slashed, some lawmakers believe a partnership with WGU could provide more access to college programs without costing the state any money. Earlier this session, the House voted 70-26 in favor of HB 1822, which would create a partnership between the state and WGU, similar to a partnership WGU established last year with the state of Indiana. The measure is now before the Senate.
Critics say the legislation raises philosophical questions about just what constitutes a college education. They say WGU is not a substitute for a four-year degree at a traditional college because students don't get the rich give-and-take between their professors and other students.
Training over thinking?
Johann Neem, an associate professor of history at Western Washington University, says a college degree should mean more than getting training to do a specific job; it should also develop deeper thinking skills, and include exposure to the arts and sciences.
WGU President Robert Mendenhall calls the university "a faster and more cost-effective path" for a working adult to get a degree than going to a traditional college or university. He says it does require students to complete course work and demonstrate competency in the liberal arts.
Most WGU students would have a hard time getting accepted into a four-year state school, or if they were, would struggle to finish because they are working full-time, he said.
WGU students get credit for what they already know, also known as competency-based learning. For example, a student majoring in information technology who has already mastered a skill on the job — one that isn't reflected in his or her academic résumé — could get credit for that work after demonstrating knowledge of the skill, Mendenhall said.
Among WGU's most popular offerings is its teachers college, allowing students to earn bachelor's or master's degrees in teaching. The classes are usually taken by somebody who is already working in a school, and included is a session of student teaching in a classroom. Its nursing program is also popular.
"I feel like I'm getting more than my money's worth," said Trapp, who calls the course work demanding. "It's an investment: I'm going to take as much out of this as I can."
Trapp demonstrated how a course worked by opening up a browser on his computer screen and choosing a class from the WGU website. A voice read the text on the screen, and stock photos enlivened the lesson. Some lessons start with a quiz, to test what Trapp already knows, and others embed little multiple-choice quizzes within the lesson, then give him problems to solve. At other times, he is given a phone number to call, and he listens to a lecture over the phone.
WGU's faculty members don't do any teaching. They construct a curriculum by searching for, and purchasing, courses already available online, Mendenhall said. Some of WGU's courses come from traditional schools that have created online classes.
WGU also uses courses developed by textbook publishers, and some information-technology courses come from training developed in-house by major corporations. "We use the technology to teach — not the faculty," Mendenhall said.
Trapp's only complaint is that all the different brands and sources of lessons have a steep learning curve at first because each one looks and operates a little differently. "It can get confusing — you have to have a good sense of what you're going to do," he said.
Neem and fellow WWU professor Bill Lyne, who heads the group United Faculty of Washington State, both said they are concerned that WGU doesn't employ its faculty to teach. Rather, it uses mentors to help guide each student through courses.
"We need to recognize that having qualified, good teachers makes a difference," Neem said.
Trapp, who went to high school in Wenatchee, said he had some good teachers there, and they made an impact on his life. "Still, I'm a little more mature now," he said. "There are benefits (to WGU) that outweigh the personal connection."
State Sen. Scott White, D-Seattle, who opposes the bill, says WGU should not be considered a replacement for classroom-based education. But its supporters, including Sen. Jim Kastama, D-Puyallup, says WGU could help meet some of the worker retraining needs in the state now.
If the bill passes, WGU wouldn't receive any state money, but its standing in the state would be solidified, likely helping it attract more students, Mendenhall said. The bill also would allow WGU to be included in agreements for the transfer of college credits among Washington institutions.
Samuel Smith, former president of Washington State University and a member of WGU's board of trustees, says the school fits a gap in the state's spectrum of higher-education course offerings.
Smith believes WGU is different from other online schools because of its use of mentors, many of whom are college instructors and the majority of whom have master's degrees. "It's a shift from emphasizing teaching to emphasizing learning," he said. "It's a bit disruptive to the traditional model."
Trapp hopes a business degree will help him move beyond his current job as a mechanical carman for Union Pacific Railroad, where he inspects and repairs train cars and locomotives. A lack of education "is the one thing that holds you back anymore," he said.
Information from previous Seattle Times articles was included in this report.
Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or email@example.com
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