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Originally published Friday, April 1, 2011 at 9:07 AM

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Guest columnist

Online university doesn't offer 'real college education'

Western Washington University professor Johann Neem argues the Washington Legislature should not partner with Western Governor's University. He says the online university does not offer an experience that compares with that offered by the state's public higher-education institutions.

Special to The Times

THE Legislature is considering a proposal to turn Western Governors University, a private online institution, into a state university. While the bill's supporters claim that WGU provides greater access to working citizens, there are serious drawbacks that deserve consideration.

First, we have so many worthy private nonprofit colleges and schools in our state that it seems wrong to give public sanction to a school from Utah when local institutions have a history of reaching out to our citizens. Granting WGU recognition may also dissuade other colleges from establishing an online presence, reducing competition and innovation.

Second, WGU's cost is not equated to its product. WGU charges more per term than our community colleges, and almost as much per year as our four-year institutions. Given that WGU does not pay for classrooms and campuses, a full-time faculty who develop material tailored for students, extracurricular services and faculty research, one must wonder where this money goes and who benefits.

Third, our community colleges, technical colleges and four-year institutions already offer online and offline adult education certification and degree programs. These programs are taught and overseen by faculty in academic departments who have degrees in their fields and are often active researchers. Students benefit from learning from well-qualified people who have designed courses in their areas of expertise.

Fourth, and most important, WGU does not offer a college education. A college education is about going through a process that leaves students transformed. That's why it takes time. Learning is hard — brain research demonstrates that real learning requires students to struggle with difficult material under the consistent guidance of good teachers. WGU denies students these opportunities. In fact, its advertisements pander to prospective students by offering them credit for what they already know rather than promising to teach them something new.

By giving students opportunities to take courses in the arts and sciences, college prepares graduates for more than just their jobs. College graduates are expected to be capable of making sense of the social, political, economic and scientific challenges facing their country and world. Unlike at WGU, our college students do more than fulfill a small set of technical competencies. They become thoughtful citizens and human beings.

Business leaders know that our future depends on innovation, but WGU's students do not engage in the meaningful research, writing, labs and discussions that develop creativity. While other countries are emulating American higher education, WGU threatens what makes our system successful. Instead, WGU's competency-based approach asks students to meet a small set of predetermined outcomes, discouraging thinking and originality.

Whatever WGU is, it is not a college education. Its scope is too narrow and its programs superficial. It's clear what WGU gains from affiliation with Washington, but it's not clear what we gain in return. The real victims of WGU's marketing strategy are poorer and working citizens who are offered an inferior product at an inflated price rather than given access to a college education. We all deserve better.

Johann Neem is associate professor of history at Western Washington University.

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