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Business Officer Magazine
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Western Governors Takes Hold

At a time when new requirements for content development and course delivery are pushing the U.S. higher education sector to innovate like never before, the success of the Western Governors University model is spreading across the country.

By Paul Jenny

Western Governors University Texas is one of three recent spinoffs (along with WGU Indiana and WGU Washington) of Western Governors University, created by 19 governors who joined forces to develop a multistate distance-learning delivery network and competency-based nonprofit university. WGU, which turned 15 in July 2012, was founded on the commitment to expand access to higher education for working adults and to provide affordable, accredited, high-quality online and blended degree programs in high-demand fields.

Prior to taking the helm as chancellor at WGU Texas, Mark Milliron served as deputy director for postsecondary improvement with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, leading efforts to increase student success. In this interview, Milliron delineates the WGU model.

For more of his conversation with University of Washington Vice Provost of Planning and Budgeting Paul Jenny about new developments shaping online learning, see "Mark Milliron's Data-Driven Drive" in the January 2013 issue of Business Officer.

How would you articulate the learning philosophy behind Western Governors University?

Western Governors has two overriding goals. One is strategically leveraging technology to create an affordable, accessible model of education for underserved populations. This is a big deal in the Western states, especially in inner cities and in rural areas. The second overarching goal is to deploy an at-scale version of learning-centered education and competency-based progression. While it was slow going at first in working through the process for accreditation, WGU is now 36,000 students strong in 50 states. Today, one out of every three Western Governors students is recommended by another student. Many people have tried the model and found that it makes sense for them.

How is the learning model structured?

The learning model is really like an Oxford model online, where you have an individual relationship between a student and a faculty mentor that is in place from first contact to completion. They work together all the way through the degree plan. The model is focused on competency-based learning and documenting that students have mastered the content. Students progress from one topic to another as they master them. As students go through different topics and interact with course faculty who are specialists in those topic areas, that matrix of faculty, student mentors, and course mentors guide that student all the way through a program.

How do you develop course content?

We work with employers and faculty to define learning competencies. For example, what does someone need to know and do in the area of cybersecurity? We then curate the best curricular resources from whatever credible sources we find that would help someone achieve those knowledge outcomes. We pair that with the most robust suite of assessments we can develop to tell us with regard to behavioral performance and in quantitative and qualitative terms whether someone has achieved those competencies. Wherever possible, we use an industry certification because we believe that adds credential value to the student.

Who comprises your faculty and how do you use them to achieve your goals within this competency-based learning model?

One of the biggest differences with Western Governors is our model for faculty. Most of the higher education academy uses the general practitioner model, where faculty do everything. They develop the course, define learning outcomes, identify resources, conduct assessments, deliver instruction, and manage these deep personal relationships with students. By contrast, we take a specialist approach. We have faculty who are really good at student-mentor relationships, so we have them focus solely on that. Other faculty may be great at content development, or they might be experts at the qualitative and quantitative assessment work, so their time is dedicated to those functions. We don't use adjuncts, and all our faculty are full time.

 Another point worth mentioning is that unlike many traditional universities that have moved the advising role into student services and relegated faculty to focus on academic progression, at Western Governors we have pulled the advising, coaching, and mentoring roles squarely back into the academic journey.

What kind of cost model do you have in place?

We believe one key to our success is that we have found a way to engage students in high-quality learning affordably and at scale. We are a year-round, full-time model. Our student tuition is set at a flat rate of $2,890 every six months—a rate we have not raised during the past five years—and it's essentially an "all-you-can-eat" model. We decide the learning outcomes we think students can achieve in a given six-month period, but very often they can accelerate and do more than what we've outlined, and that of course saves them money.

Who comprises the bulk of your student population, and why do you think they are drawn to your learning model?

From what I've described, you can rightly conclude that Western Governors is not focused on the first-time, full-time traditional freshmen. Less than 3 percent of our student population fits that demographic. Rather, we are dedicated to students who need an accessible, affordable, flexible model. The average age of our students is 36, but that represents a wide range between ages 25 and 55. We have three primary groups of students: incumbent workers who may already have a bachelor's degree and want to get a master's degree to move up in their careers; transfer students who attended a community college for its flexibility and lower cost, who want to continue with that flexibility as they complete their bachelor's degree without racking up enormous student debt; and displaced workers or those wanting a career change, who take a sustenance job for a time but want to complete a degree to transition or move up.

How would you characterize where Western Governors fits within the broader higher education landscape?

We see Western Governors as part of the larger education ecosystem that provides a different kind of option for a different kind of student. This is a big market. There are approximately 37 million people in this country who have significant college coursework on their transcripts with no credential. What they need are models that allow them to complete a degree or acquire a credential on their time. We have always approached our model with the recognition and the assumption that students are willing to do the work and learn what they need to learn. What they will not do is put up with bureaucratic nonsense that doesn't make sense to them, such as having to repeat content they already know simply because of an institution's policies that require them to take three semesters of a given topic.

On a related note, accreditors like our model too, because we are very clear about what we want students to learn and we can provide the assessment data to indicate whether they're making progress.

What prior experiences have prepared you for this role in this new learning context?

While I was deputy director for postsecondary improvement at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, we did a lot of analysis of productivity and flow of students through higher education and we concluded that there are essentially three big levers you have to effect change. First, you can improve core business processes. Second, you can reduce the time it takes a student to get through your system. This entails a hard look at the policies and practices that either slow students down or help them accelerate, and it gets to issues surrounding competency-based progression, having to retake classes, and transfer agreements. And third, you can radically improve the learning process so that students are more likely to succeed. All three require good data and a willingness to evaluate your policies, practices, and systems to determine whether you are achieving your goals in a smart and strategic way. 

I'm also currently working on a project with Civitas Learning, an Austin, Texas-based learning analytics company that is working with other institutions as well to develop platforms that can pull data together from multiple sources such as the learning management and student information systems, social networks, the Web, and elsewhere. They then develop the ability for participating colleges and universities to create apps that provide information directly to advisers, students, and faculty. For instance, a heat map can show faculty an infographic of their class and identify the 10 students who are most likely to drop off that week in performance. It's been fascinating to see how innovative the participating institutions have been in this process, and I think that's where we're all headed—to a place where everyone can get that kind of regular feedback about a whole range of concerns that support the broader mission of our institutions.

PAUL JENNY is vice provost of planning and budgeting for University of Washington.