Western Governors University Improves its Grade

After five years, an online university launched by 19 Western governors is beginning to flourish

by / January 3, 2005
After five years, an online university launched by 19 Western governors is beginning to flourish. Western Governors University, which started offering education via the Internet in 1999, doubled its enrollment to 3,000 students in the past year.

The virtual university, chartered in 1996 by the Western Governors Association as a private, non-profit institution, now offers 24 separate degrees in education, business administration and information technology on the undergraduate and graduate level. This compares with just 750 students enrolled in nine different degree programs in 2002.

WGU does not educate in the traditional sense. Using a computer and written course materials, students study on their own. They must pass a series of tests and submit a portfolio of projects for their degree. Potential teachers also must train in a classroom.

So far, WGU has awarded 160 diplomas -- 100 of them in the past year. Robert Mendenhall, the president of the school, is optimistic that number will soon grow. He said it was hard to attract students before the university earned regional accreditation in 2003 -- the same academic stamp of approval given to institutions such as Northwestern University, the University of Wisconsin and Stanford University.

To fund WGU, the 19 founding states pitched in $2.2 million in seed money. Another $19 million was contributed by corporations and foundations, including technology giants Microsoft, Oracle, Dell Computer and Sun Microsystems. Tuition, which ranges from $2,590 to $3,250 for each six-month term, now accounts for three-quarters of the school's budget and is expected to provide 90 percent next year, Mendenhall said.

WGU's growth is one of the factors in a projected 25 percent increase in online learning nationwide for 2004, according to a report by the Sloan Consortium, a group of organizations dedicated to promoting Web learning. It is funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

WGU is a member of the consortium and the Sloan foundation is a member of WGU's national advisory board.

The greatest number of online courses, where more than 80 percent of the class content is delivered electronically, are offered by big name universities. But the fastest growth in e-learning is at relatively new institutions, such as Phoenix University, said I. Elaine Allen, a Babson College professor who co-authored the consortium's study.

The average online learner is likely to be older than other college students and have a job and family, Allen said.

Web-based learning is providing increased access to education, said Burck Smith, CEO of Smarthinking.com, which provides online tutoring services for high schools, colleges and universities.

WGU's potential may be limited because it does not have a physical campus to attract students, Smith said. Most online students also take face-to-face classes at their college or university.

Student attachment to brick and mortar is why online learning has largely failed to revolutionize higher education, a University of Pennsylvania study concluded.

In addition, students and faculty have yet to adapt their teaching and studying methods to the possibilities of new technology, said University of Pennsylvania researchers Robert Zemsky and William F. Massy.

"Students do want to be connected, but principally to one another; they want to be entertained by, principally by games, music and movies; and they want to present themselves and their work," they said in their report.

Reprinted from Stateline.org.