The month is June, and Jeff Xouris is preparing for the launch of the pilot phase of the highly publicized, long-anticipated Western Governors' University (WGU) -- and he's not alone. All over the nation, teachers, students and others involved in education are watching to see what will happen when WGU opens, becoming the largest virtual university in the United States. Will the controversial program take off, or will its online classes and competency-based degrees be considered inferior to those from schools made of brick and mortar?
"What it comes down to is educational options," said Xouris, WGU's spokesman. "We realize that today's students, more than ever, learn in different ways, have different schedules, and are not always in a town where they can attend a regular university."
As WGU ramps up, it promises not only to be the largest virtual university to date, but one that will likely set the standard for virtual universities of the future. Already, it's helped create a model for distance learning, changed accreditation guidelines so that they will no longer be limited by geographical boundaries, and pressed Congress to make distance-learning institutions eligible for financial aid.
Still, not all educators are happy about WGU's bold efforts. "Colleges and universities are starting to recognize that there are alternatives for people seeking an education. For the adult learner and for people who need the convenience of distance learning, colleges and universities will have to adapt and compete," explained Xouris. "That doesn't necessarily sit well with all of them."
University of Necessity
WGU got its start in 1995 when Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt and Colorado Gov. Roy Romer got together to discuss the plight of higher education in their respective states. Worried about dwindling higher-education budgets, growing populations and the trend toward lifelong learning, Leavitt and Romer wanted to pool their resources and take advantage of technology to help solve their problems. Leavitt wanted a flexible structure that could meet the needs of adult learners, while Romer pushed for a system that would give people credit for what they knew rather than which courses they had completed. What they came up with was WGU.
Today, WGU has garnered financial commitments from 17 states and Guam, with projections indicating it could have 100,000 students online by 2006.
The strategy behind the program lies in brokering existing materials from colleges around the country and the world. WGU already has partnerships set up with higher-education institutions in Japan, Canada, Mexico, Great Britain and China. During the pilot phase, they plan to offer 150 to 200 courses from 20 different institutions. Three initial credentials will be offered: associate degrees in arts or applied science, and a certificate in electronics manufacturing technology. Eventually, additional competency-based credentials as well as standard bachelors' and masters' degrees will also be offered.
Although the primary market for WGU will be working adults -- a group that currently makes up 44 percent of the nation's college students, according to recent studies -- WGU and other virtual universities are drawing protests from traditional universities, which regularly cater to the 18- to 22-year-old crowd.
Many protests have to do with the way educators are going to be compensated for the virtual courses they develop. At Princeton University, a draft policy on distance learning led professors to argue that it would strip them of ownership of their Web sites. Also, a policy developed by Athabasca University in Canada recently made professors angry enough to consider going to court.
Other protests have to do with the overall push states are applying to get their universities into the virtual game. Recently, at the University of Washington, over 850 students, teachers and administrators signed a letter to Gov. Gary Locke protesting the state's strong push toward distance learning.
"We had a talk by Wallace Loh, Governor Locke's educational adviser," said Galya Diment, president of the University of Washington chapter of the American Association of University Professors, which led the protest. "His talk was extreme. He was basically accusing us of leading a charmed life and telling students that they shouldn't trust us, that they know better than we do what they need to be taught. He was saying: 'You go [to the colleges] and apply the pressure from the inside, and I'll apply it from the outside, and between the two forces, we're going to change it all with virtual education.'"
Diment said the letter was in reaction to those radical views about distance learning, not a reaction of people who dislike technology. "We all use technology, and we know certain things are going to change, but Loh was saying, if the University of Washington cannot do their job right, technology can solve it all. This is a protest of views that are extreme and uninformed about what technology can and cannot do," said Diment.
Despite some protests, many educators seem willing to accept the virtual universities. In May, Coopers & Lybrand -- an accounting firm now known as PricewaterhouseCoopers following its July 1 merger with Price Waterhouse -- hosted a roundtable to examine the transformation of higher education in the digital age. Gathering 35 presidents, chancellors and provosts from public and private colleges and universities, executives from higher education associations, senior leaders from technology firms and federal policy-makers, Coopers & Lybrand found little resistance to the idea of virtual universities among them.
"There wasn't resistance to the idea so much, but a good deal of discussion about what it means to bring change to the traditional institutions and whether or not they'll be able to change quickly," said Clark Bernard, a partner at Coopers & Lybrand and co-chair of the industry program that focuses on the learning industry. "There was recognition that virtual education is among us, and the real question was who could best take advantage of it."
Bernard said the general consensus of the roundtable was that virtual universities are going to play a significant role in the transformation of higher education in the coming years -- whether or not educators like them. "We might debate which wave is going to come first, but clearly there's a wave that's already crashing on the beach," he said. "That wave is the six million students 24 years old or older that have the ATM mentality -- I want it 24 hours a day, I want a choice and I want access from anywhere. Programs like WGU are answering those demands."
So as WGU gets into full swing this fall, educators around the country will be closely watching how successful this program becomes, and, if students do decide a virtual education is the best solution to their needs, whether traditional universities will be supportive of it.
"There's going to be some reluctance to virtual universities from educators and even from some students," said Xouris, "but WGU is not designed to compete with the traditional learning environment. There's definitely value that we could never try to substitute for in a traditional academic learning environment."
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