Western Governors University (WGU) Is in Your State: Deconstructing the Academy
Teri Yamada, Professor of Asian Studies, CSU Long Beach
In our cultural echo chamber of deception, as Joseph Goebbels said, “If you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes the truth.” The media has served business well in the production of panic over America’s imminent fall in the global economy. We are told that our decline in global competitiveness is due to the failure of “traditional public education.”
For the past several years, the Lumina Foundation for Education has been calling for the United States to increase higher education attainment rates — the proportion of the population that holds a high-quality postsecondary degree or credential — to 60 percent by the year 2025. This call — known as “Lumina’s Big Goal” — has been embraced by many others. Foundations, state governments, national higher education associations, and President Obama have all issued their own call for increasing the proportion of Americans with high-quality degrees and credentials.
Their way to meet this goal is to alter the “unchanging public education system” through disruptive technology and privatization. In this mythic death and rebirth struggle, we must rid ourselves of the ossified, brick-and-mortar educational institutions and embrace the redemptive and disruptive online learning platforms of virtual education. Stephen Ehrmann refers to this phenomenon as “the rapture of technology” (1).
The big money behind rapture technology ensures the effectiveness of its propaganda. Public discourse on education has been remolded to focus on the cause of its “failure” defined as teachers and their unions. And remedies are offered in the form of privatization through vouchers and charters, online delivery, and school funding tied to the measurable outcomes of retention and graduation rates.
The result is contested cultural space over the meaning and value of education. For example, the Lumina Foundation promotes its definition:
“Quality in higher education must be defined in terms of student outcomes, particularly learning outcomes, and not by inputs or institutional characteristics. The value of degrees and credentials…rests on the skills and knowledge they represent.” (2 )
Compare this reductive utilitarianism to the “affinity philosophy of learning” embedded in the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s cutting edge digital media and learning initiative ;
“If it were possible to define generally the mission of education, it could be said that its fundamental purpose is to ensure that all students benefit from learning in ways that allow them to participate fully in public, community (creative) and economic life (3 ).
Both Lumina and MacArthur advocate a shift from an instructor-centered model of education to a student-centered learning model; but MacArthur’s frame does not erase “teachers” from education although it does reshape their role as instructors. The Lumina value of reductive utilitarianism is the basis for the WGU model of learning. The goal of this learning is to demonstrate competency over a specific vocational skill set defined by measurable outcomes.
WGU began in 1995 when several governors of western states decided to create a virtual university to confer “competency-based” degrees. They had the following concerns (4):
- To accommodate access of rural students, the governors wanted delivery of cost-effective education at any place, any time;
- The rising cost of education combined with population growth would surpass the capacity of the brick-and-mortar institutions; there would be no more money to build new campuses;
- State colleges were not producing enough skilled graduates, and the graduates they were producing had uneven skill sets. So a competency-based degree, certified by a third party, seemed to make sense “in an employment climate where it is commonplace to question what it means to have a degree” (5); they had corporate support for this plan;
- The governors felt their state colleges had been unresponsive to these problems so the governors decided to shake things up, “to foster innovation in higher education institutions.”
The governors embraced a competency-based, online delivery model that required re-conceptualizing the function of “traditional” faculty in higher education. This re-conceptualization is called “unbundling”: the splitting off into distinct functions of a faculty role and assigning each function to a distinct human agent or technology.
Unbundling enables virtual universities to control costs by increasing “instructor productivity” (6). Research and university service are removed from the role of “faculty.” Academic advising is not recognized in this world-view as part of a faculty’s role in the university. The remaining component —instruction —is further unbundled to the following five distinct activities:
- Designing the course;
- Developing the course through the selection of instructional methods and course materials;
- Mediating a student’s learning process (such as identifying learning styles);
- Assessing levels of competence.
These five activities are then assigned to technology or separate agents. In this way, the traditional understanding of “faculty” is deconstructed. WGU does not offer instruction directly but brokers “learning opportunities” through various technologies. Advisers (mentors/monitors) assist students in choosing the “learning opportunity” to achieve a certain goal. Those who design the courses and programs belong to WGU Program Councils consisting of faculty members and industry specialists. WGU agents are all contract laborers; there is no tenure. So we are left to contemplate Jerry Farber’s concerns, expressed in 1998:
If you take the new developments in educational and communications technology, lift them up on a millennial wave of technological enthusiasm, integrate them into the competency-based/outcomes movement in education which has persisted in one form or another since the 1970s or earlier, and put them in the service of corporate interests, which are moving toward a de facto takeover of higher education, you come up with a rough approximation of what appears to be happening in a great many colleges and universities at the turn of the century (7 ).
ACTION PLAN : Check to see if there is a stealth bill to establish WGU as an “official branch” in your state. We recently discovered one in California. If so, consider educating your elected representatives now.
- Ask your legislators how the “competency based” instruction of WGU will impact your state’s public university systems? What is the cost-benefit analysis? How many jobs will be lost to out-of-state WGU employees? The low cost of WGU tuition— its main selling point to “customers” —is politically attractive to state legislators since it undercuts for-profit providers who voraciously consume federal and state grant money and are difficult to regulate. One can argue that our legislators should be investing in state community colleges, which offer even lower-cost vocational training programs, many with online components and a richer learning experience.
- Ask your legislators to explain WGU’s lack of transparency and accountability. WGU refuses to release official accreditation reports. It is impossible to assess their “success” in terms of graduation and retention rates until they release longitudinal studies of yearly cohorts for each program. Currently they refuse to provide this data on the basis they are a “private non-profit.”
(1) AFT, “Teaming Up With Technology,” p. 19.
(2) Both Farber and Johnstone discuss these.
(3) This is a quote from Bill Ivey, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, and Steven J. Tepper in Jenkin’s “Confronting the Challenges…” a MacArthur Foundation report, p. 61.
(4) These concerns are found in both Farber and Johnstone.
(5) Paulson, 124.
(6) See Paulson for this explanation. Note that there are other models of disruptive unbundling, for example University of Phoenix.
(7) Farber, 809-10.
AFT. “Teaming Up with Technology: How Unions Can Harness the Technology Revolution on Campus.” Report of the Task Force on Technology in Higher Education. January 1996.
Farber, Jerry. “The Third Circle: On Education and Distance Learning.” Sociological Perspectives. 41.4 (1998): 797-814.
Jenkins, Henry et al. “Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century.” Occasional Paper on Digital Media and Learning. MacArthur Foundation.
Johnstone, Douglas. “A Competency Alternative: Western Governors University.” Change. 37.4 (July-Aug 2005): 24-33.
Paulson, Karen. “Reconfiguring Faculty Roles for Virtual Settings.” The Journal of Higher Education. 73.1 (Jan-Feb, 2002): 123-140.