November 10, 1996 in Nation/World

Wgu: 13 States, No Buildings ‘Virtual University’ Aims To Bring Education To Most Remote Regions

By The Spokesman-Review
 

No ivy will grow on the walls of the Western Governors University.

WGU won’t have any walls.

Set to offer its first courses in spring of 1998, the 13-state “virtual university” promises learning from anywhere, at anytime. It’s an idea custom-made for the expanses of the Inland Northwest.

Imagine: A Bonners Ferry worker could learn electronics at his kitchen-table computer, taking classes via Internet after his shift at the sawmill. A mother in Omak, Wash., could, through two-way video hookup, realize her dream of getting a teaching degree.

Skeptics worry that the virtual university will rob real campuses of students, and rob students of the social interaction that is a big part of college education.

Many teachers shake their heads at the loss of “eyeball-to-eyeball” classroom contact.

But, like it or not, high-tech long-distance learning is here.

“The genie is out of the bottle,” Idaho Gov. Phil Batt said. WGU, he contends, is “a way to put shape and order to this process.”

It’s also a way to keep down the cost of higher education. Many western states face a 30 percent increase in college-age residents in the next 10 years, but lack the money to expand brick-and-mortar campuses.

Some 200 virtual universities are operating or set to operate around the world, said Robert Albrecht, co-director of the WGU initiative. The California state university system, plus 34 other schools around the world, will be offering courses over IBM’s Global Campus network.

“There’s nothing new in what we’re proposing,” Albrecht said. “It’s simply the way that we’re putting it together that’s different.”

WGU is an offspring of the Western Governors Association, conceived in 1995 at a conference in Las Vegas.

The university will not have faculty. Instead, it’ll be a broker that connects colleges offering long-distance classes with students who want to take them.

Businesses or training firms could also contract with WGU to offer individual courses or certification. More likely, industry leaders - among the biggest boosters of on-line education - will ask WGU or its affiliated colleges to offer specific courses.

That worries Kenneth Ashworth, a Texas education commissioner who blasted WGU in a commentary in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

“Letting employers, rather than faculty members, define the content of a college education would quickly get us more training than education for our citizens,” he wrote. “And odds are that few of the people who are not introduced to a general education in college will develop an appreciation for it later.”

On-line classes elsewhere have actually sparked people’s interest in pursuing a traditional campus education, said Sally Johnstone of the Western Cooperative for Education Telecommunications.

Those who want to get a degree from WGU, she said, may be able to “cherry pick” the best instructors from a variety of schools, and put together a uniquely valuable degree.

“Students could shop around for low price or prestigious schools,” said Johnstone, a contractor working for WGU. “Ultimately, student success rates will be compiled and available to help students decide the value of courses.”

The heart of the university will be an interactive catalog that will be far more than a listing of courses.

The catalog will be a software program.

Using a computer at home, library or other learning center, a student would first log on to the Internet and find the WGU home page. After “clicking” on a picture representing the catalog, they would be confronted with a series of questions.

What courses would you like to take? Are you working toward a degree? Do you have a preferred university? What time of day could you study? Would you like to get classes on CD, videotape, or e-mail?

The catalog could serve as adviser, too, testing students’ knowledge to see whether they qualify for courses.

Students will enroll on-line, said Johnstone, charging their education to “any one of a number of credit cards.”

One controversial aspect of WGU will be the way a person earns credentials or degrees. Instead of racking up “seat time” in classrooms and passing tests, the students will take competency exams. There will be no letter grades.

University of Idaho math professor Bill Voxman frets about that. “One can be marginally competent,” he said of the pass/fail approach.

More than that, Voxman is concerned that WGU will keep students from being exposed to the rich mix of ideas and people that they could find on campus. That exposure is especially important to people coming from isolated rural towns.

“What I worry about is that a high school graduate who could very well go to Idaho State University or Gonzaga sees this as a way to avoid the costs, stay with a girlfriend, or whatever, and get an education.”

That will happen, WGU supporters concede. But they expect the vast majority of students to be people who couldn’t, or wouldn’t, attend a regular college.

Batt uses his grown daughter as an example. She’d like to finish college, but is tied down in tiny Wilder, Idaho, tending to her family and managing the farm.

Most WGU students will probably be taking midcareer or technological training, supporters say, and not working toward a traditional degree. No one is saying when a four-year degree might be available through WGU.

Initially, there will be two course offerings: an associate of arts degree, and a technical engineering certificate. If all goes as planned, those will be available in the spring of 1998. During 1997, there will be only “trial runs” involving one university in each state, and volunteer students.

In Idaho, the trial run will take place at the University of Idaho in Moscow. The state’s center of operations for WGU will be the ISU-UI Higher Education Center in Idaho Falls.

Participating states are committed to raising $100,000 in start-up money for WGU. Idaho is one of the three that’s paid so far. Montana has pulled $40,000 from its pocket.

Washington Gov. Mike Lowry put the $100,000 in his budget request to the Legislature. But the level of Washington’s involvement in WGU will likely be determined by the enthusiasm of Gov.-elect Gary Locke, who considers himself a champion of higher education.

California opted out of WGU. With more students and money than all of the participating states combined, it’s putting together its own virtual university.

“They don’t think they need us,” said Thomas Singer, project manager for WGU. “We were surprised.”

Even the biggest skeptics of WGU agree it can be valuable for reaching people who live far from a campus or need technical training. And there’s no debate that it is cheaper than buying real estate, brick and mortar.

The estimated cost of getting this regional university up and running is $5 million to $10 million. In contrast, Washington State University just spent $17 million to remodel one classroom building.

, DataTimes MEMO: Cut in the Spokane edition

This sidebar appeared with the story: AT A GLANCE Western Governors University is a computer-based, non-profit institution now in the planning stages. It will link colleges in 13 states that offer courses with students who can’t, or choose not to, attend school on campus. Timeline: Initial courses expected to be offered in spring 1998. Funding:$2.5 million through pilot stage. So far, $500, 000 raised from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, $340,000 from states. Information: WGU’s Internet Web site is http://www.westgov.org/smart/ vu/vu.html; mailing address, 600 17th St., Suite 1705 S., Denver, CO 80202; phone, Rick Merritt at 303-623-9378 Sponsor: The Western Governors Association, a non-partisan organization of 18 states, two territories, one commonwealth.

Cut in the Spokane edition

This sidebar appeared with the story: AT A GLANCE Western Governors University is a computer-based, non-profit institution now in the planning stages. It will link colleges in 13 states that offer courses with students who can’t, or choose not to, attend school on campus. Timeline: Initial courses expected to be offered in spring 1998. Funding:$2.5 million through pilot stage. So far, $500, 000 raised from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, $340,000 from states. Information: WGU’s Internet Web site is http://www.westgov.org/smart/ vu/vu.html; mailing address, 600 17th St., Suite 1705 S., Denver, CO 80202; phone, Rick Merritt at 303-623-9378 Sponsor: The Western Governors Association, a non-partisan organization of 18 states, two territories, one commonwealth.


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