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In the Nation's Interest

It’s Not About Online—It’s About Quality

The recent release of Stanford economist Caroline Hoxby’s study of the return on investment (ROI) of online learning has precipitated a flurry of commentary and criticism. While there are real issues surrounding the methodology and conclusions of the study, most of the comments don’t address the fundamental question:

It’s not about online. It’s about quality.

While there have been rapid, technology-driven changes in all other industries over the past 25 years, higher education has insulated itself from most of these changes. For most institutions, tradition, rather than student focus, still guides decisions. This preoccupation with tradition even extends to the way students are labeled or categorized. We talk about traditional students or nontraditional students, when in fact, we should think about them as contemporary students. Today, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), nearly 40% of college students are older, financially independent, and have lives and jobs that demand the accessibility and flexibility that online learning provides. And, while tradition frowns on referring to them as customers, they are our customers. As such, our primary focus must be on meeting their needs.

Given the needs of these contemporary students, higher education will continue to expand the use of online delivery methods. But focusing on “online” as the issue is like worrying about which classroom you use to conduct class. It’s not about the delivery vehicle or venue—it’s about quality. What we teach, how we teach, how we measure learning, and whether we provide real value to students.

Western Governors University (WGU) was created to address the needs of contemporary students. It is nonprofit and fully online, but that has never been what distinguishes WGU. Being online makes WGU more accessible and flexible, but it is competency-based education that differentiates us. WGU pioneered the use of Competency Based Education (CBE) 20 years ago, and today, we have more than 80,000 graduates and 80,000 enrolled students.

CBE focuses on measuring learning rather than time, recognizing that contemporary students come to college with a wide range of learning styles and levels of knowledge. It allows students to fit their studies into their busy lives, making it possible for them to advance as soon as they can demonstrate mastery of required competencies.  

Programs and courses are developed in collaboration with representatives from industry and other academic institutions to ensure that students graduate with knowledge and skills that will be recognized and respected by employers and other universities. Learning resources are procured from the best sources, sometimes including certification curricula, an added value to our students.

WGU faculty members are specialists, with roles structured to maximize student engagement and learning. Those with program-specific education and work experience serve as student mentors, working with students individually and continuously from enrollment to graduation, providing coaching guidance and support. For example, student mentors in our Teachers College hold master’s degrees and have classroom experience. Course faculty are the subject matter experts who instruct and guide students through each course, offering guidance, leading group discussions, and providing individualized instruction. Curriculum developers and assessment developers are responsible for program and course development, and evaluators review performance assessments. This disaggregation of roles allows faculty to concentrate on a specific area of expertise, and, more importantly, enable student-facing faculty to focus only on their students.

Assessments, which verify student learning, are at the core of CBE. Assessments are developed by psychometricians and are mapped to the competencies defined for each course. WGU assessments come in several forms: objective tests, performance assessments (which are papers and presentations), and experiential evaluation. Every objective assessment is proctored; the majority are proctored online by live proctors using sophisticated technology to verify identity, monitor activity, and prevent cheating. Performance assessments are “graded” anonymously by faculty evaluators. In order to pass an assessment and advance, students must earn a score equivalent to a B grade or better.

How do we know whether we are providing value and a return on investment to our students? We measure. Here are some of the factors we track:

  • Student and graduate satisfaction and engagement. We use in-house surveys, participate in the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), and engage Harris Polls and Gallup to collect data to tell us how our student and alumni feel about their experiences as well as how they are succeeding after graduation. Our scores are consistently better than the national average.
  • Return on investment. The vast majority of our students enroll at WGU to advance their careers, either through a better job in their field or a career change. Harris Polls asks them about their employment as well as their income. In the most recent survey, our graduates reported an average increase in income of $19,100 within 4 years of graduation. The average time to a bachelor’s degree at WGU is 2 ½ years—a total tuition cost of $15,000, so our graduates are paying for their education in less than 4 years. According to Gallup’s survey, 91% of WGU graduates feel that their education was worth the cost, compared to the national average of 67%.
  • Loyalty and attachment. 97% of WGU graduates say they would recommend WGU to someone else, and 94% say they would attend WGU again. Gallup’s data tells us that our graduates are significantly more attached to their alma mater than graduates from other institutions.

It’s time for higher education as a whole to create new traditions. Contemporary students expect and deserve programs that accommodate their needs and learning styles. It’s our job to find the best ways to deliver quality and value, regardless of the delivery vehicle.

Scott Pulsipher is a CED Member and has served as president of nonprofit Western Governors University (WGU), the nation’s first and largest competency-based university, since April 2016, leading all academic, operational, and organizational functions. Pulsipher blends a personal drive for making a difference in the lives of individuals and families through education and a passion for technology-powered innovation. At WGU, he is driving continuous innovation to improve student outcomes by focusing on rapidly advancing curriculum quality, new faculty models, data-driven learning, and a different cost model.Guest blogs are the views of the individuals and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of CED.