Sunday, December 26, 2010

Learning at your own pace, online

I saw this article about Western Governors University (WGU) today in the LA Times (the print version was titled "Nonprofit takes new approach to education" and had essentially the same text as the online version.)  WGU is an online university, in which each student is assigned an individual mentor. The article, appearing in the personal finance section of the newspaper, emphasizes the low cost of this program ($2800 a semester for undergraduate classes). It points out that students can also go through courses at their own pace; in particular, they can finish a course faster if they already know some of the material or can learn it at a quick pace. Apparently, the average WGU graduate earns a BA in 2.5 years, further reducing the overall cost-to-degree.

The article gushes about this online university in glowing terms. It highlights the McGraw Prize in Education received by the President of WGU, Robert Mendenhall, which cited the university's "flexibility, accessibility and affordability"; it notes that Time magazine once called it "the best college you've never heard of" (the original quote was, actually, "the best relatively cheap university you've never heard of"); and it quotes words of praise by the chief executive of the nation's largest education foundation (Lumina Foundation), Jamie Merisotis, who calls WGU  "a 'disruptive innovator' that's likely to push the entire education system to change in positive ways." The article further mentions that the "National Study of Student Engagement, which rates both traditional universities, showed WGU as performing equal to or better than other private, nonprofit universities not directly supported by governmental bodies. The ratings were based on academic challenge, quality of advisors and overall educational experience."

Intrigued by all this positive press, I dug around a little further on my own. From looking at the course offerings described on WGU's own website, it seems to be geared primarily towards working adults looking to complete a bachelor's degree so they can list it on their resume. The offered majors are not very diverse, and what is on offer focuses less on mind-broadening education than on "marketable/market-oriented" subjects, such as business and teacher's education and narrowly defined information technology domains. For example, most closely related to my area of networks is their degree of B.S. in Information Technology - Networks Design and Management. Their description of this degree reads:

Our network design degree will launch your network systems engineering career. The B.S. in Information Technology—Networks Design and Management will give you leading-edge networks design and engineering skills that employers demand along with eight recognized industry certifications including your Microsoft Certified IT Professional (MCITP) Enterprise Administrator certification. You will become a better networks designer and network systems engineer.
I also found some online reviews of their program. While there are indeed many positive comments, there are also several very dissatisfied students (with complaints ranging from the degrees not being recognized in their work environment, to lack of serious classes, to arbitrary changes in schedule and content, and so on). In the context of the IT program, in particular, one of the reviewers notes: 
I enrolled in the WGU IT program in September 2008. Unfortunately I wasn't told that there weren't "real" IT classes, but that I would be working on getting certificates... So if you want to attend WGU, take all the certifications on your own, and then transfer them in. You could save over $6000+! Also be aware that you won't get basic CS foundational courses such as OOP, Data Structures, etc. It seems that they don't have any of their own curriculum, and everything is outsourced. ... This can be a good school, but be careful, and ask a lot of questions before you enroll. However, because of the lack of advanced classes (Calculus, etc) I don't think you would be a first pick by an employer.
Based on these, I don't believe WGU's IT programs, though they are certainly much less expensive to complete, and are more market-oriented, offer the same breadth and depth as a B.S. in computer science program at schools you have heard of. Nevertheless, I think the article about WGU raises some good questions about one of the major trends in higher education --- the wider adoption of online learning. 

I should note that USC's Viterbi School of Engineering, where I work, has long had a well-subscribed distance education program (I believe it dates back more than 35 years, to 1972, well before WGU was founded; originally using satellite TV transmissions). I myself have taught many classes in this program, in which my lectures are taped and streamed in real-time on the web, and students are able to do homeworks and even take tests remotely. The opportunities for outside-class interactions with the instructor and TA are not always as good for off-campus students as they are for on-campus students, but in my experience faculty/TA's often do make an effort to respond to off-campus student queries in a timely manner, via email or online discussion forums. 

I very much like the free models exemplified by MIT's open courseware and Stanford's iTunes U courses, which allow anyone to see lectures and materials from courses at these universities. I think they get close to the very heart of education.  But they neither provide a framework for evaluation, nor (understandably) for any degree of direct interaction with faculty or other students.

So, we have an open question: is it possible to design high-quality, interactive, online learning programs, with evaluation, that are also self-paced? 

Such a program could go beyond traditional classrooms by allowing for much more personalized and self-directed learning. But, I think, it can never make the brick and mortars version of the university completely redundant, because real spaces and physical interactions provide a rich sense of community in the context of learning --- an essential, albeit intangible, benefit, that cannot be obtained in the virtual world. 

I myself am most interested in how a well-designed online-learning program can be made to complement live interactive experiences at a university, so that we can combine the best of both worlds.

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