Magazine Article

Western Governors University is in your state, deconstructing the Academy
Declaring the failure of public education as we have known it, large forces including top elected leaders are cultivating an experiment


The Lumina Foundation for Education has called on the United States to increase the proportion of the population that holds a postsecondary degree or credential to 60 percent by the year 2025.

This call—known as “Lumina’s Big Goal”— has been embraced by state governments, national higher education associations, foundations and even President Obama. They all have issued calls to increase the proportion of Americans with high-quality degrees and credentials. So far so good. And then we are told that our decline in global competitiveness is due to the failure of “traditional public education.”

Lumina and the like would increase higher education attainment rates by altering the “unchanging public education system” through technology that upends the classroom and through privatization. According to this mythic death/rebirth story, we must rid ourselves of ossified, brick-and-mortar educational institutions to embrace the redemptive and disruptive online learning platforms of virtual education. Stephen Ehrmann , technology specialist at George Washington U., refers to this phenomenon as “the rapture of technology”.

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,” which, no surprise, is defined as teachers and their unions. Remedies are offered in the form of privatization through vouchers and charters, online delivery and school funding tied to measurable outcomes of retention and graduation rates.

The result is contested cultural space over the meaning and value of education.

WGU: Utilitarian Education

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. Western Governors University began in 1995 when several governors of western states decided to create a non-unionized, virtual university to confer “competencybased” degrees.

They had the following concerns:

  • To deliver cost-effective education at any place, any time to accommodate access of rural students;
  • To maintain capacity to deliver education in an era of rising costs combined with population growth that would overwhelm student access to the brickand- mortar institutions;
  • To ensure the continuation of public higher education in an economic climate in which there would be no more money to build new campuses;
  • To correct the failures of state colleges, which were producing too few skilled graduates and those they did produce revealed an uneven skill set.

Based on consultation with their major corporate sponsors such as AT&T, Cisco Systems, Novell, and Sun Microsystems,he governors came up with a competencybased degree, with programs designed by a team of faculty and corporate experts not involved in teaching, and with student outcomes certified by an “independent” third party. This seemed to make sense to these governors in the context of their world view in which employers were questioning “what it means to have a degree” from a comprehensive university.

The governors felt their state colleges had been unresponsive to these problems so they decided to shake things up “to foster innovation in higher education institutions.”

Having consulted with big business partners, the governors embraced a competencybased, online delivery model that required re-conceptualizing the function of “traditional” faculty in higher education. This reconceptualization 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”. 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:

  • Design the course;
  • Develop the course through the selection of instructional methods and course materials;
  • Delivery;
  • Mediate a student’s learning process (such as identifying learning styles);
  • Assess levels of competence.

These five activities are 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 the concerns of Jerry Farber, emeritus professor of English and comparative literature at San Diego State, 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.

Action Plan

It is a good idea for the faculty in any state university to look into how WGU may be involved in changes to your campus or system.

The low cost of WGU tuition—its main selling point to “customers”—is politically attractive to state legislators since it undercuts those for-profit providers who voraciously consume federal and state grant money and are often difficult to regulate.

One can argue that our legislators should invest in state community colleges, which offer even lower-cost vocational training programs, many with online components and a richer learning experience.