The all-faculty university.

JP and I wrote about Western Governors University in Education Is Not an App.  Therefore, when I heard that the Inspector General’s Office at the Department of Education had asked for $700 million dollars back after an audit that found no substantial faculty interaction between faculty and students – indeed, that WGU was essentially a correspondence school – my first reaction was:


My second reaction….and I’m not entirely proud of this…was:


After all, here’s a university with the innovative hook of getting rid of faculty. Maybe not completely, but they obviously believed that they could take care of most of my job by replacing me with a “program mentor.” Is it any wonder that I would take this personally?

Seriously, how bad must the situation at WGU be if this kind of decision could go down during the Trump Administration at Betsy DeVos’ DOE? It must be mind-blowingly awful. Yet that hasn’t stopped the inevitable, “The Department of Education is stifling innovation” hot takes from coming. The one that tipped me over the edge into writing this is from Anya Kamenetz at NPR:

“The audit is akin to taking horse-and-buggy era laws and applying them to the automobile,” argues Phil Hill, an independent expert on educational technology who has consulted for institutions including WGU. “It’s really rooted in a traditional classroom model of seat time.”

Under this interpretation of the law, Hill says, if a statistics instructor gives a 45-minute live lecture three times a week to 300 students, that’s “regular and substantive contact.”

If students view that same lecture in video form, and that same instructor, with the same credentials, is available as needed to help students one-on-one or in small groups, that wouldn’t count. That’s despite research showing that the second model can help students understand concepts more thoroughly and often progress more quickly.

Actually Phil, they’ve tried the “show the class videos and make the instructor available for questions” plan before. They were called “Massive Open Online Courses.” Does anybody remember MOOCs? A statistics instructor in a large lecture hall may not be the ideal pedagogical situation, but he can nonetheless 1) Take attendance 2) Read the audience to see how they react to individual nuggets of information and 3) Give a test that doesn’t require a machine to grade it so that he can check the student’s work and see where they went wrong. Even a faculty-led online class can include the kinds of interactions that make some version of all three of these things possible. A poorly-paid, and poorly trained “program mentor” interacting with the student entirely online can’t.

What has always made me angry about Western Governors University is their decision to go with a next-to-no-faculty model when the costs of faculty have been dropping for about forty years now. What am I talking about? Here’s the Guardian from this morning:

Sex work is one of the more unusual ways that adjuncts have avoided living in poverty, and perhaps even homelessness. A quarter of part-time college academics (many of whom are adjuncts, though it’s not uncommon for adjuncts to work 40 hours a week or more) are said to be enrolled in public assistance programs such as Medicaid.

They resort to food banks and Goodwill, and there is even an adjuncts’ cookbook that shows how to turn items like beef scraps, chicken bones and orange peel into meals. And then there are those who are either on the streets or teetering on the edge of losing stable housing. The Guardian has spoken to several such academics, including an adjunct living in a “shack” north of Miami, and another sleeping in her car in Silicon Valley.

All of this gives me an idea: Let’s create an innovative university that’s run entirely by faculty. It could be an autonomous collective where everybody picks the courses they want and the technologies that serve their needs the best. Perhaps we can elect a sort-of “Executive Officer of the Month” to liaison with the DOE and other government agencies when we need to, but the key point is that we could then be for damn-sure that education would always come first.

After all, who plays a more important role in keeping your university running, the faculty or the associate deans? We could probably use technology to eliminate both groups, but in only one of those cases would getting rid of them entirely turn your college into a correspondence school.

Jonathan Rees

Professor of History, Colorado State University - Pueblo.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Lisa M Lane

    Go the medieval model, but without the Church part?

  2. Phil Hill

    Jonathan, Good points you bring up, but I should clarify a few thoughts (not to be defensive, just to explain):

    1) My analysis to date has not focused on WGU and whether their model works or should be emulated, rather I have focused on the actions of OIG and precedence.

    2) My point from NPR interview is that regs were written with assumption of distance education mimicking a standard classroom approach. One faculty running course and interacting with students, all or most interactions pre-scheduled, etc. And the problem is that newer models, such as CBE, have different designs (unbundled faculty role, mastery learning, etc, etc) and need regs that focus more on quality and are suited to modern world. The current regulations are not suited for models like WGU’s. And the OIG just pretended that they could parse words and apply them however they wanted with no accreditor or regulatory guidance. We need updated regs that can be applied to newer forms of distance ed.

    I don’t believe MOOCs are analogous to what Anya described. MOOC profs do not (typically) observe individual student work and jump in to interact with student based on observations, nor do most students in MOOCs have chance to ask questions and get help from qualified person. A better analogy would be flipped classroom approaches without lecturing as core component and where interactions, non-machine-gradable tests, Q&A, are based on “reading the room” and even reading individual students.

    I get your points, but I think you’re trying to attribute some MOOC-like approach to me that neither Anya nor I were advocating. I explain in more detail here:

    Michael is planning an e-Literate post that gets beyond OIG actions and discusses issues in providing better regulations / scrutiny.

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