“With or without you.”

So it appears that Western Governors University [WGU] is being scrutinized by the federal government about the role of faculty in its competency-based online offerings. Here’s the key part of the story in today’s IHE:

The inspector general’s interest in competency-based education so far has centered on federal definitions of what constitutes “distance education” versus correspondence courses.

Rules for federal aid eligibility require “regular and substantive interaction” between students and instructors in distance education programs. That requirement does not apply to correspondence courses. Students typically initiate contact with their instructors in those courses, which often are self-paced.

I don’t get to say this much but, “Rock on, Obama’s Ed Department!” They like us. They really like us.

Problems with these kinds of programs from the standpoint of faculty should be obvious. On a purely self-interested level, competency-based education programs don’t require faculty at all – just “mentors” in order to monitor them. As it’s clear from that story, WGU employs no traditional faculty. The curriculum is determined entirely by outside experts. In fact those “mentors” handle eighty students at a time, calling them up weekly in order to check on student progress. When it comes to the day-to-day slog of learning, students are left to essentially teach themselves.

Who are these mentors? While WGU’s mentors may have graduate degrees, they aren’t exactly treated like professionals. For example, as the anonymous author of the blog “Fed Up at WGU” explained the story of a fellow mentor there:

“The students didn’t have to return her calls or complete any school work. If she tried to push them at all, they would just ask to be moved to another mentor and it would be approved. Honestly, not only would it be approved, but she would be punished for their request. I told her she was giving up her life (20+) hours per week and her moral beliefs for nothing in return – not for her benefit nor for the students. The only people benefiting were her manager and WGU.”

Having no control over curriculum or working hours or even the technology with which you interact with students is what makes this kind of treatment possible. To be unbundled this way destroys professorial power and prerogatives.

Unfortunately, not everyone thinks that having faculty around to help you learn is a good idea. Back to that IHE story:

Russell Poulin, director of policy and analysis for the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies (WCET), said the rules for faculty interaction in distance education are outdated.

“Regular and substantive [interaction with faculty, the rule that is the subject of the federal investigation of WGU] has to go,” said Poulin, who has written on the topic. “It’s focused completely on process and not on outcomes.”

Translation: They think universities can function with or without you. Given that option, which one do you think your administration would choose?

Jonathan Rees

Professor of History, Colorado State University - Pueblo.

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