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Computer Science at an Online University, Western Governors University,

Ed. Michael Stiber, a UW professor on Computer Science at Western Governors University,” has written a brief review of the offerings in Computer Science at WGU.  This is important because Comp Sci, Nursing and K-12 teacher education are the three areas where WGU claims to have considerable strength.

“To learn more about WGU, I looked at its computing education offerings, my area of expertise. Please note that this is based solely on my perusal of their web site and not first-hand information. However, regardless of how poorly constructed a university’s web site might be (or how well-designed, for those schools that put a lot of effort into marketing), one should at least be able to determine what degrees are offered, what a student must do to get each degree, the courses offered (or, in WGU’s context, the topics one must demonstrate competency in), who the faculty are, and the like.” an excerpt.

The Seattle Times has an interesting article by Katherine Long. Apparently, the WA State House recently passed HB 1822, which would create some sort of partnership with Western Governors University (WGU). This is being sold as a way to create more university openings for students without costing the state any money. I’ll leave an in-depth analysis of this “something for nothing” idea to someone with the patience to read and understand HB 1822. In this post, I’ll briefly analyze what exactly WGU is.

WGU is an “online university”, meaning that it offers no in-person instruction and has no physical campus. Unlike other such ventures (such as the University of Phoenix), WGU is a private non-profit. To learn more about WGU, I looked at its computing education offerings, my area of expertise. Please note that this is based solely on my perusal of their web site and not first-hand information. However, regardless of how poorly constructed a university’s web site might be (or how well-designed, for those schools that put a lot of effort into marketing), one should at least be able to determine what degrees are offered, what a student must do to get each degree, the courses offered (or, in WGU’s context, the topics one must demonstrate competency in), who the faculty are, and the like.

WGU’s site clearly indicates (multiple times) that they focus on competencies, rather than courses. Students are assigned mentors who develop a plan of study with the student; each student then demonstrates competency in the various topics via various means. I see no a priori reason to dismiss this approach. I would say something similar, though with more reservations, about “online education”, if it’s understood that the computer is merely an educational tool, which must be wielded by people with expertise in the areas of study (whether we call them teachers or mentors) and that we recognize that not all students will do well in such an environment (because some need more personal contact to develop good study habits, as just one example). It does seems rather strange, however, to organize a university around a particular tool — equivalent to a school saying they provide “white board education”.

WGU does not appear to use the computer merely as a tool; instead, they use it as an attempted substitute for almost the entire educational experience. Moreover, there is a distinct lack of discussion of the specific expertise that WGU people bring to pretty much any area of human inquiry (except perhaps aggregating content from other sources into online educational experiences). This is in sharp contrast to what you would see on the web site of just about any normal university, where either the school or the faculty themselves would boast about their qualifications, accomplishments, etc. This is consistent, however, with what you would see at a for-profit school, where there are no permanent faculty. To be fair, in WGU’s case, there is a mention that there are well-qualified faculty: one page that indicates that they indeed have faculty, and in fact have 700 full-time faculty and 100 part-time faculty. This gives a student:faculty ratio of 25:1 given WGU’s 20,000-student enrollment — that’s only $150,000/year gross revenue per faculty member, which seems low given that three of their four “colleges” are Business, IT, and Nursing, all of which would have to pay top dollar for faculty. Some faculty are listed for each “college”, but many fewer than 700, and with no links to any information about them. A quick google search for a couple of their names led to no significant other information (my apologies to anyone listed there who is reading this, but please explain to me why, with a PhD in something to do with computers, you have no online presence).

So, unclear what’s going on with the faculty, and what is written about the faculty indicates that they focus on curricular issues and not instruction (which raises the question: why so many faculty if they’re not involved in teaching?). This means that there is nobody to talk to about the actual content of what you’re learning, except mentors who are in turn advised by faculty and are explicitly indicated to not have any role in course development (and WGU does use the word “course” here). Moreover, without substantial, direct interaction with faculty, who is there to attest to a student’s qualities — to provide first-hand accounts in letters of recommendation and the like? A nameless mentor (many of whom appear to be other students)? This is something that employers often want, and something essential for students who want to continue on for graduate study.

Now let me get to the computing content of their degrees. They offer putative BS degrees in information technology in general, in IT subareas (Networks [sic] Administration, Networks [sic] Design and Management, Databases, Security, Software), and in Health Informatics. They also have an MS in Information Security and Assurance. Right off the bat, all but the generic IT degree (and the strange specialization, Software, that actually seems more general than IT) seem too specialized to be appropriate themes for a BS degree. To be fair, upon further perusal, it was not immediately clear to me what the differences were in the areas of study among these degrees and, in fact, in some places they are termed “emphases” rather than separate degrees. When I look at the content areas for the IT degree, most of them have titles that are so vague that I couldn’t begin to guess what they are about. For example, “Foundations of College Mathematics” is clearly a math class, but what kind of math? It only has 2 “competency units”. More to the point of the degree, the core appears to be “IT Fundamentals I”, “IT Fundamentals II”, and “IT Fundamentals III”. I have no idea what these are; presumably, something to do with computers. There are a bunch of generic sciency areas, too. There’s 6 units of “Web Technologies” and 4 units of “Web Programming”. What exactly students are doing in the first area, for 50% more effort than in the second, that doesn’t involve programming, is beyond me.

OK, it’s certainly true that other places have poorly titled courses. But they typically also have course descriptions, so that one doesn’t need to guess wildly what the topic coverage is. They also tend to use reasonably standard names for many courses, to minimize guessing. After way too much poking around, I found some PDF documents that describe different areas:

  • Natural Science: Resources include the book “Conceptual Natural Science”. Something tells me that this is not calculus-based physics.
  • Quantitative Reasoning: College algebra and statistics. Would be considered remedial math for BS degrees at most universities.
  • Finite Math: Survey of sets, logic, algebra, geometry, statistics, graph theory, and some other areas. This is not a full CS discrete math class.
  • IT Fundamentals I/II/III: three different computing certificates
  • Web Development: JavaScript and web design certificates
  • Networks: two Cisco certificates
  • Operating Systems: Microsoft certificate
  • Project Management: certificate
  • Security: certificate
  • Databases: certificate
  • Software Development: Java programming (homework only; no tests)
  • And then, depending on area of emphasis, there is one more certificate that one might get.

So, in other words, the major area of the degree is largely composed of a sequence of certificate-prep courses and successful completion of certificate exams. The non-computing science and math seem not to be at the college level (or are just barely so); I did not presume to judge the other content.

Is this course of study completely without merit? No — but I would not place any great value on it beyond the value of the certificates earned. In terms of ambition, these degrees might be considered similar to bachelor of applied science degrees being added by community colleges — except that the CCs provide direct access, even in person, to actual faculty and they cost less.

Furthermore, I do not believe that this degree would be taken as sufficient preparation for graduate study in computer science or any closely related field at other institutions. Presumably, since WGU is regionally accredited, graduates would not be excluded from the possibility of admissions to graduate programs (as would graduates from some for-profit schools).

So, a mixed bag. By no means are these degrees equivalent to what one would expect of typical university degrees, but they in principle have some value from the component certifications. Graduates might gain jobs in specifically related areas but will not be competitive for higher-level, more general positions or career paths that require more educational breadth/generality. More expensive than a community college (after financial aid, it’s not clear to me that WGU is cheaper for most students than any other university), with less support. Likely to be more attractive to first-generation college students, who are probably more likely to benefit from the in-person faculty and peer support that WGU doesn’t provide.


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