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Increasing Access and Relevance in Distance Education

Robert W. Mendenhall, President, Western Governors University

Distance education is now well accepted as high-quality higher education, although as with traditional campuses, the quality of different programs varies widely. Most distance education is simply broadcasting, via TV or the Internet, the classroom experience. Further, online education is often more expensive than traditional classroom instruction.

There is a better way. We know two things about adult learners:

They come to higher education knowing different things, and they learn at different rates. Yet, our traditional higher education institution requires the same number of credit hours from all students for a degree, the same required courses and all courses take the same length of time to complete. Western Governors University has introduced a new model to higher education: competency-based education.

In competency-based education, the competencies required for a degree are defined β€” that is, what a graduate must know and be able to do.

Students graduate based on demonstrated mastery of these competencies β€” measured via a series of assessments β€” rather than by accumulating a certain number of credit hours. These competencies are developed with input from industry, to ensure that they are current and relevant. Yet competencies should not be confused with simple work skills β€” the competencies employers and educators value most include critical thinking, problem- solving, working in teams and with diversity, leadership, creativity, written and oral communications, etc. Grounding competencies in the real world helps ensure they are relevant to students now and after they graduate. Students are then able to access technology- based learning resources to learn on their own, on their time and at a place convenient to them (over the Internet), but with personal faculty mentoring every step of the way. Technology allows the instruction and the learning to be personalized to each student and their individual needs. Students can thus learn at their own speed and demonstrate their mastery of competency when they are ready by scheduling their assessment at a testing center convenient to them.

Access to higher education is subject to many factors including affordability, time and geography. Distance education can deliver education to those that live far from a campus. Some of that distance education may be synchronous, or live, requiring students to be available at certain times. Flexibility and access are increased when the instruction is asynchronous, allowing students to access it at times convenient to them. But the biggest issue with time is not flexibility but the amount of time required and the relevance of the time spent. Students with existing competencies should not have to spend time or money on material they already know. Finally, technology-based education, at scale, should be inherently more affordable, if we are using the power of technology to teach and not simply as a means of delivery.

What is the potential of these changes to the higher education model through harnessing the power of technology? At WGU, tuition is under $6,000 for a 12-month year. The average time to graduation is under three years. And students and employers report that graduates are equipped with all the necessary competencies to excel.

There is a better way, if we are willing to change.

β€” Dr. Robert W. Mendenhall is president of Western Governors University and served on the Spellings Commission on the Future of Higher Education.

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