Western Governors (Virtual) University:

Background and Implementation Issues

Dr. Mary Ellen Nourse
University of Idaho/Boise

"Education for all" has become an unofficial motto at the federal level. During the past two years, increasing attention has been paid to the topic of access to educational opportunity. Witness statements by President Clinton, for example, on the importance of Internet access for young students across the nation. This vision of education for all is also evident at the state level.

Western Governors University: Background

Back in 1995, Governors Mike Leavett of Utah and Roy Romer of Colorado agreed to collaborate on a "university without walls" which would involve institutions of higher education throughout the states represented by the Western Governors Association. Public universities and colleges in western states and one territory would be invited to offer courses through nontraditional methods. The member states and territory included Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Guam, Hawaii, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming.

With an expected increase in numbers of high school graduates between 1997 and 2001, the governors foresaw a need for expanded educational opportunities. The extent of this increase is documented by Richard Jonsen, Executive Director of the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education:

Most Western states expect double-digit increases in high-school graduates between 1995 and 2000. . . .There is great variation in the projected number of high school graduates, ranging from a decline of 14 percent in Wyoming to a 64 percent increase in Nevada. . . .Growth rates are highest among traditionally under-represented groups. (Jonsen, 1997)

While numbers of potential students seeking higher education have been increasing, education appropriations in western states have been decreasing. Only one western state (Nevada) has enjoyed an increase in the percentage of appropriations per full-time student from 1985 through 1995 (Jonsen 1997). To compound this problem, Minoli reports that "university tuition is on the rise, outplacing inflation" (Minoli 1996). Rising costs and decreasing finances would indicate that higher education may not be possible for a significant number of these students.

Distance education may provide access to higher education which otherwise would not be available for many students. As Professors Taylor and Smith of Boston University and the University of West Florida state: "Computer conference classes bring instruction to a range of students for whom enrollment in conventional courses is difficult or impossible" (1996). Although tuition will vary depending on the educational provider, WGU is meant to provide access to a broader base of students at a lower cost (Western Governors University Frequently Asked Questions, 1997) As of July 1997, thirteen state governors had signed a Memorandum of Understanding in which they pledged their support of WGU.

Due to the support of the western governors, WGU is now in the "pilot" stage. Fifteen institutions have been selected as "field test sites" for the Western Governors University. A WGU press release dated July 8, 1997 listed these pilot institutions:

In addition to these sites, which include one corporation, discussions are ongoing with personnel of the Tokai University Educational System of Japan, the Open University of Great Britain, and the Open Learning Agency of British Columbia. The State of Oklahoma has also indicated interest in the WGU. Thus, two universities with established distance-education programs—Oklahoma State and the University of Oklahoma—would be added to the list of potential WGU providers. (Deike July 8, 1997).

WGU: Implementation Issues

As with any new and untried endeavor, however, issues have been raised regarding the efficacy of the Western Governors University. Questions involving target market, technology utilization, comparison with other distance education programs, educational quality, and accreditation have been raised and are discussed below.

Target Market

Who comprises the target market of the Western Governors University? An excerpt from the WGU "Vision Statement" indicates the goal of "education for all." Potential clientele include traditional students, nontraditional learners, teachers wishing to earn continuing education credits, high school students desiring an "early start" in college, homebound individuals, and senior citizens.

Professionals in business and industry comprise another potential market for theWGU. The Western Governors University Vision Vignette contains an example of a software manufacturer CEO who desires C++ training for employees. As Minoli writes, "IDL (Interactive Distance Learning) enables corporations to upgrade the skills of their workforces to effectively compete in skill-intensive industries" (1996, 9). In addition, WGU courses would not be limited to offerings of colleges and universities: Businesses such as Micron Technology could be certified to offer online instruction and training.

Technology Utilization

WGU online instruction and training could be accomplished through compressed video, Internet, CD-ROM, and videotapes. Participating faculty from universities, colleges, and corporations offering WGU courses would choose the mode of technology. Students then would select courses utilizing technology to which they have access.

However, a problem exists regarding students who don't have home computers or access to the technology required to take advantage of WGU offerings. Each participating WGU state must provide at least one center containing access to technology, counseling, advising, and assessment, as stipulated in the Western Governors University: Frequently Asked Questions online document (Western Governors University: Frequently Asked Questions, 1997).

Comparison With Other Distance Education Programs

Would centers such as those proposed by the Western Governors Assocation duplicate existing programs? Replication of already existing distance education offerings would represent a waste of monetary and human resources. Concerns regarding competition from institutions with strong distance-learning curricula, such as the online University of Phoenix, the University of Alaska/Anchorage, or the Extended Degree Program at Washington State University. Cravener reported that as of 1994, an estimated 30% of all accredited colleges and universities in the United States (Tucker 1995), and 80% of U.S. community colleges (Parrott 1995) offered some form of distance education (1997).

These current extended-degree and distance-education programs are targetted to a specific audience: students of the institution offering the program. Students enrolled in WGU, in contrast, could complete courses from any member institution. Thus, during the fall semester an individual could conceivably take an English course from a Colorado university, study biology through an institution in Washington State, and complete a fine arts exploratory course through a faculty member based in Idaho.

Another distinction between existing programs and Western Governors University is that the latter offers competency- based instruction. Completion of WGU courses is dependent upon demonstration of skills and knowledge stipulated at the beginning of the course. Less emphasis is placed on credit hours and "seat time" (Western Governors University Frequently Asked Questions 1997).

Quality of Education

Quality of education has traditionally been tied to amount of instructional time (i.e., "seat time") and face-to-face professor-student contact. Debate is ongoing among academicians regarding quality of instruction received by distance learners as compared with their on-campus counterparts. To some, "distance education" is synonomous with "diluted education." Distance educators may be deemed to be on a lower scale than campus-based faculty; online course offerings may be seen as mere "enrichment" courses.

Research regarding educational success of distance learners compared with on-campus students indicates that the two groups do not differ dramatically. Engineering Outreach Program staff of the University of Idaho, in their online series "Distance Education at a Glance" maintain that

Research indicates that the instructional format itself (e.g., interactive video vs. videotape vs. "live" instructor) has little effect on student achievement as long as the delivery technology is appropriate to the content being offered and all participants have access to the same technology. (Engineering Outreach January 1996).

In at least one research study, distance learners achieved better than did their campus counterparts. Jerald Schutte, an instructor of applied statistics at California State University/Northridge, randomly selected half of his students to be taught in a traditional classroom while the other half were taught online. The distance learners outperformed their classroom counterparts. (Black January 17, 1997). In many cases, online students also surpass traditional students in amount of "educational output" as noted by Kearsley:

A second misconception is that online classes will be easy—easier then conventional classes. But almost all particpants report that they find online classes much more work—and much more rewarding—than traditional courses they have taken. (1997).

As research suggests, distance learners may accrue advantages not available to their campus colleagues. Among the benefits of distance education to students are these major points:

1. Online access to external sources of learning such as museums, art galleries, and libraries;

2. Quick information transfer between instructors and students (Minoli 1996);

3. Minimization of environmental distractions (noise in hallway, attention focused on appearance of classmates, etc.); and

4. Facilitation of writing proficiency due to the text-based nature of computer-mediated instruction (Berge and Collins, 1995); and

5. Potential for increased interaction among students and instructors.

Increased student and professor interaction may not seem an apparent advantage of distance education. Robert Nalley of the University of Maine at Fort Kent explains how this phenomenon is possible:

In a traditional classroom, the flow of discussion is linear. Students take turns speaking, and the discussion moves ahead. In contrast, CMC (computer-mediated communication) opens the opportunity for discussion that can last for days. (Nalley 1995)

Further input is provided by Professors Taylor and Smith :

The (online class) computer conference setting can be personal, friendly and inclusive. The medium is largely race-neutral, location-neutral, status-neutral, age-neutral, handsome-neutral, income-neutral, disability-neutral, and would be gender-neutral except for the clue of first names. (Taylor 1996).

Evidence, therefore, indicates advantages as well as rigorousness of online education. Without accreditation, however, distance education offerings of the WGU would be perceived as "second-class" to traditional certificate and degree programs.


The creation of the WGU "university without walls" raises a question regarding accreditation. Currently, discussion is ongoing with regional accrediting agencies. The Western Governors University May 1997 online newsletter contains an update on the accreditation process. Four regional agencies have agreed to create the Inter-Regional Accrediting Committee to assist with the accreditation of WGU. The regional agencies are the Commission on Colleges of the Northwest Association of Schools and Colleges, the Accrediting Commission for Senior Colleges and Universities, the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges of the Western Association for Schools and Colleges, and the Commission on Institutions of Higher Education of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools ("Accreditation" May 1997).


As noted in Western Governors University Frequently Asked Questions, the WGU may be the ". . .most ambitious distance learning effort in the country" (Western Governors University Frequently Asked Questions 1997). The driving concept behind this gargantuan endeavor is summarized by Guam Governnor Carl Gutierrez when he stated that existing technology would be used to bring the university to the student, rather than the student to the university ("WGU Board Meets, Support Grows" May 1997). WGU, the "university without walls," seems on schedule for completion. Accreditation studies are in progress; pilot institutions have been selected. Research concerning distance education outcomes would indicate that students enrolling in a program such as WGU would have access to affordable, effective, and rigorous educational offerings.

KAIROS Kairos: A Journal for Teachers of Writing in Webbed Environments.
Vol. 2 No. 2 Fall 1997