Out West, where vast prairie lands and expansive desert highways bring new meaning to the term distance learning, governors have hopped on the bandwidth wagon and created a multistate virtual university designed to bring higher education to far-flung populations.
The Western Governors University (WGU) started offering classes in July and culls its curriculum from universities and colleges located in 18 member states, American Samoa and Guam.
The school's roots go back to 1995, when Republican Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt and then-Gov. Roy Romer (D) of Colorado devised a plan to deliver education and degrees online through a jointly run virtual university.
Today, Utah and Colorado have been joined by Alaska, American Samoa, Arizona, Idaho, Indiana, Guam, Hawaii, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Texas, Washington and Wyoming.
"It expands access to higher education," says WGU President Bob Mendenhall, whose university has brick and mortar offices in Denver and Salt Lake City. "We have students in very rural areas who work on a family ranch or farm and it's not practical to go away for four years." Working adults with families are another major target audience for WGU.
The Western governors' vision was to create a multistate university that would share courses and resources online, saving member states the expense of having to start individual virtual universities, Mendenhall adds. He describes the venture as bringing business, statehouses and education into a three-way partnership.
Most of WGU's curriculum focuses on education, business and information technology. The virtual university grants undergraduate certificates, as well as associate, bachelor's and master's degrees.
Teachers can get a master's degree in `technology for the classroom' and state employees can take professional development courses.
WGU has an annual budget of $6 million and offers about 900 courses from roughly 45 different institutions within its member states and territories. Funding is provided by private companies, foundations and the federal government.
The states that make up WGU haven't been pursuing virtual education in a vacuum -- a number of non-member states have distance learning programs, as do institutions of higher learning. The resulting Internet-based educational institutions vary widely in how they operate and in curriculum (see below).
Last month, Yale, Princeton and Stanford universities, along with Oxford University in England, announced the launch of a $3 million online distance learning venture that will provide courses in the arts and sciences to their combined 500,000 alumni.
In a field that holds such august competitors, WGU has a distinction that sets it apart, according to Mendenhall.
"We are the only ones that set up as an independent university to be accredited and offer its own degrees," Mendenhall says. His school is presently in the midst of a five-year accreditation process
Something else distinguishing WGU is its reliance on competency based learning, founders say. Much like the standards-based education movement that's infiltrated the nation's public schools, WGU has defined what it means to be competent in a particular field and has drawn up tests and tasks that quantify competency. WGU students move through the program based on their ability to perform.
Advocates of virtual universities are quick to note that all you need to attend is a computer with a modem. The Web site for the Kentucky Virtual University (KVU), a portal into the state's higher education system, lists these essentials: A PC with Windows 95 or a MacIntosh with OS 7.0 Netscape 4.08 or Microsoft Explorer 4.0 for the Internet and a modem that runs at least 28.8 kilobytes per second. In addition, students need an email account that allows them to attach documents.
The 200 students attending WGU pay a $100 application fee and face tuitions ranging from $1,500 to $3,850, depending on their degree program.
Online learning isn't for everyone -- it can be a lonely journey. In fact, Mendenhall recommends that most high school graduates go to a conventional college, so they can have a well-rounded school experience, including dorm life and dances. That's a far cry from WGU's chat line and online student union.
Then there's the issue of athletics, which tend to play a major role in the college life.
If you can have a virtual university, why not virtual sports?
Last month a number of other states with virtual universities did just that, creating an online football league. Six virtual teams play each other in matches akin to fantasy football. In one contest, the KVU @vengers fell to Virginia's Old Dominion Monarchs. Some speculate that a virtual basketball Final Four is inevitable.
Simulating gridiron heroics is one thing, but some critics question whether virtual universities can offer the kind of rigorous academic atmosphere that produces well-prepared professionals.
David F. Noble, a professor at York University in Ontario, Canada, is probably the most prominent naysayer when it comes to the virtual university concept. He argues that virtual universities are a just a modern version of the mass-produced, highly commercialized correspondence education courses that were popular in this country at the turn of the 20th century.
By 1926 there were 300 private correspondence schools racking in $70 million a year. Around the same time, the University of Chicago embraced the "home study" concept and launched a distance learning program. Wisconsin, Nebraska, Minnesota, Kansas, Oregon, Texas, Missouri, Colorado, Pennsylvania, Indiana and California followed suit. By 1930 there were 73 traditional colleges offering correspondence courses.
Noble says that virtual university advocates are making the same arguments as these earlier distance learning programs -- namely that it is good for busy people who live away from campuses and for students who benefit from individual attention. In "Digital Diploma Mills,"Noble writes that correspondence schools cut costs by hiring poorly trained or unqualified teachers.
Mendenhall counters that WGU couldn't be further from being a matchbook diploma mill, and points out that WGU faculty members are in contact with students on a weekly basis.
As mentioned above, WGU's member states aren't the only ones pushing the virtual learning movement. Other states putting higher education online include:
The world of academia is well represented in the virtual learning realm, also. One example is the Common Market of Courses and Institutes. This Midwest grouping of campuses was developed by the Committee on Institutional Cooperation and includes Indiana, Iowa, Michigan at Ann Arbor, Michigan State, Minnesota-Twin Cities, Northwestern, Pennsylvania State, Purdue, and Ohio State universities.
The University of Chicago, the universities of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Wisconsin at Madison are also members.
Part of the South's contribution to virtual higher education stems from the Southern Regional Electronic Campus, which was set up by the Southern Regional Education Board and includes more than 100 colleges and universities. The Southern Regional Electronic Campus presently enroll roughly 15,000 students in more than 900 distance-education courses.
Not to be left out are community colleges, whose Community College Distance Learning Network can be found at http://ccdln.rio.maricopa.edu/.