Who, exactly, is a university teacher? What defines teaching? And how should the profession evolve in an age of rising tuition, worldwide connectivity, and fast-changing job markets?
Surprisingly, a recent federal audit of Western Governors University raises these questions.
The school was founded 20 years ago by a consortium of states; it's a nonprofit, online-only institution that has racked up accolades, becoming a national role model for its innovative and low-cost focus on working adults.
But the inspector general of the Department of Education claims that its approach cuts too many corners. Rather than innovative, they say, WGU is more like a correspondence school of yore.
The audit calls on WGU to return $713 million of federal student aid. If Education Secretary Betsy DeVos acts on the finding, it would likely put the university out of business, and cast a shadow over at least 80 other institutions that have adopted similar models.
WGU has 83,000 students, mostly adults, preparing for the workforce as teachers, nurses, in technology or business; it's forged partnerships with public university systems in several states. Students can work at their own pace, within guidelines, to demonstrate that they have mastered industry skills, known as "competencies," through tests, papers, and presentations.
The main issue raised in the audit is whether enough of the school's courses require "regular and substantive interaction between students and their instructors." If the classes don't, they function more like correspondence courses. This language is intended to guard against fraud and diploma mills.
WGU's president, Scott D. Pulsipher, acknowledges that the university has a faculty model that is "different" than most. There are three main roles, he says:
- Program faculty include outside experts from academia and business, who decide what should be taught at a high level. Program faculty also design curricula, working backward from necessary skills, called competencies, to create content and design assessments.
- Course faculty have specific expertise in a given topic. They may give feedback on student work, run discussion groups, or work directly with students who are falling behind.
- Finally, each student has a single assigned program mentor for his or her entire time at WGU. Mentors have advanced degrees in the student's discipline: health sciences, IT, business, or education. They help students understand the content, and connect what they are learning in different courses; they also assist with project planning and assessment scheduling. Emotional support is part of the job description. Pulsipher says program mentors reach out to their students by email, phone, and text at least once a week, much more if students are struggling.
The inspector general's audit determined that this third category, mentors, are not really faculty, but more like counselors or advisers. In looking at course faculty, the audit found that they don't tend to hold weekly meetings; most lecture-like content is delivered through videos, not in real time. So student contact is not "regular" enough with the course faculty, and not "substantive" enough with the program mentors, the audit concluded.
"Just because they have an opinion," says Pulsipher, "that doesn't mean their opinion's right." In his view, the inspector general's concept of an instructor is too narrow and outdated.
"The audit is akin to taking horse-and-buggy era laws and applying them to the automobile," argues Phil Hill, an independent expert on educational technology who has consulted for institutions including WGU. "It's really rooted in a traditional classroom model of seat time."
Under this interpretation of the law, Hill says, if a statistics instructor gives a 45-minute live lecture three times a week to 300 students, that's "regular and substantive contact."
If students view that same lecture in video form, and that same instructor, with the same credentials, is available as needed to help students one-on-one or in small groups, that wouldn't count. That's despite research showing that the second model can help students understand concepts more thoroughly and often progress more quickly.
The inspector general doesn't have enforcement authority, so the department is free to ignore the audit's recommendations. A department spokeswoman told Inside Higher Ed, "it is important to note that the innovative student-first model used by this school and others like it, has garnered bipartisan support over the last decade."
Pulsipher seems confident that their model will keep standing up to scrutiny. As he points out, indicators like graduation rates, student loan repayment rates, student and employer satisfaction are on par with, or better than, institutions serving similar populations.
"The inspector general's report is a wake-up call that the law needs to be better aligned with the innovation in this space," says Jamie Merisotis, director of the Lumina Foundation, which has been working to expand competency-based education. He says WGU is one of the first, the biggest, and the best in the business, as well as one of the most transparent.
"We are overdue for a rewrite," of the Higher Education Act, he says, acknowledging that there have been efforts to improve flexibility while adding new requirements for accountability.
In the meantime, he says, the Department of Education could issue updated guidance to institutions so they could avoid running afoul of the law.