Exclusive Interview with Robert Mendenhall, President, Western Governors University

March 24, 2003

Distance-Educator.com: Let me first offer our congratulations to you for recent successes of the Western Governors University (WGU) in obtaining accreditation, and announcing a new teacher education initiative. I will ask specific questions regarding these developments as our interview continues. But, first let me ask you a general question about WGU. From its inception, the university has established and followed a different educational model based on learners’ competencies. Could you elaborate on this model, and highlight its major differences with conventional models?

Mr. Robert Mendenhall: Competency-based education basically means that we award degrees based on students demonstrating competence – what they know and can do – rather than by accumulating a certain number of credit hours. For each of our degrees we carefully define the competencies expected of a graduate, using the input of both academic and industry experts, and then, working with our Assessment Council of national experts, we define the assessments to measure these competencies. These assessments combine objective tests, performance tasks, portfolios and projects. We ensure that each student actually has the defined competencies in order to graduate. We are unique also in that we don’t develop and teach our own courses. Instead, we identify the best available online courses, and other learning resources, and “map” them to our competencies. Our faculty, who are generally PhD’s in the field, are not course instructors but are student mentors. Each student at WGU has an individual Academic Action Plan tailored around the competencies they possess and those they need, and each has an assigned faculty mentor that will work with that student until graduation. In addition, all students are part of one or more learning communities, and they collaborate electronically and via telephone.

This model recognizes the reality of today’s world, where learning can and does take place in many ways and in many places. We believe that all learning counts, not just the learning done at our university, and the role of the 21st century university is not only to provide opportunities for new learning, but to measure and credential learning regardless of where or how that learning may have occurred.

Distance-Educator.com: How successful have you been in implementing this model internally, and how has it been received by students?

Mr. Robert Mendenhall: We believe we have a very successful and scalable model of higher education. Our systems are designed to support up to 30,000 students, and we don’t have to add buildings to do it. Our costs are largely variable costs, as opposed to large fixed costs, so we can expand as our student numbers grow. We have had a great response to our search for faculty mentors, and have been able to recruit excellent people. Of course, we had our challenges early on. We have done a lot of work in building learning communities, and improving our student orientations, and have continued to refine our competencies and assessments. Our greatest challenge has been explaining to students and other higher education institutions what competency-based education is and how it works.

Most of our students are working adults. The average age of our students is 40, and 95% work fulltime. The flexibility of online education and the recognition of the competencies they have already developed are important to these individuals. Students appreciate that they can pursue an education while meeting work and family commitments. Some students live in rural areas without convenient access to a traditional institution, but many live near traditional institutions and still don’t find them convenient. Our competency-based degrees may accelerate graduation for adult students who bring significant competencies to their programs. At our graduation ceremonies, each graduate is invited to say a few words, and invariably these words are words of gratitude to their mentor and to the entire WGU model for providing them with an opportunity to complete their college dreams and career aspirations that they may not have been able to attain in any other way.

Distance-Educator.com: What is the importance of receiving accreditation by four regional agencies?

Mr. Robert Mendenhall: Well, simultaneous accreditation by four regional associations has never been done before and probably will never be done again. We believe this unprecedented accreditation provides important external validation of our educational model. Anytime you create something new or different, people tend toward skepticism. What our robust accreditation process provided was the opportunity for seasoned veterans from the world of higher education across the United States to now understand, appreciate, and support the unique value-add of competency-based education. In fact, our accreditors jointly commended us for demonstrating that the traditional faculty role can be unbundled with value added for student learning, for the development of high-quality learning competencies and multi-modal competency assessments, and for our focus on student learning.

Distance-Educator.com:A few days ago, Secretary Paige and you announced the formation of a national online teachers college. What is the general goal of this college, and who should consider enrolling in it?

Mr. Robert Mendenhall: The WGU Teachers College is a national program funded by the U.S. Dept. of Education, foundations and corporations, to provide accredited, online, competency-based degrees and elementary and secondary certification to K-12 teachers and prospective teachers in math, science, learning technology, reading and ESL. As you may know, the U.S. faces a critical shortage of qualified K-12 teachers. As a nation, we will need 2 million new teachers in the next 10 years. Additionally, as many as 30-40% of teachers in many of our urban and rural districts are not certified, and many more are teaching out of field, particularly in the areas of math and science. New ways must be found to educate and certify teachers effectively and efficiently, and to retain current excellent teachers. Research has shown that the quality of teachers is the single most important determinant of educational quality.

The unique focus of the Teachers College is on working adults who are already in K-12 schools but need access to further education. The College has developed programs in the following areas: 1) Associate’s degrees for K-12 paraprofessionals; 2) Teacher certification programs (including bachelor’s degrees or master’s degrees) for uncertified and aspiring teachers, including second-career professionals; 3) Master’s degrees and graduate endorsements for existing teachers to upgrade their skills or certify in a second field such as math or science. This is the only national initiative for large-scale teacher education, and the only teacher education program focused on paraprofessionals, uncertified teachers, second-career professionals, and current teachers.

WGU degrees are Internet-delivered making them accessible to working adults, and are the only competency-based degrees in the country. Competency-based degrees ensure teacher competency, but will also allow for those with significant competencies to be certified more quickly.

Distance-Educator.com: WGU has had a steady growth in the past few years, how do you see the future of this institution? What should we look for in the months and years to come?

Mr. Robert Mendenhall: Our growth has actually begun to accelerate in the past six months, and we are currently growing more than 10% per month. While such growth is gratifying, our first priority is to continue to provide a high quality educational experience to our students that will serve them well in their personal and professional lives. We will continue to focus on associate’s, bachelor’s and master’s degrees in business, information technology, and education, and are planning new degrees in these areas. At some point in the future we may explore expanding into other degree fields. We are also focused on expanding the acceptance of competency-based education nationally, and hope that others will follow our lead in developing such programs. We believe we will continue to meet an important need in higher education, and our degrees will be increasingly attractive to students and their employers.