Logging is out as West logs into learning at a distance

July 11, 1997

Tim Cornwell reports on how 13 US states aim to build 'the Virtual U'

Bottoms on seats, says Governor Roy Romer contemptuously, is how the United States measures the education of its students: "Our badges of higher education come from going and sitting in class rows, getting seat time, getting a course credit, accumulating it into a degree, then going out and saying we're educated." But the Internet, he says, could change all that.

In the Colorado Capitol building Governor Romer - sometime rancher, pilot school owner, and a major force in US education policy - is forcefully pushing his pet project. "This is a big idea," he says, a hot idea, and "a very marketable idea", though he admits it is a long way off. "It's at the structural stage," he says. "But we are going for all of it if we can make it work."

The idea is the Western Governors University, better known as the "Virtual U". Its campus would be in cyberspace, a server or two on the World Wide Web, its staff a couple of dozen administrators, no football team, fraternity houses, or faculty of its own.

But in the past two years, it has fired the imagination of the governors of 13 Western states from North Dakota to Hawaii, in particular Romer and his geographical neighbour, Utah's Governor Mike Leavitt. The virtual university, where students enrol and learn via the Internet, is, after all, just the technological extension of distance learning, and vast distances are what the West is all about.

Denver is the hub of a rapidly expanding region where the old world of ranching, mining and logging is disappearing under housing developments, golf courses, and high-tech industry. The stately old Capitol building with its pioneer monument is dwarfed by the city's downtown. In a measure of its coming of age, last month Denver hosted the G7 summit. Economic good times and a steady flow of migrants from other states are predicted to swell enrolment at colleges and universities.

WGU, critics say, is one cheap answer. But while it is borrowing inspiration from the United Kingdom's Open University and similar institutions in Australia and Canada, WGU is touted as one of the most ambitious projects of its kind. Scheduled to offer its first courses early next year, it is an attempt to tap the expertise of several hundred colleges and universities across the West, and work as a clearing house to deliver it to the student's home or workplace.

The traditional graduate from a US high school who, as Romer puts it, "wants to learn to dance and get a girl and get married and join the frat house", will still yearn for the college rite of passage. But the numbers of non-traditional students, typically older adults working from home, have recently overtaken the numbers in the traditional 18 to 22-year-old bracket. This suggests a rising demand for low-budget distance learning.

Last year, Romer and Leavitt persuaded their colleagues to pledge $100,000 each in seed money for the WGU. It was incorporated this January, and hopes to offer its first courses, in electronics, early next year. The start-up costs are estimated at $6-10 million, which sponsors hope to raise through grants and donations from private industry. The idea is to start small and grow, said Bob Albrecht, a former associate vice president of the University of Colorado, and now WGU's chief academic officer.

The nerve centre of the university is its electronic catalogue, which Albrecht and others have been developing for the past 18 months. Students will log on to the catalogue and answer questions on what they want to learn, at what times of the day, and the technology they wish to use - such as video, CD-Rom, or the World Wide Web. They would communicate with professors by email, and with each other in electronic "chat rooms", but the Virtual U is not wedded to a specific technology, Albrecht says.

As part of the enrolment process students would take tests to measure their skills in, for example, mathematics. A "catalogue adviser" program would then offer students courses that match their interests and abilities.

The WGU could open undersubscribed specialist programmes in far-flung places to a much wider audience, whether it is the space studies programme at the University of North Dakota or the degree in library science at the University of Arizona. There are plans to take in-house training courses run by businesses and offer them to outsiders trying to break into the job market.

The WGU would initially offer college credits in courses, rather than full degrees. It has the resources of leading Western colleges to draw on - the universities of Washington and Colorado among them. The University of California system has decided to go it alone on distance learning. But Governor George Bush of Texas is said to be very interested in joining, if he can persuade his state's formidable university system to come on board.

Romer and Leavitt, the driving forces behind the WGU, are approaching from two different angles. Leavitt sees it as a revolutionary system of delivering learning choices to the student, in a world where "education no longer has to be bound by place". Albrecht compares this to the US retailers developing "smart" catalogues, tailor-made to customers' preferred size and colours, or to the Internet information services where customers can create personalised newspapers. Supporters say WGU could offer a personalised higher education. The 68-year-old Romer, by contrast, is more concerned with shaking up the old system of "seat time". The WGU, he says, will test its students' competency and grant certificates of proficiency that employers can recognise. The three-term governor has worked on the national stage to tighten academic standards. He reflects a growing concern in the US with measuring the elusive "value added" of an expensive college education.

"I sent seven kids to college and I always wanted to know where did I get the most bang for the buck, where did I get the most value added," he says. "And so I would go to the library and do the research and find out how expensive it is, how restricted the admission, and how many PhDs you got. That's all input. What I want is output. It is a mind-blowing concept because if we can do it outside the university system, and it is valued by industry, it will become a new way of certifying whether or not you got your value for education."

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