Getting a college degree... from the cloud?


by OWEN LEI / KING 5 News

Posted on May 26, 2011 at 5:59 PM

Updated Friday, May 27 at 9:50 AM

SEATTLE -- It's higher education with no walls, no lecture halls, and professors you may never actually meet.

But some students will tell you the online-only Western Governors University is every bit as challenging as your brick-and-mortar campuses.

"You work just as hard, if not harder because you're on your own," said Dan Sweetwood, 55, of Sammamish, majoring in IT Management, "I'm not, you know, looking for someone who is going to rubber stamp something and here's your diploma. I knew I wanted to work for it."

The university launched a Washington branch Wednesday with a new chancellor who, given the unique teaching model, isn't sure where her office is going to be just yet.

"I totally believe that online delivery in this fashion is the new frontier," said Jean Floten, who is stepping down as president of Bellevue College to take the position.

No state funds are being used towards the school, but according to an agreement WGU signed with the state Wednesday, students with associate's degrees from a Washington community college can use it as credit towards a bachelor's degree.

Unlike the University of Phoenix and other online learning institutions, WGU is a non-profit school self-sustained through tuition. Its four colleges offer bachelor's and master's programs in teaching, business, information technology and health.

"It really appeals to people who are fitting education into a corner of their lives." Floten said.

Sweetwood, for example, said he has children and grandchildren, does contract work for Microsoft, and never found the need to wrap up a bachelor's degree until now.

"I'm at the point where there's a glass ceiling," he said, "so I need to break that by getting my degree."

Rather than earning degrees based on credit hours, students are required to demonstrate competency in a given subject matter through papers, exams and other assignments.

Currently, 984 Washingtonians are enrolled at WGU. A six-month semester costs about $3,000.  University officials refer to it, however, as an "all-you-can-eat" semester, where you take as many credits as you can fit.  If you already know a subject, you can pass a pre-assessment and move on.

"I knew that I.T. stuff I could bang out," said Sweetwood. "That's not available in traditional online courses."

The coursework is nationally and regionally accredited, and instructors are not professors in the traditional sense -- rather, some faculty develop the course load and exams while others function as one-on-one mentors who check in with students from week to week. One university official called it "guide at your side" instead of "sage on the stage."

Also, online chat replaces chalkboards and office hours.

Floten said part of the reason she is taking the post is because it gives her an opportunity to increase the number of degrees issued in the state.

"95 percent of the employers said these were very good employees," Floten said of the students, "They were as good as, if not better than, employees [who graduated from] other institutions."

WGU degrees are granted under the accreditation of Western Governors University, which is regionally accredited through the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities and nationally accredited through the Distance Education and Training Commission, according to school officials. The teachers college is accredited by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education and nursing programs are accredited by the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education.