Throughout many of our conversations with various university heads on The Interview, the importance of intentionality in education has come up repeatedly. There are few institutions, however, that make that as core a component of their learning strategy as Western Governors University (WGU) in Utah. Arguably their entire concept revolves around designing a path that fits each particular student’s needs.
Luke James, Co-Host of The Interview, spoke to Debbie Fowler, Senior Vice President (VP) for Student Success at WGU about her school’s unique approach to handling its students, which has led to them receiving some of the highest student satisfaction survey results of any United States university.
WGU was founded 26 years ago by nineteen US governors as a non-profit university with the mission to change lives for the better by connecting talent to opportunity. The majority of our students work full time, are over the age of 26, and are from underserved populations. We strive to transform higher education (HE) by improving quality, expanding access, and optimizing student success by using competency-based degree programs and a master curriculum aligned with workforce needs. It measures learning instead of class time so you don’t have to be in the classroom for a prescribed amount of time. You come in, learn what you need to know, take assessments, and once you have demonstrated your competency evaluated by an independent faculty from those supporting you in your educational journey, you can move ahead. This is particularly attractive to those for whom traditional HE didn’t work well.
This is kind of my second career. I’m actually a lawyer—sometimes I say a recovering lawyer. Right out of law school, I worked at a law firm and then an accounting firm. When I was on maternity leave for my second child, however, I decided not to go back. In that time, my sister was a mentor here at WGU and so I got to learn about the university through her eyes. The special sauce to the WGU model is this program mentor who every student is assigned who walks with them on their entire path and is their cheerleader, their navigator, their best friend, and sometimes the kick in the pants they might need. She told me about this role that we call evaluators. And she said, since I like to give her feedback all the time, maybe I’d like to give feedback to students! She connected me and I became a part-time evaluator for several courses, and I did that as a part-time job as I was raising first two, then three kids from 2005-2008. Then I was given the opportunity to come on board leading a group of evaluators, and it kind of grew from there.
That starts from the very moment we start connecting with them with our enrollment counselors. Often when you look at colleges as a student, the idea is to see whether you fit there. At WGU, we make sure we fit them. We believe it’s a puzzle we can work on with each student. We make it clear they belong here. So many times, they’ve had some kind of negative experience with HE. And we just believe everyone can get that chance. We have what we call personal learning guides who assess them on various things: whether they’re a novice or expert; which aspects they need to grow in and which they need to sustain. Even those words help convey it’s not a deficiency. It’s that if you need a little more support, we have it for you. We’ve also introduced some achievement awards to help people engage and have fun from the start. For every step of the process, they get a little badge, so we’ve gamified it.
Notions of free speech and academic freedom are valued in HE. We believe it creates a stimulating, challenging learning environment that should characterize a university. To that end, we encourage respectful, genuine inquiry and discussion. We have student clubs as well as diversity initiatives that help students engage in that. Over the last five years, social-emotional learning has been at the top of what we’ve been trying to promote and we believe that really helps in building the culture and a psychologically safe space where they can explore that in conversations. We have fundamental beliefs: learning involves the whole person and community; we’re all capable of growth and change; the most effective learning experiences are meaningful and intentional; student identity matters.
Social-emotional learning is about promoting a psychologically safe, emotional, intelligent culture where people can feel appreciated, seen, and valued so you can show up as you are, accept others, and not only tolerate but invite open discourse. It welcomes, encourages, and embraces freedom of speech.
What’s key for me is having it be part of the curriculum. Because our students are so busy with coursework, they don’t tend to do “optional”. So if there’s something we feel is meaningful for them to engage with, we have to place it right in their pathway. One thing that’s really special about WGU is we have a master curriculum. In most institutions, each instructor creates the curriculum and syllabus for their own section, or version, of a course and each might be unique. At WGU, there is only one version of each course, which has been designed by an expert in curriculum and assessment design. Every instructor teaches that version. At WGU, every instructor teaches the same course, each of which has been designed by an expert in curriculum and assessment design. And they ensure that social-emotional learning and EDI are woven appropriately through each course so we don’t have to worry about a certain instructor not finding it important. We can decide that the WGU experience will always include EDI as a core value.