Technology Driven Education: Five Questions for Wesley Smith of Western Governors University

December 19, 2020

In terms of higher education, Western Governors University (WGU) has followed a different path from the beginning. Founded in 1997 by the Western Governors Association, WGU, has been an early innovator in offering courses and degree paths that are completely online. WGU, a nonprofit university, was designed to meet the growing need for a skilled workforce with access to education. The Governors believed that while talent was universal, opportunity is not. WGU continues to innovate and match individuals with opportunities. We recently caught up with Wesley Smith, Senior Vice President of Policy and Public Affairs, to see how they are responding to COVID-19 and what’s next for them.

How does WGU leverage technology to provide its students with an education?
WGU has used technology to provide an affordable education since its opening in 1997. Our curriculum has been intentionally designed over the years to center around our students and to deliver virtually in an engaging manner. Because of our completely tech-based model, learning is not limited to standard classroom hours or even a classroom. As long as you can connect to the internet, you can log into class. This unique approach to education means that there is inherent flexibility to WGU and that we can keep costs low.

Students have a deliberate experience rather than simply tuning into virtual lectures. We like to think we have been preparing all along for 2020 and that everyone else is playing catch up.

Beyond the curriculum our faculty model is also designed to focus on the students and ensure their success. Every student has a mentor to help them navigate their program and address any difficulties the student may face. The mentor model means students have the support and flexibility they need to complete their program. We also have evaluators who assess student competency and ensure students’ advancement. All in all, our model has set us and our students up for long-term success.

What is WGU doing regarding the Digital Divide to help close the learning gap?
We can all agree that this global pandemic has highlighted how important internet access is for all aspects of our lives. We need the internet to be able to work remotely, connect with others, and access healthcare and education. COVID-19 has also highlighted the full extent of the digital divide within our country. Since our mission focuses on connecting talent with opportunity, we see this as a major hinderance. For example, there are about 18 million Americans who lack broadband access and approximately 53,000 Utahns who do not have a computer in their household.

WGU is committed to helping ensure all Americans have internet access. We are working with governors across the country and the current federal administration to change policy around internet and to close the digital divide. By working to ensure all Americans have broadband access, we are simultaneously working to provide access to education and close the learning gap. Finally, WGU has established a $1 million scholarship fund to help students connect digitally.

What is WGU doing to help with workforce development?
The need for and importance of workforce development, specifically upskilling and reskilling, have been thrust into the spotlight by COVID-19. There is a definite need for programs that provide affordable education and allow students to gain new skills and adapt to the changing needs of employers. WGU’s emphasis on skills and competency-based learning means students can plug into the workforce with the skills they already have. Likewise, our approach to learning prepares them for the jobs of the future. Further, we measure learning instead of seat time. Students can move through the material at their own pace and ensure they actually grasp the material.

WGU has been an innovator in the education landscape and we continue to be. In 2021 we will launch a new program of micro-credentials. Basically, these are mini certificates a student can earn for specific skill sets that ultimately feed into and help build out their path to a degree. These micro-credentials are tangible skills sets students can leverage to obtain job opportunities while still in school.

What is WGU’s involvement on the American Workforce Policy Advisory Board?
The advisory board includes approximately 20 governors and policy, business and educational leaders. WGU’s President Scott Pulsipher serves on this board and helps make recommendations on how educational institutions and the private sector can work together to better address the changing needs of business and make sure the workforce is prepared to meet those needs.  The board is  focused on driving skills-based hiring.          

Ultimately, we expect that the future of work will be based on skills rather than being based on a degree. Skills are the building blocks of a degree, but by hiring based on skills means that while students are earning their degree, they can more easily plug into the workforce with their existing skills. WGU is piloting a program in anticipation of the shift. We are creating a database where learners can keep their development learning and skills, and everything is verified by employers and instructors. This allows individuals to bring those records with them wherever they go.

What is in the future for WGU?
It is a very exciting time at WGU. We recently graduated our 200,000th student. To give you an idea of how fast we are growing, the 100,000th student graduated from WGU only two years ago. We currently have 120,000 students enrolled in the university, and we continue to scale to accommodate all this growth. We want to be able to provide as many individuals with an education as possible.

An educated and skilled workforce that is prepared to meet the needs of employers in the coming years is highly attractive to companies looking to relocate, expand, or open new operations. The work we do at WGU will be beneficial to all in the coming years.

WGU interacts with each individual student to ensure a personalized education. Everyone at WGU believes in leading the charge in tackling important issues like the digital divide, access to affordable education, and matching talent with opportunities. We plan to work with Governors and other policy leaders here in Utah and other states to solve these problems. WGU also plans to continue injecting innovation into education and workforce development.

For more information about Western Governors Union visit them at

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