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November 23, 2001
Dstance-ed Pioneer
Ready for Global Challenge

by Walton Collins

BLOOMINGTON (Indiana) -- On a sweltering mid-summer morning, two dozen doctoral students, huddled in clusters of five or so, wrestle intently with dissertations. One student is studying the relationship between a medication prescribed for schizophrenia and the onset of diabetes and has a pharmaceutical company sponsoring her research. Another, who works in Texas schools, wants to see if there's a significant correlation between students' GPAs and their SAT scores. A third proposes a study of HIV in Zimbabwe. Their professor roams the room, answering questions, prodding ("Are you sure there's a there, there?"), and approving ("It's a good beginning; now talk to your monitor"). At the end, the students stand and applaud, then hang around to talk before drifting off to lunch.

A common enough scene—though not necessarily at the institution these students normally attend. For they—and nearly 400 others who have gathered at Indiana University (IU) in Bloomington for a summer residency session—make up almost one-third of the student body of Walden University, a for-profit distance education institution with no home campus. They're here to meet their professors and each other, to take part in workshops and seminars, picnics and parties, to form important friendships that they'll carry forward through their time at Walden and beyond.

The idea of a distance education institution or for-profit university is not as surprising now as it was when Walden got under way three decades ago. But Walden is still noteworthy; though it offers a limited set of doctoral and master's programs, it has developed a reputation as one of the most successful distance education institutions in the country. In 1999 Fast Company ranked it highest among its peers, above even the United Kingdom's Open University, and wrote that the magazine was "hard-pressed to give Walden any demerits." There are several reasons for this distinction.

First and foremost is the school's philosophy of teaching, which tries to turn some of distance education's limitations into advantages. "Our method of teaching is almost Socratic," says CEO Robert H. Scales. "The instructor is almost a first among equals. Distance learning teaches how to write and think in a disciplined way—the discipline of communication. It forces discipline between the teacher and the student. There is less ‘physical touch' but more intellectual touch, teacher to student."

But there are other factors, many of them less about teaching or technology, and more about a sense of mission:

• Walden considers its mission to include not only granting credentials to its graduates but also preparing them "to effect positive social change." And it views that phrase as more than mission-statement rhetoric. Data show that most Walden students come there because they "want to make a difference."

• It has a track record of attracting minorities—who make up 37 percent of its student population—as well as political activists and other "outsiders" who might feel less welcome at more traditional institutions. This aspect of its history is quickly propelling Walden into the educational world market.

• Walden goes to unusual lengths to make students feel connected to the school. It has a required residential component of 32 days; students must fulfill one part of that requirement by spending two weeks at one of the sessions held each summer at IU, where Walden students live, work, and socialize. Other opportunities come through shorter, more intensive sessions scattered around the country.

Walden's story is one of social mission and profit motive intersecting in unusually productive ways, of a distinctive institutional culture built of elements that at first glance would seem incompatible, and of a university that has devoted much of its research energy over the years to learning about learning—especially the learning that takes place among minorities, outsiders, and alternative student bodies. Today, as "distance education with a difference" faces a new round of larger, global challenges, that history and that knowledge will be more important than ever.

BACK IN 1970 "REFORM" WAS THE national battle cry, and American institutions everywhere were undergoing scrutiny, with people such as Clark Kerr and David Riesman leading the charge. That summer, two educators in New York City's K-12 system, Bernie and Rita Turner, one of them deeply involved in teacher unionization, became frustrated at their inability to complete doctoral degrees. For one, residency was a barrier; for the other, it was the difficulty of getting approval for an applied-research dissertation proposal.

The Turners decided to try an alternative route to their degrees, and that summer they holed up in a beachfront motel in Naples, Florida, with other doctoral students who were similarly frustrated at the dissertation stage after passing their comprehensives at accredited institutions. Their commitment was straightforward: They'd find professors to mentor the ABDs through degree completion.

In founding what is now Walden University, the Turners were deeply influenced by Harold L. "Bud" Hodgkinson, then director of a Carnegie-sponsored project, Institutions in Transition. In a 1969 article in Soundings titled "Walden U: A Working Paper," he had advocated a community of scholars where "the rigid lines between content and method, teacher and student, ignorance and knowledge, and teaching and research [would be] more interactive." He dubbed this hypothetical institution Walden, with a nod to Thoreau; the Turners preempted that name for their venture.

Hodgkinson's article attacked graduate education as faculty driven: The professor has funding and closely directs the students' research, he noted, and students must take a defined set of classes in a defined order. What's forgotten in the model, he wrote, is the person who ought to be central in the process, the learner—an idea that is key to the distance education movement today. This mind set reinforced the tone of the school's social-change agenda and of its appeal to students who rank convenience and a measure of self-determination as important elements of the educational process.

In 1971 Walden conferred its first degree, an Ed.D. Six years later it implemented a formal curriculum that included Ph.D. programs. In 1982 Walden moved its academic offices to Minneapolis, Minnesota, in an effort to secure accreditation. It had first approached the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. When that failed, the school shifted its sights to the North Central Association. The school went through the accreditation paces from 1985 to 1986, reached candidate status in 1987, and won accreditation in 1990. In 1998, it was reaccredited for seven years.

The early 1990s brought two changes that helped point Walden to its present course: new ownership and a move to online education. First, in 1992 Don Ackerman purchased Walden from the Turners. A West Point graduate and air force pilot, Ackerman taught economics at the Air Force Academy before becoming a venture capitalist. He took the role of board chairman, bringing new ideas about organization and a strong interest in quality. (In 2000 Walden launched an academic quality improvement program based on the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award program.) His charge to the school, according to President Kent Morrison: Make us respected; get us into the club.

Ackerman still had extensive contacts in the military and he soon brought aboard other trustees and university officers with military backgrounds. One of them was former president and CEO David Palmer, a retired West Point superintendent. Another was Morrison, who served in the air force before starting an extensive career in higher education. And a third was CEO Scales, an ex–major general and former commandant of the Army War College, as well as the principal author of Certain Victory, the official army account of the Gulf War.

The "militarization" of the Walden landscape did nothing to alter the school's social-change mission. If anything, it flew in the face of stereotypes as the new hires only reaffirmed the social-change focus. Scales, for example, has said he was drawn to Walden by its commitment to social betterment and its goal of breaking down educational barriers worldwide. "We're transforming the process of learning," he has declared.

At the same time, Walden moved toward online education. In 1994 it introduced the Walden Information Network, which provided e-mail and listserv applications to students. The following year, Walden offered its first online degree, an M.S. in educational change and technology innovation. By 1997, it had a Web-based Ph.D. in psychology.

One of the most avid champions of a distance education is CEO Scales, whose enthusiasm for the concept stems in part from his frustrating efforts to get accreditation for the National War College's extensive distance learning component. To test his conviction that such education has virtues unparalleled in the classroom, he commissioned a study of education at the war college. "Our faculty used various measurements," he says, "and by all of them the quality of distance learning education exceeded that of traditional course work."

A key phrase in Walden's lexicon is "self-directed." Since students work in a virtual classroom, they must bring a good deal of self-motivation to their work. Morrison concedes that distance education is not for everyone, and he worries that some may hype it, wrongly, as an educational panacea. Not only is distance education not for every learner, it's also not appropriate in every discipline. Says Scales, "You couldn't teach engine repair or philosophy this way, but for our disciplines it works."

The university offers two kinds of instruction: course-based programs delivered on the Web, and Knowledge Area Module (KAM), a program the school developed in which students demonstrate competency by completing an individualized course of study within a curriculum developed by the faculty.

Course-based programs include the psychology Ph.D. and all of the master's programs. KAM-based programs include Ph.D.s in management, human services, health services, public policy and administration, and most of the education specializations. There are also two hybrid programs: Ph.D. students in educational technology and M.B.A. students do three KAMs; the rest is course work.

KAMs are defined as large, significant documents written around thematic areas within the student's discipline. Three core KAMs are required of KAM-program students: the principles of human development, societal development, and organizational and social systems. KAMs bear some resemblance to the Oxford tutorial system, but with more student self-direction and more breadth.

Online courses, by contrast, feel a lot like classroom courses. They run for 12 weeks (with the exception of the new M.B.A. program, which runs on six-week cycles). Assignments are made and collected weekly. Students can ask questions of the instructor and get answers, with everybody in the course "listening in." Classmates freely exchange ideas and reactions; occasional small-group projects bring them together. But each student participates by sitting in front of a computer terminal.

"Our course-based master's and doctoral programs in psychology look about like anybody else's. The difference is, ours are online," explains Morrison. "As for the KAM model, for a certain kind of learner at the doctoral level the KAM can be very, very, powerful. If you're an epidemiologist and you're working in a state public health position and you want a Ph.D. in health services, you can shape your curriculum to be directly applicable to what you're doing. If you're a self-directed person and you don't want to be confined to a 12-week quarter and you're mentored well, you may do it in four weeks or in four months."

Walden people acknowledge that distance education has its potential problems. Says Morrison, "There is always the risk that the human element will somehow get shoved aside. That can happen in a campus-based situation too, but I'm talking about the ability to communicate face-to-face for which there's no substitute for some people or in some instances. What we offer is another way to do a degree, one that broadens the avenue of access and convenience. But it's still not an avenue so wide that anybody can go down it. And it can be lonely."

Douglas Watson, who graduated from Walden last summer with a Ph.D. in administration and management, understands the loneliness factor. Watson lives in Saudi Arabia, where he is a corporate security services consultant for an oil company. His first face-to-face meeting with his Walden mentor, Aqueil Ahmad, who is also on the faculty of the University of North Carolina–Greensboro, occurred in the lobby of the IU auditorium a few hours before they both lined up for commencement last July. Although Watson is enthusiastic about his educational experience, he confesses that he "missed a personal relationship with the faculty." His is an extreme case, but some aspect of that feeling comes up often in conversations with students.

Yet these comments simply acknowledge the essence of Web-based learning, and those who utter them are quick to explain they're not complaining. On the contrary, students often have warm praise for what they describe as Walden's nurturing qualities. Tim Noxel, a vice principal in Ontario, earned a master's degree in May 2000 and immediately entered the Ph.D. program in education. Not only does he call his Walden courses more rigorous than those he sampled at a conventional university, but also he says Walden faculty have been supportive throughout his student years. "The university seems to be student-centered," he says. "Any questions that come up are very quickly resolved. They work to help students as much as possible."

Kent Morrison calls that the standard operating procedure. "We try to facilitate the learning of our students," he says, "and assist them in reaching their personal and professional learning goals in such a way that they're never ‘alone' or at risk of floundering or dropping away unbeknownst to anyone."

TODAY, WALDEN HAS 1,600 STUDENTS pursuing Ph.D. tracks in education, psychology, applied management and decision sciences, health services, and human services, along with master's programs in education, public health, and psychology. Walden alumni can be found in 50 states and more than 30 foreign countries. In addition to the residency program at IU, Walden has arranged for the IU library to serve as the research facility for Walden students and has placed its own reference librarians there.

Walden has 220 faculty members, all but two of whom have terminal degrees; 70 percent hold faculty positions at major American universities. Another 10 percent are retired professors who retain active research agendas and stay current in their disciplines. The remaining 20 percent are professionals with academic credentials who often are adjunct faculty at other schools.

David Stein is a Walden faculty mentor in health services who teaches at a Big Ten university. During the years he has moonlighted with Walden, he says, he's seen graduate students at the two institutions become less differentiated. Walden dissertations "are now better" than the ones he sees at his Big Ten campus, he declares; "and writing abilities are better at Walden." A decade ago, he says, students on his campus were better prepared, "but I don't see that anymore. The quality on both ends is now indistinguishable. Being here [at Walden]," he adds, "has made me a better professor on my campus."

The professors and their leaders focus less on distance ed's problems and more on its possibilities. Scales calls the Internet "the great leveler," and Gwen Hillesheim, associate vice president for university outreach and academic initiatives, agrees. "Distance education," she says, "takes time and place issues away, takes gender and racial issues away. It doesn't matter if you weigh 300 pounds here, but it does in many other settings. In this environment, minority groups feel like they have a voice for the first time."

Among the minorities who find Walden a comfortable fit are Native Americans. The school is in discussions to formalize a collaborative relationship with the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC), an organization founded in 1972 by the presidents of the nation's first six tribal colleges and now representing 32 colleges in the United States and one in Canada.

This kind of experience has positioned Walden advantageously in the world market for higher education. It recently signed five-year agreements to teach faculty at both the University of Namibia and Kenyatta University how to offer courses online. "This is a wonderful opportunity to hone Walden's distance delivery model for non–North American populations," Morrison says, "and to serve our social change mission." As part of the new relationship, Namibia and Kenyatta will recruit qualified students for Walden's graduate programs.

If Walden needed more incentive to grow, it came earlier this year, when Sylvan Learning Systems Inc., a provider of educational services to schools and industry, purchased 41 percent of Walden. Over the next year, it will become the university's partner in cyberspace. Sylvan is best known for its K–12 tutoring franchises; the deal marks its largest single investment in online higher education. Sylvan recently bought major stakes in three overseas universities as well: Gesthotel SA Hotel Management School (known as "Les Roches"), in Switzerland; the University of the Americas, in Chile; and the University of the Valley of Mexico, in Mexico City. It also owns a major stake in the European University of Madrid. Sylvan reportedly was considering several online universities to purchase, but it chose Walden because it liked Walden's profitability and fiscal management—and the fact that the university is accredited.

Sylvan's venture-capital arm develops and invests in educational technology companies and has long been an aggressive player in the field of for-profit education. The Walden partnership adds a dimension to Sylvan's presence in the K–12 and corporate education markets by providing teacher training at the graduate level. Nobody at Walden was apologetic about the school's for-profit character before Sylvan came along, however, and nobody thinks the new partnership puts unwanted new emphasis on the bottom line.

Walden's leaders are determined to maintain that hallmark of quality through the growth spurt that the Sylvan partnership is expected to cause. "One of the big issues we'll have to deal with is scalability," Scales has said. "We have to have a program that is just as rich with 5,000 students as with 1,600."

In a paper Morrison delivered to the Walden community in 2000, he wrote: "Our existence will depend on our ability to demonstrate convincingly that Walden is a university...premised on quality academic programs and the provision of related high-quality student services to qualified individuals.... Quality will attract students, quality will retain students; quality will enhance the value of our alumni's degrees."

Still, he acknowledges that the partnership with Sylvan will mean merging divergent cultures that must learn to coexist in ways that respect each other's interests. "The emphasis in this experiment is always going to be on the student, because the student is the consumer...and when you're tuition-driven, you'd better pay attention to that. The rub comes in the question, Can you succeed with the consumer and also succeed on the profit-and-loss side? If there is a contribution that for-profit education can make to higher education in this country, it is to inform that large bulk of higher education that the bottom line matters."

fter a lengthy career in mainstream higher ed, Morrison realized after he'd been at Walden for a year that he liked where he was professionally, for a reason he had never anticipated. "I found you can do education well, and at the same time do it with responsibility and accountability. I never knew that. A classic example from my experience was a graduate department with four faculty and one graduate student—and that faculty got me together with them the first month I was in town to tell me they had too many graduate students. I kid you not.

"I think 20 years from now we'll look back on this era sort of the way educators in the late 1950s and early 1960s looked back at what happened in higher education after World War II—who put the money in, and what happened as a result, and who benefited from that. The consumer is going to drive a lot of this," he says, "and I've got to believe that they're not going to drive it to schlock. They're going to drive it to quality."

[Editor's Note: In August, Walden University was selected from more than 100 applicants to help the Department of Education explore ways distance learning can increase accessibility and lower the cost of quality education online. It has joined forces with the U.S. Department of Education in the multiyear Distance Education Demonstration Program to test the quality of the University's distance education programs that are currently restricted by stipulations in the Higher Education Act, Title IV financial aid. The goal of the tightly controlled program is to have several institutions, such as Walden, explore how revising current financial aid restrictions will affect the quality and accessibility of education delivered to students online. The program allows Secretary of Education Rod Paige to waive certain financial aid requirements for the institutions participating in the program as a means to test quality. In exchange, Walden has agreed to study several components closely, including its faculty evaluation process, and will report specific findings from their education models. The combined results from all participating organizations will help the Department of Education evaluate the quality and delivery of these courses in the distance environment. The Distance Education Demonstration Program also addresses issues discussed in the December 2000 Report of the Web-Based Education Commission to the President and the Congress of the United States. The program's efforts will further the Web-Based Education Commission's seven recommendations, two of which refer to funding and affordability. Richard W. Brown, the director of instructional services at Walden University, sat on The Commission chaired by former Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey. Walton Collins is a freelance writer in South Bend, Indiana.]


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