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For many Ohio college students, ‘back-to-school’ is an uncertain time

For many Ohio college students this fall, the term “Back to School” is taking on a whole new meaning as the coronavirus shakes up higher education and leaves so much about the new semester in doubt. After all, it is hard to get excited about going back to school when there may not be a school to go back to.

College and university campuses, forced by COVID-19 to close their classrooms last spring and scramble to put course instruction online, may still be uncertain what the continuing pandemic will mean for their students this fall. For many, the upcoming semester is likely to offer continued disruption, with traditional in-classroom learning and on-campus living facing an uncertain future.

With so many unknowns hanging over them, many campus-bound Ohioans are seriously rethinking their options for the new school year. These include students who are midway toward earning their college degree on a traditional campus as well as recent high school graduates hoping to start a college career this fall. Based on unhappy experiences this spring with their initial taste of online learning, and with no end yet in sight for pandemic restrictions on classroom learning and campus life, many are considering other paths forward this fall.

But concerns like these aren’t on the minds of thousands of Ohio students who are already enrolled in experienced, online-only schools that have long ago mastered the art — and technical challenges — of teaching and learning outside the confines of classroom walls. That’s certainly the case for 4,100 Ohio college students who attend Western Governors University, an accredited, nonprofit college that was one of the first to build the power of online technology around a different model of learning.

For example, at WGU, there is no traditional “Back to School” season, one that’s built around a rigid August through May formula. Learning at WGU continues throughout the calendar year, meaning each student has the flexibility to start their program on the first day of any month, year-round. That is ideal for motivated, mature learners anxious to advance their careers.

At WGU Ohio, students follow a competency-based model of higher education, one that allows them to earn credit toward a college degree by demonstrating their mastery of a subject and its skills, rather than the one-size-fits-all measure of “seat time” — calculating a student’s progress toward a degree by the number hours that student sits in a classroom. There is no need to attend lectures or to “log on” at a specific time. Instead, WGU students complete their programs by studying on schedules that fit their lives, at home and arranged to accommodate work and family obligations. In addition to learning from instructors who are skilled at in online teaching, each WGU student is assigned a dedicated advisor to motivate and mentor them throughout the process.

In a fall season that is likely to be marked by continued disruption, WGU students will not be moving into dorms, adjusting to new roommates, or engaging in other back to school traditions this year. But they will be moving without disruption toward their ultimate goal — a career-advancing college degree. They will be seeking their degree by following a different path from tradition -a path that allows them to fit learning into the spaces of their lives.

This was the vision of WGU’s founders, a coalition of 19 U.S. state governors who in 1997 acted to offer students, particularly adult learners, the chance to go to college while working and caring for their families.

In 2018, Ohio became the eighth additional state to partner with WGU to offer its degree programs in health and nursing, business, teaching, and information technology.

The strengths of WGU’s model have been confirmed during the COVID-19 pandemic, which disrupted the customary approach to higher education.

While some schools may continue to struggle this fall with fitting their traditional teaching model into this new approach to learning, WGU is taking it all in stride. After all, we have been teaching our students and awarding degrees this way for more than 20 years.

At WGU, every month is “Back to School” season, and our students are enjoying the benefits.

K. L. Allen is state director of WGU Ohio, the state affiliate of online, nonprofit Western Governors University.

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