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By Heather Staker

February 2012

Western Governors University (WGU) has developed a strong name in the postsecondary education world not only because it delivers degree programs almost entirely online, but also because students earn credit solely based on demonstrating competency in their course of study. This nontraditional competency-based model has required WGU to piece together a unique data system to support its operations. WGU’s information system therefore provides an important reference point about data system requirements for states looking to move away from a seat-time-based public K-12 school system to a competency-based one, where students advance by demonstrating mastery of academic skills.*

An unconventional institution: domains, competencies, and objectives
WGU is unlike most online postsecondary education institutions. Its graduation requirements are based on demonstrating competency, not on earning credit hours. This model means that students earn their degrees as soon as they pass a series of high-stakes assessments. Competency- based education rewards students for what they know, not for how they learn it.

WGU’s academic model revolves around domains, competencies, and objectives. Each WGU program specifies several domains of study, similar to a series of courses, which the student has to master to earn a degree from the program. To complete a domain, students must demonstrate mastery of specific skills and knowledge, called competencies. Each competency subdivides into a set of objectives—the building blocks of assessments. WGU provides students with multiple learning assets such as e-textbooks and videos to help them develop mastery. Students who already have gained competencies prior to beginning WGU can pass the assessment and then move on without spending more time on those skills.

WGU uses the third-party software product Banner, developed by SunGard Higher Education (HE), for its student registration system. But WGU cannot use Banner in the standard way because WGU’s needs are anything but typical. For example, WGU needs a way to track the central feature of its program—delivering high-stakes assessments. In a traditional university, some of the key tasks of a student information system (SIS) are to create schedules and maintain attendance records. But at WGU, students have no class schedules and no specific course sequencing. All students must demonstrate all of the competencies within their domains of study, but they can tackle the competencies and corresponding assessments in whatever order they want.

Implementing Banner
Some of Banner’s functionality requires little adjustment for WGU’s needs, including collecting student demographic information, disbursing financial aid, and serving as the hub for the student-facing Luminis portal, from which students access courses of study. But WGU has had to retrofit Banner in several ways. For example, WGU uses Banner’s SWATEST form, the template traditional universities use to track SAT scores and the like, to record assessment dates, versions, and results. WGU uses Banner’s CAPP Compliance form to track each student’s individual degree program, including the student’s custom course sequencing and the appropriate assessment version to match the student’s start date.

Weaving in other enterprise solutions
Other software supports the modified Banner student information system. These include discrete software systems that provide a range of functionality, including the following: delivering learning resources, facilitating virtual learning communities, managing assessments, providing student services, monitoring WGU’s relationship with its students, and producing data-based management reports. Figure 1 offers an overview of how the various software products fit together. The case study describes each of these software solutions in greater detail.

Growth strains the system
With more than 30,000 students today, WGU has found that even slight system inefficiency strains its operations. For example, Banner does not have dynamic, variable-length fields to codename assessments and programs. Traditional universities do not face the complicated problem of tracking which assessment version to use with each student’s degree plan to prevent students from preparing for an old version of an assessment. The Banner codes make the expression of the thousands of assessment and program versions a complex challenge.

Furthermore, when students enroll in a program, their contract with WGU stipulates that they will demonstrate specific competencies in exchange for a degree. Administrators see the need for defining programs at the domain instead of competency level to give them the ability to modify competencies occasionally without needing to amend student contracts.

Reconfiguration and the new student experience project
In 2009 WGU embarked on an initiative to improve information system infrastructure, streamline data processes, and redo the user interface. The new design, scheduled to debut in June 2012, preserves Banner as the archive of student information. But it features WGU’s own Program and Assessment Management System (PAMS) as the new central academic hub. The databases in Oracle will transfer to PAMS, and PAMS will take over degree planning. These changes will allow students to exert far more control over sequencing and managing their individual degree plans. The design also entails a new customer relationship management system, an updated student portal, and a system to define programs at the domain level instead of the competency level.

WGU leaders are optimistic about the plan. They believe WGU is on track to implement a system architecture that will accommodate WGU’s 30-percent annual growth rate and competency-based, online model.


*To understand more about competency-based learning and why it is imperative for a student-centric, next- generation learning system, see the following: (1) Chris Sturgis, Susan Patrick, and Linda Pittenger, “It’s Not a Matter of Time: Highlights from the 2011 Competency-Based Learning Summit,” iNACOL, July 2011, http://; (2) Susan Patrick and Chris Sturgis, “Cracking the Code: Synchronizing Policy and Practice for Performance-Based Learning,” iNACOL, July 2011,; (3) Chris Sturgis and Susan Patrick, “When Success is the Only Option: Designing Competency-based Pathways for Next Generation Learning,” iNACOL, November 2010,; and (4) Chris Sturgis, Bob Rath, Ephraim Weisstein, and Susan Patrick, “Clearing the Path: Creating Innovation Space for Serving Over-Age, Under-Credited Students in Competency-Based Pathways,” iNACOL, December 2010,


  • Heather Staker
    Heather Staker

    Heather Staker is an adjunct fellow at the Christensen Institute, specializing in K–12 student-centered teaching and blended learning. She is the co-author of "Blended" and "The Blended Workbook." She is the founder and president of Ready to Blend, and has authored six BloomBoard micro-credentials for the “Foundations of Blended Learning” educator micro-endorsement.