I never did well in classrooms.
I was a decently average student during my elementary school tenure. While I was generally reading and writing at a higher level than most of my peers, my math skills were average at best, and history was never as engaging to me as it should have been.
When I graduated from high school, I enrolled in the local community college, which had been affectionately christened “thirteenth grade” by my classmates. In the few classes that I took, I found that assertion to be largely correct. I had been taking some technology courses, and found it to be a wholly disappointing experience. One course required me to purchase a grossly overpriced textbook written by the instructor (unfortunately a common practice in higher education). When this instructor did decide to show up to class, she simply directed us to do busy work out of the book. I was gaining absolutely nothing from driving to school and sitting in this classroom for ninety minutes. I would ultimately drop out, and start doing IT help desk work to start my career. My first higher education experience made me immediately hostile to the entire concept, as the whole thing seemed to be architected around the idea of making itself necessary and needlessly costing students exorbitant amounts of money and time.
A few years later, I tried online classes when they began to appear in the mainstream, and found a similarly disappointing experience: I still had to buy textbooks that were laughably expensive, and I still had to adhere to a “classroom structure.” There were homework assignments, and the class was time-gated out over several weeks, forcing an unnecessary investment of time. One couldn’t just blaze through all of the material if it was a field they were comfortable in, as I found I was in many of these, since I had gained several years of experience after the first round of community college didn’t work out.
It should be noted that while my experience in college was far from ideal, it doesn’t mean that everyone will share in this same experience. Indeed, some people flourish in this environment; I just found that the structure of a classroom, virtual or otherwise, was not an effective way for me to learn.
I could describe my entire disheartening experience and fully detail my thoughts on higher education as a whole, but that exceeds the scope of this essay, and I find it likely that if you’re reading this you probably share similar feelings. Let’s get down to the nuts and bolts.
I didn’t struggle much without a degree, though the lack of this piece of paper definitely did cost me at least one opportunity that I’m aware of, and likely more that I’m not. Rather than become bitter, or just go ahead and get the damn degree, I came to wear it as a badge of honor. I had built a pretty successful career for my age and got that far without buying into the higher education scheme.
Some years later, I would be asked where I “went to school.” This is traditionally where I would launch into my spiel about how I didn’t need it, I got this far on the merits of my skill and knowledge alone, and supplemented them with years of experience and a bundle of industry certifications. However, on this occasion, I was asked in a group setting composed entirely of academics. I hastily did my spiel, but it was never designed to be delivered to an audience in which so much faith in the higher education system had been instilled. It fell completely flat. For the first time since the earliest stages of my career, I felt inadequate. I didn’t care for this feeling at all, and resolved to rectify it immediately.
After discussing this with a trusted colleague, I was directed to Western Governors University (“WGU”). My colleague described to me a similar scenario to my own, where lacking the check in that box was creating a hurdle for their advancement. WGU was described to me as paying tuition for time, not credits, and that turned out to be accurate. It sounded perfect - accredited, no time-gates, work at my own pace, and if I knew the material, I could tear through a course in a few days. Even better, I could bring in my existing certifications and get credit for those, as well as some previous college credits I had lying around. All I had to lose here was about $3500 in tuition, and being the cheapskate that I am, I knew paying this would not only incentivize me to finish, but to do so in the six months they would give me. Being a cybersecurity professional already, with no intent to change careers, it only made sense to enroll in the BS Cybersecurity program.
Once my start date rolled around, I marathoned eight classes in the first two weeks. They were mostly filler (English Comp, Science, Math) but it completely energized me to push forward as hard as I could. I was finally able, and encouraged, to complete the material at my own pace and in my own way. To me, this only validated what I had always known: college is a sham. Once the arbitrary restrictions were gone, in that the classroom structure is removed and the student is empowered to teach themselves the material or demonstrate knowledge they already have, I was able to meet my goals quickly and efficiently.
I was assigned a “mentor” by WGU, who essentially becomes your liaison for interacting with the University. I’ve read throughout the internet that the quality of your mentor varies greatly, and I initially scoffed at the idea of having what I perceived to be a babysitter. My assigned mentor, however, was generally very accepting of my desire to go as fast as I absolutely could, but after a few superhuman weeks he did limit me to two activated classes at once. It was apparent to me that this mandate came from above him, so I just decided to roll with it. This was an entirely reasonable restriction and I believe it ultimately helped to keep me on track.
For all courses beyond the general education courses, I resolved to finish one per week. I was able to adhere to this pretty tightly, with few exceptions. Tests were taken at night, proctored via webcam, and scheduling them was very flexible. Papers were written and revised throughout the week and were usually graded within 48 hours. I had the WGU app on my phone so I’d even get a notification that the course was done.
Having already had a strong foundation in technology, I was able to demonstrate competence and pass most of these courses within a week, as planned. The general education courses - science, algebra, and the like - were passed with knowledge I retained from high school and some light refresher studying. I struggled the most with the management courses (there are two - one is satisfied with Project+ and one with ITIL v3), as I had nearly zero background on this topic. ITIL took me about three weeks and stood to be my longest course - if you know nothing about the ITIL process going into it, it can be a rough ride.1
One point I’d like to address is the quality of the learning material. For the content you don’t already know, you have a good amount of resources at your disposal, though not all of it worth your time. Most of WGU’s technology courses are administered through uCertify, a third party provider. The uCertify platform is poorly designed and borderline unusable, and the content - in my opinion - is dry and disengaging. I was able to use their testing platform for practice tests when I was doing the CompTIA exams (which are part of your degree program and included in your tuition), but that was the extent of it. I found that the WGU library was a much greater resource for learning material, with lots of official certification guides, as well as PluralSight (which is provided free to students). So while the default offerings leave much to be desired, if one knows where to look, WGU does provide some great learning resources.
I write this a few days after I was notified that my graduation was finalized and, after many years of procrastinating, I earned a bachelor’s degree (and with a month to spare!). It was a truly intense five months of testing and writing, but far from an impossible task for the motivated. The competency-based model worked well for me, and I truly believe it could be the future of education if given the opportunity.
I was not compensated in any way, monetarily or otherwise, for this essay. It is based solely on my own personal experience with WGU.
I found the official ITIL app for iOS/Android to be essential in passing the ITIL exam. ↩