An Answer To The Tough Question (About Walden University)

I might also have called this post A Defense of The Quality of My Education at Walden University (And My Interpretation of Vygotsky).

In my frustration over the unnecessary length (and cost) of the dissertation proposal approval process at Walden I wrote a purposefully negative post yesterday. I was expecting that it might kick up some controversy, but I didn’t expect the comment that Chris Craft left. I have no delusions about the approval process being any better at most traditional institutions (I’ve heard plenty of horror stories), and I certainly wasn’t insinuating that the quality of education at Walden was any less. In fact, the outcome I’d most like to see from a post like that (however juvenile it was in title and in fact) is that Walden might exercise it’s freedom to be something new, different, and better. There is no reason for Walden (or Walden students) to labor under the weight of outdated bureaucratic systems. In any case, I feel compelled to respond to a few of the points Chris made in his comment.

First of all, Chris wrote the following:

I’ve been working on my Ph.D. here locally and been reading tons of research and hearing loads of names tossed around, not one is from Walden.

I think it is important to note that Walden is not a research institution. In California this is the difference between a UC School like UCI or UCLA, and a State University like Cal State Long Beach or even Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. The UC schools are research institutions where the faculty’s first priority is to conduct and publish original research (I know many of the professors at these schools for whom this is undoubtedly true – some just plain hate to teach and aren’t shy about saying so). At these schools the students often come second and are likely to be handled by TAs. At the state schools, though, the first priority is educating the students. In my experience at Cal Poly, this was a benefit. Classes were small. I was usually in a room with about 20 students and a Ph.D. Things were very different for my friends at UC schools, where lecture halls often held hundreds of students. In this respect, Walden is like the state schools here in California. The faculty’s priority is educating the students. For the most part Walden does not facilitate research by the faculty; the school pays them to teach. Again, I count this a benefit. Online classes were small and access to the Ph.D. was easy and frequent. At the residencies the ratio of students to faculty was around 10:1 – or better (I was told at one point that they shoot for 9:1 at the summer residency). That was fantastic access to the Ph.Ds.

I can understand the criticism that Walden is not a research institution and so grad students do not get the same experience that they might working with a professor who is conducting original research. But, what you give up in exposure to that culture you gain in freedom to pursue your own original research rather than merely working in support of your advisor’s career, which I’ve often heard students complain of at UCI for instance.

Also, most Walden faculty are also associated with other institutions, and if they are doing original research, they are most likely publishing under their other affiliation. So, while our professors may very well still be publishing original research themselves, others would not recognize their affiliation with Walden when reading the results. Regardless, we have access to these professors.

Finally, I think this argument is relevant in this case: in the field of educational technology we are going to need experts with new experiences – experience with online distance education on a global scale, not just experience with a traditional research institution. And I don’t think the names being tossed around in traditional institutions are necessarily the ones that will be important as we forge the future of education.

The next point I’d like to respond to is this passage that Chris wrote, which I suppose hits a bit closer to home for me:

I have to wonder about the quality of education. A prime example is your dissertation regarding Vygotsky when you mention that Vygotsky says learning is all social. I think this might represent a misunderstanding of Vygotsky. I’ve been working my way through him this semester with a noted Vygotsky scholar and I’ve come to entirely different conclusions.

I need to first distinguish between what Chris typed here and what I actually wrote in my proposal. Here he says “learning is all social” (which I would agree ignores a good deal of Vygotsky’s perspective), but what I wrote was that “all learning is social.” In my final paper this statement is not even directly attributed to Vygotsky, though I don’t think it would be a stretch to do so, considering the excerpts from Vygotsky’s work below:

“From the very first days of the child’s development his activities acquire a meaning of their own in a system of social behavior” (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 30)

“Every function in the child’s cultural development appears twice: First, on the social level and, later, on the individual level… All the higer functions originate as actual relatinos between human individuals.” (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 57)

“Human life presupposes a specific social nature and a process by which children grow into the intellectual life of those around them” (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 88).

“Directed thought is social” (Vygotsky, 1986, p. 16) Based on Piaget’s definition, directed thought is thought that pursues an aim.

“[Piaget proposes that] social speech is represented as following, not preceding, egocentric speech. The hypothesis we propose reverses this course.” (Vygotsky, 1986, p. 34)

“The earliest speech of the child is… essentially social… egocentric speech emerges when the child transfers social, collaborative forms of behavior to the sphere of inner-personal psychic functions” (Vygotsky, 1986, p. 34-35)

“In our conception, the true direction of the development of thinking is not from the individual to the social, but from the social to the individual.” (Vygotsky, 1986, p. 36)

“With the development of inner speech and verbal thought… the nature of development itself changes, from biological to sociohistorical.” (Vygotsky, 1986, p. 94)

“Education, in every country and in every epoch, has always been social in nature, indeed, by its very ideology it could hardly exist as antisocial in any way” (Vygotsky, 1997, p. 47)

“Experience is ‘socially impregnated’ through and through” (Vygotsky, 1997, p. 53)

“Ultimately, for man the environment is a social environment, because even where it appears to be a natural environment, nevertheless, in relation to man, there are always definite social elements present. in his intreraction with the environment, man always makes use of his social experience.” (Vygotsky, 1997, p. 53-54)

“Education… is possible only on the basis of an appropriately guided social environment.” (Vygotsky, 1997, p. 210)

“The nature of man’s education… is wholly determined by the social environment in which he grows and develops.” (Vygotsky, 1997, p. 211)

“The mechanism of social behavior and the mechanism of consciousness are the same… we are aware of ourselves, for we are aware of others, and in the same way we know others; and this is as it is because in relatino to ourselves we aer in the same [position] as others to us” (Vygotsky, 1979, p. 1, as quoted in Dixon-Krauss, 1996, p. 78)

“The adult, even in his most personal and private occupation, … thinks socially, has continually in his mind’s eye his collaborators or opponents, actual or eventual, at any rate members of his own profession to whom sooner or later he will announce the results of his labours. This mental picture pursues him throughout his task. The task itself is henceforth socialised at almost every stage of its development.” (Vygotsky, 1923/1974, p. 59, as cited in Tryphon & Voneche, 1996, p. 146)

“All higher mental functions are internalized social relationships’ (Vygotsky, 1981, p. 164, as cited in Dixon-Krauss, 1996, p. 113)

Though I can’t know what the “noted Vygotsky scholar” Chris is studying with this semester would think of my interpretation, it would seem that despite my admittedly cursory exposure to Vygotsky’s work (it was very peripheral to my study) I am not alone in my assessment of Vygotsky’s theories:

“Vygotsky (1962) stated that language and all other learning are centered in social interactions… children gradually come to know and undersatand the content knowledge that others in their environment know and understand.” (Dixon-Krauss, 1996, p. 79)

“[Vygotsky thought that] personal and social experience cannot be separated. The world that children inhabit is shaped by their families, communities, sociaeconomic status, education, and culture.” (Mooney, 2000 p. 82)

“Vygotsky… showed that children’s cognitive development is affected not only by their physcial development, but also by their social surroundings and interactions” (Mooney, 2000 p. 85)

Bruner on Vygotsky: “thought is often an internal version… of dialog.” (Bruner, 1966, p. 19)

Update: At this point I should interject and say that I’d love to hear what other conclusions Chris has come to, especially if they contradict (or compliment) these ideas.

Ultimately, to answer the tough question about the quality of education at Walden (or any school), I believe that individuals make much more of a difference to the quality of education than institutions.

In every educational institution I’ve been a part of (as an educator and as a student), there have been teachers or professors who have been fantastic – and others who have been appalling. There have been students who made the most of every opportunity – and those who systematically wasted them… which is to say nothing of the students who seemed to be geniuses – and those whose acceptance to the school was mystifying. In my experience, people I’ve spoken to from other institutions of all reputations and calibers share similar stories.

There’s no doubt my experience would be very different at a traditional school, especially those with a culture of research focused on the field I’m exploring: the University of Wisconsin – Madison, Indiana University in Bloomington, or even MIT. But, I don’t think it significantly impacts the quality of my exposure to Vygotsky’s work – or to cutting edge theories about videogames and learning… and I believe that the distributed global network of faculty and students I have worked with is a benefit that I would not experience in a traditional school, to say nothing of the distance learning experience during my coursework. Also, of course, we should acknowledge that I would not have been able to continue pursuing my career here in California if I had attended one of the schools above.

On the other hand, my experience researching and writing my dissertation has been no different than my many of colleagues getting doctorates in education at UCI, who also read and write 99% of the time working from their own homes here in Irvine. The difference is I am plugged into a global network of faculty and students – and I still have access to the UCI library for a nominal annual fee orders of magnitude less than their tuition.

In short, I believe that the individuals I’ve had the opportunity to work with (and have chosen to work with) at Walden – and the efforts I’ve put into my work there myself – have amounted to a high quality doctoral level education… and there’s more to come. I’m still several significant steps shy of earning my degree.

So that you can draw your own conclusions about what I’ve said here (should you care to), below is a link to the current draft of my proposal, which has been approved by an international committee of Ph.D’s (and educational technology experts) and by the university research office, which reviews all proposals to ensure academic rigor. IRB approval is expected, but still pending.


Also, here is a link to a more exhaustive list of references I’ve used, which should allow you to locate the source of all quotes shared in this post, even those that do not appear in the proposal.


Of course, if you see any problems with this post or have a reaction to anything I’ve argued or suggested, please let me know. If I’ve proven myself a fool here, I’d like to hear about it. I’d also love to hear from others at Walden or other institutions who might be able to support or contradict any of these positions. Thanks, Chris, for the excuse to think and write for a purpose other than “work” today… and for putting me in a better mood. ‘Turns out it feels better to defend my school than tear it down. ;)

Now I’ve spent far too much time on this and it’s time to start my Thanksgiving day vacation. Blogging about “the strangest workshop I’ve ever been involved with” will have to wait.

11 Responses to “An Answer To The Tough Question (About Walden University)”

  1. Dianne Says:


    I am a student at Walden. I find that compared to Ed.D. programs in my area, the program at Walden is just as rigorous. I agree with you that we have access to major professors that sometimes list their “other university” as their primary place of teaching. I am sorry for your frustration and I hope that Walden “powers that be” listen to you and make adjustments as I hope to be where you are in one year.

    Thank you for your posts. I do enjoy reading about your tribulations. D.

  2. mrsdurff Says:

    Or in other words..”duh” . Of course learning is social. Knowledge is collective. I think your education is just fine. I’m considering Walden myself just because it is not stifled in tradition, which the Ivy Leagues are. We must be shifting, not growing roots…Dr. Wagner has a nice ring to it…

  3. Ryan Bretag Says:

    Well said Mark, well said!

    It is disheartening that your post about the process of gaining approval and the hurdles you had to jump through turned into whether or not Walden is legit. I would have hoped that the educational community would move beyond focusing on “online” universities as the source of all that is wrong academia and begin looking at higher education as a whole.

    As I said in one of my blog posts (, I struggle to understand the elitist ignorance that still dominates in academia especially technologists: “What drives people to find so much value in technology, so much value in global learning, and so much value in scholar practitioners but still question online learning? Why is there such little respect for online programs?”

  4. Marie Coleman Says:

    Your words, “individuals make more of a difference to the quality of education than institutions” summarize the issue beautifully and succinctly. For me, appreciating the diversity of learning structures, the learners themselves, and the meaning it brings will always outweigh the expertise, ranking, and/or popularity alone. For each, the match should have purpose and personalization.

    My doctorate was earned twenty years ago from a public university and I continue to learn via formal coursework, but nothing replaces the quality of discourse, reflection and social constructivism via one’s own personal learning network, both face-to-face and online – in whatever venues. The real key is to see lifelong learning as a vital part of one’s living and to live it!

  5. Chris Craft Says:

    Hey Mark!

    I am working on a response, needless to say life gets in the way a bit..

    I did want to say this though..

    Please understand my heart here. My heart’s desire is not to put you or your education down at all. As we began talking about at NECC, the reality is that the “academy” does not equally recognize a degree from Walden as compared with other institutions. I find that to be fairly objective given the research that’s out there. I am not saying I agree, merely looking at what search committees think. Of course as you articulated, Professor Mark Wagner is not your articulated vision, so that point may be moot.

    Thanks for taking the time to pen this, I want to to it a good service by putting solid effor t of my own into a response.

    For what it’s worth, I would not have asked the “hard questions” had it not been for your (I’m jesting a bit here) recent Walden-bashing.

    Naturally, I’m intending a solid academic level conversation, perhaps better had by Skype and recorded so that I don’t come across like an elitist jerk (which I most certainly am not I don’t think).

    I have more questions than answers, anyway.

    As for my professor, well, she wrote one of the leading learning theory books on the market, holds a very thorough Vygotsky seminar, and studied under Gagne at FSU a bunch of years ago. She’s something else.

    She wrote a book clarifying a lot of the misconceptions about Vygotsky, it’s one of my next reads. One of the most misunderstood topics it seems is the oft-touted Zone of Proximal Development, which has nothing to do with kids working in groups.

    More some time soon, maybe a Skype call in the mean time? It would sure be an interesting conversation…

    Oh any by the way, my wife and I just bought a new Nissan Quest. The 2008’s are nice and get good gas mileage. It’s big enough for all 4 of us (also have a 5 year-old along with 18 month-old) and is a comfy ride.

    Chris Craft

  6. Mark Wagner, Vygotsky, and online learning | Crucial Thought Says:

    […] Either way, check out his masterful post, and await my response, if you dare […]

  7. Bertha Kaumbulu Says:

    It is late in the day, but I just want to take this sidebar my studies to add a comment. My daughter received her Ph.D. from a brick and mortar well established university this past June. I told her about that program when I couldn’t commit to every other weekend and being on campus to attend formal face-to-face classes. Since I was heavily committed to work and family I decided to attend Walden. There has been very little difference if any regarding the substance and learning that we both have received and completed. We are able to share knowledge. She had physical access to her professors while I have online access.

    I decided to look up my faculty mentor and will defend her competency against many. She is probably a leading authority in her field of computer science and educational technology. She is accessible within minutes to hours when I need her. Walden is accredited by the same regional organization that accredits schools such as Purdue and Notre Dame.

    I began my studies at about the same time as Mark and have wondered why the arrogance of those whose mechanistic views continue to limit their ability to use knowledge in ways to change society for the good. This, however, is a simplistic view. When one compares himself (institution) to others s/he must either feel that s/he is better or that s/he is less than; to which point there is no real value in doing this.

    I admire your security and commend you Mark for standing up in defense of your learning. I know I will have not wasted my time, nor will you have, Mark. I think that it has been the personal drive that we have committed to this program and have learned from Walden–and that is to effect positive change in society. This is one thing that gives this virtual institution (brick and mortar summers in Bloomington) its value.

  8. Aaron Grimm Says:

    While I follow Chris’ ramblings frequently, I have always viewed him as conventional. What he is is doing is putting “bricks into clicks” (transferring his brick and mortar framework to the tech world).

    While I do have some issues with profiting off of human services and education, Walden has learned how to play the market ball game. There are no conventional institutions that seem to be pushing the develop of this new world we are living in. I see Mark’s research as ground breaking, no matter what happens. The problem with the American education system is that we view things through a “it has always been this way” lens. Many other private institutions have been taken great risks in playing to the market (online and weekend programs). As an example, every online high school in the state of MN is full and growing. Why is this? (hmmmmm) While I do not believe that there is a replacement for face to face interaction, this changes when the conversation isn’t one on one. Remember, technology is a tool and does not replace content.

    While the conventional institutions sit around and hypocritically criticize experimentation, the world will continue to change. They will make incremental changes when the market calls for starting fresh, with a 21st century perspective.

    A bit of a ramble, but it reminds me of a famous quote: “If you have no will to change it, you have no right to criticize it.”

  9. Ken Pruitt Says:

    Well done. I could have attended Penn State for my graduate degree in ed tech, but I would have paid triple, had to travel to several different locations, and, worst of all, would have had to wait until they had enough applicants to form a class. The Penn State folks assured me, with a smile, that if I registered all would be taken care of in due time. In the meantime I could take classes in a degree that was “close” to what I wanted.

    I searched around and found Walden. Early on I felt maybe I was getting ripped off. I thought the content was dated and that the class interaction was insincere. How could you be proud of an ed tech degree taught by VHS tape? As I grew, I realized what all graduate students soon realize. Education is not about cool tools, tricks, or mastery of content. Becoming a quality teacher requires a person to dive into learning theory, developmental theory, and the accompanying instructional strategies.

    On the tail end of graduate degree from Walden I am proud of myself and my university. I am a better person and a better teacher because of my experiences and isn’t that is why one chooses to go on to a post bacc program.

    Anyway, here is a professional article that states all of this better than I ever could.

    Anyone who thinks institutions will be able to survive without online components is asleep. The shear economics will win out. 10,000 paying students with little expense. Or 72 million dollar construction projects that will accommodate 2-3,000 more kids. It’s not rocket science.

  10. Mark Wagner Says:

    Hey, Chris.

    I’ve been buried with work here myself, but I let this comment go to long unanswered. I appreciate your clarification of your intent (though I think you were good about it initially, too), and I haven’t taken it personally at all. You did ask the question, though, and obviously I felt motivated to write a response, particularly with respect to the specific example you used. That being said, I’m in no position to debate with you about Vygotsky, particularly live. I’m certainly not an expert. He was merely one of the “seminal” thinkers I explored as background for my study. I would be interested, though, to hear in what ways you and your professor think he did not believe all learning is social. I suspect that it might rest on common misinterpretations of his work and that when it comes down to it, we’ll be on the same page, but you never know – so if you want to share I’m all for it. And even if you don’t feel up to it (which would be understandable I think – it’s certainly not a priority), I would still be interested in your professor’s name and the title of the book you mention. :)

    Anyway, I mainly want to say “no hard feelings” or anything. I hope I was civil in my response – I even thanked you for the catalyst to think about it and write about it. :)

    See you in the twitterverse…

  11. Jeff Ingraham Says:

    Thanks Mark for the great comments about Walden!

    As a Student who has 2 years in at Walden I have to say the rigor of the coursework I have taken so far is AT LEAST as high as the rigor at any other school I have attended. I have taken graduate classes at 9 Universities and by far the hardest class I have ever taken are from my time at Walden. I started my PHD at a brick and mortar institution and then switched to Walden largely because of the ability to choose the Topic of my Dissertation.

    In agreement with Chris, I have already heard of professors speaking down upon Walden students and the educations received there although once the professors are informed a bit they usually come around.

    I would also say that every professor I have had not only been a professor for Walden but also a professor at another college or University. So when the comment above states that there is never research by Walden faculty, I believe that is not the whole story simply because the people who teach for Walden, also teach for other institutions so Walden may not be listed.