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 There is no reason for Walden (or Walden students) to labor under the weight of outdated bureaucratic systems.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.