Wisconsin Universities' Flexible Degrees for Working Adults May Be a 1st
The University of Wisconsin System is perhaps the first public university system in the nation to roll out a set of 100 percent competency-based online degree programs for working adults.
University of Wisconsin System President Kevin Reilly proclaimed Wednesday a watershed day for Wisconsin residents, as the UW System became perhaps the first public university system in the nation to roll out a set of 100% competency-based online degree programs for working adults starting next fall through UW-Milwaukee and the two-year UW Colleges.
The new Flexible Option degrees initially will focus on the largest skills gaps in Wisconsin: health care, information technologies and business and management. Other UW campuses are expected to follow in the next few years with additional flexible degrees that working adults can earn online at their own pace.
UWM Chancellor Michael Lovell announced during a news conference Wednesday that UWM will repackage existing courses into mostly online formats for the following Flexible Option degrees: a bachelor's and a master's degree in nursing; a bachelor's degree-completion program in diagnostic imaging; a bachelor of science in Information Science & Technology; and a certificate in Professional and Technical Communication.
The two-year UW Colleges will begin providing liberal arts courses in the flexible online format, and will offer an associate of arts and science degree to help working adults advance in the workplace or to meet general education requirements for four-year degrees launched by other institutions.
The UW System already offers 4,600 online courses and 120 online degree programs but previously has not had a flexible option for students to work at their own pace and take as many courses as they can finish for a flat fee.
The cost of the flexible degrees, which will not be differentiated from degrees earned at UW campuses, is yet to be determined. It's likely to depend on the cost of competency assessments, UW officials said during the news conference at UWM.
"It's a sign of the times, I think, when we start thinking of online delivery as traditional," Reilly said.
The new flexible degree is "the 21st century face of the Wisconsin Idea," a guiding principle that education should improve the lives of state residents, Reilly said.
"It's a game-changer when you decouple learning and instruction from assessment," said Ray Cross, the UW Colleges and UW-Extension chancellor who is overseeing development of the flexible degree programs.
Working adults don't have to sit in a classroom to learn skills and prove competency, Cross said. They may learn through on-the-job training, military experience or previous coursework.
Aimed at working adults
The new college degrees will be more affordable and accessible for working adults because, in addition to moving at their own pace, students will take only the courses they need. They won't have to spend time and money on coursework if they can prove through competency testing that they've already mastered it. The UW System will have methods in place to prevent online cheating, Cross said.
Currently, 26% of Wisconsin adults have a college degree; the national average is 28%.
The new flex degrees ultimately will target the estimated 700,000 to 1 million Wisconsin residents who have some college credit but no degree. Even if 10% to 20% finish a degree through the new degree program, it would dramatically boost the state's number of college graduates, and by extension, its economy, UW officials and Gov. Scott Walker said.
"It gives nontraditional learners another way to finish their degrees," said Walker, who left Marquette University his senior year before finishing his degree to work for the American Red Cross.
"With the strongly underlined emphasis on competency, it's not about becoming a degree factory," Walker said. "I think there's a way to maintain that high standard and still be adaptable and flexible."
'The funding will be there'
The UW System has requested $3 million from the state to fund start-up of the first batch of Flex Option degree programs in the 2013-'15 biennium budget. Among other things, the money will support faculty members from multiple campuses who are working to take the UW Flex Option from the drawing board to the Internet.
"The funding will be there," Walker promised in an interview before Wednesday's announcement. "That's a commitment we made."
UWM's flexible option degree for a bachelor of science in nursing is expected to be in especially high demand because the Institute of Medicine recently recommended that 80% of all registered nurses have a bachelor's degree by 2020, said Barb Daley, interim associate dean for academic affairs at UWM.
The new degree won't replace the BSN at Home program, but will provide students with another option, Daley said.
The two-year UW Colleges will provide general education and liberal arts courses in the flexible format for core fields such as biology, chemistry, mathematics, engineering, business, English, Spanish, geography and others.
Other UW campuses will develop flexible degrees over the next several years, led by UW faculty who designed traditional UW degree programs in the first place and identified learning outcomes students should achieve, Reilly said.
UW-Parkside expects to begin offering flexible degree options in fall 2014.
"This is a new direction in American higher education and Wisconsin is at the forefront," Reilly said.
"It's visionary and evolutionary," said Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Education, which conducts public policy advocacy, research and initiatives related to higher education issues.
"This is acknowledging the growing diversity of who college students are, and finding an effective way to give them the first-rate opportunities traditional students on campuses have had for decades," Broad said in an interview. "It's going to be interesting to watch the extent this program at the University of Wisconsin makes it possible to increase the educational attainment of your state."
If it produces a large number of new working adult degree holders, other states will follow, Broad predicted.
Broad is scheduled to make a presentation to the UW System Board of Regents in February about the American Council on Education's efforts to evaluate MOOCs -- Massive Open Online Courses -- to determine which courses may be recommended for college credit.
UW faculty also may be involved in those evaluations, as well as evaluations of education and training offered by the U.S. military, Reilly said.
Nuts and bolts
Here's how the new Flex Option degree program will work:
UW faculty members will modify existing college programs into self-paced, competency-based formats. To maintain rigorous academic standards, UW faculty will continue to oversee the academic quality of the reformatted degree programs.
Working adult students can start the Flex Option at any time once the degree programs launch; they're not under the constraints of an academic calendar. They determine the pace of their own learning.
Students can take UW courses or take advantage of free online courses offered elsewhere, including the growing number of MOOCs, through universities such as Harvard and MIT.
Whenever they're ready to demonstrate mastery of specific competencies, they will complete assessments designed by UW faculty, then move on to the next course or part of a course if they pass the assessment, according to Cross, the UW Colleges and UW-Extension chancellor
Students will be held to the same rigorous standards that apply to all other UW degrees, Cross said.
Advisers will be available- with an estimated ratio of 1 adviser to every 85 students -- to help students choose courses and stay on track, Cross said.
UW Extension will offer some individual courses in the Flexible Option through a pilot program developed by UW Independent Learning. The first courses will include college algebra, elementary statistics and a noncredit business mathematics and personal finance certificate.
Walker encouraged development of the flexible degree program nearly two years ago after returning from a National Governor's Association meeting in Salt Lake City, where he heard about a national nonprofit online university created in 1995 by 19 Western governors called Western Governors University.
The online university started because Western states' budgets were cut while populations and college tuition at public universities were growing.
Walker said Wisconsin didn't need to create an online university system to accomplish the same thing as Western Governors University. So he approached UW System officials, who already had been thinking in that direction.
The governor said he may finish his own college degree through a Flexible Option degree program, if an economics degree is developed and offered.
"I'm not going to direct them to do ones uniquely for me," the governor said. "My hope is they'll keep adding more and more."
Walker said he's like a lot of Wisconsin residents who started earning a college degree, but didn't finish because life got in the way.
"For me, it was 'time,' "Walker said. "I took a job, got married and had a kid. Every time I thought about (finishing the degree), something else came up."
Walker said he may even try to finish his degree before his youngest son -- now a high school senior -- can finish a traditional four-year degree on a college campus.
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