The University of Wisconsin ‘Flexible Option’ program: A college GED?

25 Jan

Caroline Porter reports in the Wall Street Journal article, College Degree, No Class Time Required:

Colleges and universities are rushing to offer free online classes known as “massive open online courses,” or MOOCs. But so far, no one has figured out a way to stitch these classes together into a bachelor’s degree.

Now, educators in Wisconsin are offering a possible solution by decoupling the learning part of education from student assessment and degree-granting.

Wisconsin officials tout the UW Flexible Option as the first to offer multiple, competency-based bachelor’s degrees from a public university system. Officials encourage students to complete their education independently through online courses, which have grown in popularity through efforts by companies such as Coursera, edX and Udacity.

No classroom time is required under the Wisconsin program except for clinical or practicum work for certain degrees.

Elsewhere, some schools offer competency-based credits or associate degrees in areas such as nursing and business, while Northern Arizona University plans a similar program that would offer bachelor’s degrees for a flat fee, said spokesman Eric Dieterle. But no other state system is offering competency-based bachelor’s degrees on a systemwide basis.

Wisconsin’s Flexible Option program is “quite visionary,” said Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Education, an education policy and lobbying group that represents some 1,800 accredited colleges and universities.

In Wisconsin, officials say that about 20% of adult residents have some college credits but lack a degree. Given that a growing number of jobs require a degree, the new program appeals to potential students who lack the time or resources to go back to school full time.

“It is a big new idea in a system like ours, and it is part of the way the ground is shifting under us in higher education,” said Kevin Reilly, president of the University of Wisconsin System, which runs the state’s 26 public-university campuses.

Under the Flexible Option, assessment tests and related online courses are being written by faculty who normally teach the related subject-area classes, Mr. Reilly said.

Officials plan to launch the full program this fall, with bachelor’s degrees in subjects including information technology and diagnostic imaging, plus master’s and bachelor’s degrees for registered nurses. Faculty are working on writing those tests now.

The charges for the tests and related online courses haven’t been set. But university officials said the Flexible Option should be “significantly less expensive” than full-time resident tuition, which averages about $6,900 a year at Wisconsin’s four-year campuses.

The Wisconsin system isn’t focusing on the potential cost savings the program may offer it but instead “the university and the state are doing this to strengthen the state work force,” said university spokesman David Giroux.

Here is a portion of the University of Wisconsin’s description:

University of Wisconsin Flexible Option FAQs


What is the UW Flexible Option?

The UW Flexible Option is an innovative way to make UW degree and certificate programs more accessible, convenient and affordable for adult and nontraditional students. Built on the long-standing foundation of high-quality UW degree programs, the new UW Flexible Option will include self-paced, competency-based degree and certificate programs that allow students to earn credit by demonstrating knowledge they have acquired through prior coursework, military training, on-the-job training, and other learning experiences.

UW faculty will determine what students should know and be able to do (knowledge and skills) in order to earn their college degree. Students enrolled in UW Flex programs will make progress towards a degree by passing a series of assessments that demonstrate mastery over competencies (knowledge and skills). Students in a Flex Option program may use the knowledge they have acquired through prior coursework, military and on-the-job training, and other learning experiences, and take assessments wherever and whenever they are ready. As they prepare for those assessments, students acquire knowledge and instruction from a wide variety of sources, working with a UW advisor and progressing at their own pace.

Which UW degrees will be offered with the new UW Flexible Option?

The first cohort of Flexible Option programs, planned for Fall 2013, includes:

UW-Milwaukee will offer four degree programs and one certificate program: o The College of Nursing will offer both a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree option for Registered Nurses who seek higher credentials (R.N. to B.S.N. and R.N. to M.N.).

o The College of Health Sciences will develop a degree completion in Diagnostic Imaging targeted toward bachelor’s degree-attainment for certified diagnostic imaging professionals.

o The School of Information Studies will offer a B.S. in Information Science & Technology, preparing students for a host of jobs in an increasingly digital culture and economy.

o The College of Letters & Science will offer a Certificate in Professional and Technical Communication, providing students with the essential written and oral communication skills needed in the workplace.

UW Colleges will offer liberal arts, general education courses in the flexible degree format.

o The University of Wisconsin Colleges is the UW System’s network of 13 freshman/sophomore campuses. Through traditional instruction and the UW Colleges Online, students can earn an Associate of Arts and Science degree and transfer to any baccalaureate and professional program at a four-year UW campus.

o For students who wish to be engaged in Flexible Option degree programs, the UW Colleges will provide general education, liberal arts freshman and sophomore level offerings that will be available in a competency-based, self-paced format as early as fall 2013. Students will be able to complete competencies and assessments in biology, chemistry, mathematics, computer science, engineering, physics, psychology, health, exercise science and athletics, women’s studies, business, political science, English, Spanish, geography, anthropology and sociology, history, art, and music. The UW Colleges will work to provide the Associate of Arts and Science degree via the UW Flexible Option….

There is a debate about the move to competency-based degrees.

Elle Moxley writes in the NPR report, Why Some Schools Are Considering A Move To Competency-Based Education:

Southern New Hampshire University is the latest to announce it will confer degrees based on something other than credit hour completion. The school plans to offer a $5,000 online degree awarded through a system of “direct assessment.”

Here’s how it works: Students have to prove they can complete a series of tasks — say, writing a business memo or creating a spreadsheet — to advance in their studies.

It’s similar to the competency-based model Western Governors University uses, writes Joanne Jacobs over at Community College Spotlight.

The idea’s spreading. Twenty other schools are working with WGU to design their own competency based programs, Jacobs reports. We noted last month that the U.S. Department of Labor will give community colleges in three states a total of $12 million to teach competency-based courses in key technology fields.

Even though schools like WGU are nationally and regionally accredited, many brick-and-mortar institutions have been reluctant to forgo the traditional college model in favor of competency-based education. Paul Fain over at Inside Higher Ed explains:

The academy’s nervousness about competency is understandable. Students learn at their own pace under the model — without guidance from a traditional faculty member — and try to prove what they know through assessments. If the tests lack rigor and a link to real competencies, this approach starts looking like cash for credits.

And competency-based education is controversial even when it’s backed by sound measurements of college-level learning. Most online courses share plenty with the traditional college classroom, most notably course material delivered by a professor or instructor. … But competency-based education, by definition, eliminates this part of the learning process, typically relying instead on tutors to help students grasp concepts as they work through self-paced course material, and only if they need help.The academy isn’t the only one with reservations about competency-based education, writes Fain. There’s also tension in the federal government, which only has so much money and wants to make sure dollars flow into schools offering degrees of value. Schools like WGU say they offer more bang for the buck because they let students take as many competencies as they can complete in a set period of times.

See, Competency-based education has fans, detractors

The question is what a particular student hopes to achieve from their college experience. In addition to the academics, there is the opportunity for certain social experiences which an online education may not provide. Still, for the mature student with life experience, this might be an opportunity for education or training.

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2 Responses to “The University of Wisconsin ‘Flexible Option’ program: A college GED?”


  1. Sudy of Washington community college students: Online college courses could widen achievement gap | drwilda - February 27, 2013

    […] The University of Wisconsin ‘Flexible Option’ program: A college GED?                                                                  […]

  2. The evolution of libraries: Los Angeles Public Library to offer high school diplomas | drwilda - January 11, 2014

    […] The University of Wisconsin ‘Flexible Option’ program: A college GED? […]

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