Wisconsin’s Flexible Option: A System Approach to Competency-Based Education

In earlier Frontiers blog posts, we heard about developing competency-based programs at Northern Arizona University and the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.  WCET is also currently partnering with Mozilla, Blackboard, and Sage Road Solutions in offering a MOOC on badges as a new currency for professional education.  Continuing our interest in alternative credentialing developments, our guest bloggers are Rebecca Karoff and Laura Pedrick introduce us to the University of Wisconsin System’s  Flexible Option.

Leading Higher Education Transformation as a System

It’s become commonplace to reference the period in which we higher educators find ourselves as one of “disruptive innovation”—usually referring to MOOCs, as evidenced by the significant attention being paid to them on this blog and other higher education sites, not to mention in mainstream media as well.

We recently heard Dennis Jones, The National Center for Higher Education Management Systems (NCHEMS) President, say that the real disruptive innovation is not MOOCs but, rather, credentialing by competencies.  We agree, and it is in competency-based educational (CBE) delivery that the UW System is committing significant resources in order to serve a population of students we—indeed all of higher education—have not adequately been serving to date.University of Wisconsin System Logo

Since Fall 2012, the UW System has been building a self-paced, competency-based model called the UW Flexible Option. It is a high-profile and transformative undertaking designed to provide quality educational offerings to returning adult students with some college and no degree, of which there are hundreds of thousands in Wisconsin, and millions across the United States. The Flexible Option will serve as an important contributor to the UW System’s goals to help more Wisconsin residents attain college degrees and address the state’s workforce needs. While a number of other American universities—Western Governors University, Southern New Hampshire University, Northern Arizona University, and Capella University, to name a few—have developed or are working on developing competency-based educational (CBE) programs—and we are learning a lot from these pioneers—the UW System is the only public university developing a CBE program at the system level.

What does it mean to do this as a system? The model we are developing involves remarkable collaboration across different kinds of UW institutions, including, in this first cohort, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (one of the System’s two doctoral institutions), the University of Wisconsin Colleges (a single institution comprising 13 freshman-sophomore campuses), and the University of Wisconsin-Extension (through the Division of Continuing Education, Outreach, and E-Learning).

When the invitation to UW institutions went out to participate in this new delivery model, a self-selected group of UW-Milwaukee and the UW Colleges programs and departments stepped forward.  They viewed  the opportunity to participate as one that would build on their access missions, commitments to better serve already large non-traditional student bodies, and their records of online and other kinds of curricular innovation.

UW System President Kevin Reilly also convened immediately an advisory group comprised of faculty and instructional academic staff to establish systemwide guidelines and principles for what CBE should look like to ensure that Flexible Option programs would have the integrity and quality of other academic programs in the UW System. This first advisory group was followed by the establishment of an administrative advisory group, and then an operational advisory group, each with clear charges to ensure that the business and operational models we were developing for UW Flex were appropriately vetted systemwide, regardless of which UW institutions decided to participate in the first cohorts of academic offerings.

What Kind of CBE Model Are We Building?

In fact, the model we are building involves an unprecedented level of collaboration between the System’s UW-Extension and the System’s degree-granting institutions. It is one that we have collectively determined is essential to creating the economy of scale to make this academically, operationally, and financial viable throughout the System and—most importantly—to serve students well.

The Academic Model
The academic development is being done by the UW System’s high-quality current faculty, and the academic degrees and certificates offered through UW Flex will be offered by UW institutions. They will be approved and awarded by the same accreditation and faculty governance policies as all UW degrees, which decree that academic control of a UW Flex program remains under faculty and administrative shared governance within the offering UW institution. Program faculty and instructional staff determine the competencies, assessments, and appropriate levels of mastery for UW Flex programs. The big change comes in removing the classroom and seat time as currency for student learning, removing faculty entirely from the traditional “sage on the stage” role to being “guides on the side,” and generating both anxiety and excitement for the faculty pioneers who have signed on to the first cohort of Flex offerings.

At UW-Milwaukee, beginning late this fall, we will be offering:

  • an R.N. to B.S.N. completion program;
  • a bachelor of science degree in Biomedical Sciences offering degree completion in Diagnostic Imaging;
  • a bachelor of science in Information Science & Technology; and
  • a certificate in Business and Technical Communication.

The UW Colleges will offer liberal arts, general education courses in the Flexible Option format, with the goal of offering the associate’s degree by 2014-15. For the second cohort of Flex Options, more degree and certificate programs are under development by another four UW institutions.

This graphic explains the academic model and student pathway to a Flex degree.

Diagram of the different pathways available to students pursuing the flexible degree option.

The Administrative Model
And if the academic structure is entirely different for UW Flexible Option programs, so is the operational domain:  without seat time as the basis for awarding credit, every administrative function operates differently, including how students are admitted, enrolled, receive financial aid, pay their fees, and are transcripted. UW-Extension is supporting the administration of UW Flex at each institution, and will ultimately house admissions, registrar, financial aid, and bursar functions, among other units. As a cost-recovery unit with expertise in online learning, learning management platforms, and alternative programming, UW-Extension’s Division of Continuing Education, Outreach and E-Learning is particularly adept at thinking outside the credit box to envision and build the operational infrastructure necessary to ensure the economy of scale that will make UW Flex financially viable and sustainable. UW institutions and UW-Extension are working collaboratively to ensure that UW Flex students receive the academic and other support they need to help them succeed, and one of the signature features of the model is the role of the Academic Success Coach, who will work closely with each student as he or she navigates through the curriculum and the operational systems.

Toward a New Currency for Student Learning, Beyond the Credit Hour

Are there challenges in this multi-institutional collaborative model?  Yes—although we are all part of the UW System, participating institutions have different cultures, policies, and practices. All involved are working diligently to confront differences and work through them, guided at all times by the focus on providing quality academic programs, serving the needs of the adult students we will enroll, and resulting in demonstrable student learning and other measures of success.

In fact, one of the most exciting prospects in developing CBE as a system is the impact we can have in identifying a different and new set of metrics for what success means to our target population, e.g., metrics that establish competency and certificate completion as important measures of success for working adults who need more education to advance professionally but maybe not a degree, or metrics that demonstrate learning with student work as the evidence, not the mere completion of credit hours. From President Obama, to the Department of Education, to major funders, to our accreditors, to our peers also pioneering CBE programs, we are being watched closely and we look forward to working with many of these colleagues in identifying these new measures of student success.

The University of Wisconsin System educates over 182,000 students, on 26 campuses and through a host of residential and online degree programs. We will continue to offer what we believe to be quality educational experiences through our traditional “bricks and mortar,” as well as more traditional online programs. Still, we believe that competency-based programs, such as the UW Flexible Option, are the next step in the evolution of delivering college degrees, especially to those students underserved by more traditional offerings.

By focusing on knowledge mastery rather than seat time, competency-based programs do more than just pay lip-service to higher education’s growing focus on outcomes. Competency-based programs enable adult learners to demonstrate what they know, and identify what they need to learn and how to move toward mastery. The multi-institutional approach to developing competency-based programs we are undertaking in the University of Wisconsin System is complex and our framework requires close coordination among the partner institutions. We believe the result will be a high-quality, cutting-edge program, one that takes its place among the System’s other quality academic offerings and leads the transformation of higher education into a future where the credit hour is no longer the sole currency for student learning.

For additional information, go to http://flex.wisconsin.edu/.Photo of Rebecca Karoff

Rebecca Karoff is Senior Special Assistant to the University of Wisconsin System Office’s Senior Vice President for Academic and Student Affairs and has been working on the development of the UW Flexible Option since fall 2012. She is the founder and director of LEAP Wisconsin, the UW System’s Liberal Education Initiative, which is focused on engaging the public with core questions about what really matters in college; connecting educational leaders to policy-makers outside the academy as they make the case for the importance of quality education in the global economy; and helping all students achieve those learning outcomes essential to success in a diverse democracy. Dr. Karoff also served for many years as secretary to the Board of Regents Education Committee and staff liaison to the UW System Provosts, involved in setting academic agendas and policy directions on a variety of public higher education fronts.  Prior to joining the UW System Administration, Karoff taught Comparative Literature at UW-Madison, from which she received a Ph.D. and M.A.  She has an A.B. in Literature and Society from Brown University.

Photo of Laura Pedrick

Laura Pedrick is Special Assistant to the Provost for Strategic Initiatives and Executive Director of UWM Online at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She oversees UW-Milwaukee’s online and blended programs and is currently the campus lead for UWM’s Flexible Option programs. She also manages an EDUCAUSE Next Generation Learning Challenge grant on UWM’s innovative “U-Pace” instructional model. For the past year she has facilitated the UWM’s Digital Future planning process, which is focused on emerging technologies and their impact on higher education. In the area of instructional technology, Laura is a co-author of “Policy Practice for Social Workers: New Strategies for a New Era,” which features virtual case studies, and Social Work Skills Demonstrated, a multimedia textbook, both published by Pearson/Allyn & Bacon. Pedrick’s background is in mass communication, and she holds a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Minnesota.

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Executive Director WCET (WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies)

One thought on “Wisconsin’s Flexible Option: A System Approach to Competency-Based Education

  1. The UW Flexible Option offers impressive degrees relevant to market demand and has many great similarities to the competency-based degree programs offered at the other universities.

    There’s still something valuable missing from the UW Flexible Option: competency-based transcripts. Instead of a student showing an employer a list of classes that they took, they should be able to show the outcomes of what skills and subjects they have mastery in from their degree. Having documented competency in valuable field skills (as opposed to just listing the skills on your resume) proves to an employer that you can perform the vacant position.

    I know Northern Arizona University’s Personalized Learning program offers these competency-based transcripts, but I don’t know if the other CBL programs at the other universities do.

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