Meeting the Storm: The University of Wisconsin Flexible Option

Co-Written with David Schejbal | Dean of Continuing Education, Outreach and E-Learning and Rebecca Karoff | Senior Special Assistant to the Senior Vice President for Academic and Student Affairs, University of Wisconsin System

Meeting the Storm: The University of Wisconsin Flexible Option
The higher education transformation is pushing institutions to find new ways to meet the changing needs of the ever-changing student population, and Flexible Degrees are the solution the UW-Extension has developed.

From Information Access to Information Utilization

While education has always been a mix of providing access to information and nurturing the intellectual and analytical tools to work with information, this same mix is no longer relevant. Students now have virtually all the information we have as faculty; little value remains in an education based on providing access to information, per se. We are all, in fact, awash in information, shifting the value from information access to information utilization through analysis and engagement. Education must focus on helping students navigate the sea of information:  learning how to distinguish the good from the bad, how to combine and apply information to answer questions about themselves and the world around them and how to develop new information through research and critical examination.

Learning science and educational research has given us two axioms about how people learn:

  1. Different people learn differently, not only in terms of pace but in terms of learning style;
  2. All students learn best under conditions in which they actively engage with learning material and when they understand and work towards clear learning outcomes.

Although we have had research evidence for these truisms for several decades or more, it is only recently that current technologies allow us to build effective and scalable models of education around them.

UW Flexible Option: A Competency-Based Approach to Higher Education Delivery

Currently under development, the UW Flexible Option (or UW Flex), is a portfolio of degrees, certificates and courses drawn primarily from the existing program array in the University of Wisconsin System. UW Flex programs will be offered in formats that are self-paced, competency-based and built on learning science and best-practice educational principles. UW Flex targets adult and nontraditional students — individuals who juggle family and work and who are bound by schedules and locations that do not easily adapt to traditional academic parameters.

Rather than taking a set of courses within designated semesters, students progress toward degrees by demonstrating mastery over designated learning outcomes — competencies — that define what students need to know and do to qualify for those degrees. UW Flex is defined by these features:

  • Learning and demonstration of learning are uncoupled from instructional activities.
  • Competencies and student learning assessment are, at the core, guided by UW’s liberal education Shared Learning Goals.
  • Degree progress is personalized through maximum schedule flexibility, and students can enter programs at levels appropriate to them.
  • Students are encouraged to use free and online learning resources (MOOCs, etc.) liberally, while the “curation” and evaluation of these resources remain under the quality oversight of UW faculty.
  • Pricing structures are flexible and allow students to pay only for what they use.
  • UW Flex programs will be developed in areas that serve the public interest, including areas of strong student demand and areas of economic growth and development in Wisconsin and beyond.

New Roles — and Old — for Faculty and Staff

UW faculty will develop the competency sets for each UW Flex degree or certificate program and identify appropriate performance standards and the corresponding assessments to test students’ competency mastery. Assessments will range from traditional exams to rubric-based evaluations of student work to observational analyses in structured environments. Strong mentoring and tutorial support for students enrolled in UW Flex programs will be provided by both faculty and professional advisors to help students meet their educational goals. A high-touch, proactive and “wrap around” advising model will be based on educational best practices known to be effective for the types of students that are being targeted. Obtaining a degree through the Flex Option will not be easier, or “less than,” a traditional UW degree. Students will demonstrate mastery over program competencies determined by the same faculty and institutions that grant all other University of Wisconsin degrees.

As these two articles suggest, the higher education transformation is being driven by a perfect storm. Public higher education has always aspired to provide education for the public good, an education that helps an ever-more diverse range of learners improve their lives and the world around them. Faculty and staff throughout the UW System are meeting this storm and emerging with an educational model that uses learning science and technologies to further realize these aspirations — focusing squarely on cost-effective, personalized student learning and engagement.

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Readers Comments

Ian Richardson 2013/01/25 at 10:46 am

Competency-based education could greatly alter the higher education landscape as we know it. More adults and other nontraditional students might be encouraged to enroll in higher education, not only because of the flexible design of degrees, but because this model also recognizes prior learning. Widespread adoption of a competency-based model might help to bring the United States closer to achieving our targets of increasing the number of individuals in the workforce with a postsecondary credential.

WA Anderson 2013/01/25 at 11:43 am

I’ve been hearing about competency-based education for some time and it’s exciting to read about it being adopted by large public systems such as the University of Wisconsin System. Since degrees that use the competency-based model will be highly personalized, a lot will rest on the development of the competencies to ensure quality learning, high standards and adequate preparation for students’ professional and life goals. With this in mind, it might be helpful to have industry input when developing the competencies — to ensure that the degree program remains current and possesses real-world value.

    Henry Smalling 2013/01/25 at 3:30 pm

    I agree with WA’s comment about tapping into industry key players to help design the competencies for a degree program. It sounds to me like UW might already be doing this. The writer mentions that part of the Flex Option program includes mentoring by faculty and “professional advisors;” perhaps these are the experts from the field that WA’s is talking about. If not, that could be something for UW to consider, not only involving industry partners in curriculum design, but in mentorship roles as well — certainly a “value added” for any program.

Ewan Philipps 2013/01/25 at 12:49 pm

For the competency-based model to be successful, many higher education processes might have to change. For example, how would financial aid work for a competency-based program, when aid tends to be given out on a term-by-term basis? The admissions process would also have to be overhauled. What would admissions criteria and assessments look like for a program that is designed to allow the student to decide which level to start at? I’ve only described two, but there are likely many more administrative challenges to implementing a competency-based system. While I think this is a very innovative approach to education, I am not convinced it will be widely adopted by American schools because of such challenges.

Madison Riley 2013/01/25 at 2:45 pm

I think it’s fascinating how quickly higher education is changing because of technology that allows us to have competency-based education and MOOCs (massive online open courses). I would say these two approaches to higher education offer an interesting contrast.

Both purport to make education more accessible. However, they differ in approach. MOOCs may reach a larger audience overall, but competency-based education may reach a broader range of people (because of its focus on nontraditional students). MOOCs likely provide better data for analytics and, thus, course/program improvement and customization. But competency-based programs are heavily personalized. I believe they offer similar benefits. Both make education more accessible (in different ways) and affordable and encourage self-directed learning. Technology is definitely changing our expectations of higher education.

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