From The Wall Street Journal, Thursday, January 24, 2013. See
College Degree, No Class Time Required
University of Wisconsin to Offer a Bachelor's to Students Who
Take Online Competency Tests About What They Know
By Caroline Porter
David Lando plans to join a Wisconsin program that could award him a
bachelor's degree after he takes online tests to establish his
Instead, he will sit through hours of testing at his home computer in
Milwaukee under a new program that promises to award a bachelor's
degree based on knowledge-not just class time or credits.
"I have all kinds of credits all over God's green earth, but I'm
using this to finish it all off," said the 41-year-old computer
consultant, who has an associate degree in information technology but
never finished his bachelor's in psychology.
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
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
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
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.
Siva Vaidhyanathan, a media-studies professor at the University of
Virginia who has written about the future of universities, called the
program a "worthy experiment" but warned that school
officials "need to make sure degree plans are not watered
Some faculty at the school echoed the concern, since the degree will
be indistinguishable from those issued by the University of Wisconsin
the traditional way. "There has got to be very rigorous
documentation that it lives up to the quality of that name," said
Mark Cook, an animal-sciences professor and chairman of the university
committee for the faculty senate at the Madison campus.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has championed the idea, in part because
he left college in his senior year for a job opportunity and never
finished his degree. He said he hoped to use the Flexible Degree
"I think it is one more way to get your degree. I don't see it as
replacing things," Mr. Walker said.
Beth Calvert, a 35-year-old registered nurse at a Milwaukee hospital,
hopes to enroll in the program to earn her bachelor's in nursing.
Between working overnight shifts and caring for her 3-year-old
daughter, Ms. Calvert said she has little time to move beyond her
associate degree but knows that it increasingly is important to her
employer, which she said offers a pay raise to nurses with higher
"The biggest thing is job opportunity," she said. "It
looks better for a hospital to have nurses with bachelor's degrees. On
a day-to-day basis, I feel I have the education I do need."
PHOTO SIDEBAR: David Lando plans to start working
toward a diploma from the University of Wisconsin this fall, but he
doesn't intend to set foot on campus or even take a single online
course offered by the school's well-regarded faculty. Darren Hauck for
The Wall Street Journal
Write to Caroline Porter at firstname.lastname@example.org
A version of this article appeared January 25, 2013, on page A3
in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the
headline: College Degree, No Class Time Required.
Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
625 Wham Drive
Mail Code 4610
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610
Phone: (618) 453-4241 [O]
(618) 457-8903 [H]
Fax: (618) 453-4244