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 knowledge.
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 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.
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 down."
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 option himself.
"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 degrees.
"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 email@example.com ------------------------------------------ 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 E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org