Overview of Wisconsin's Competency-based Degree Program

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Since fall 2012, the UW System has been building a self-paced, competency-based model called the UW Flexible Option. The goal of this undertaking is to provide quality degree and certificate programs to the nearly 700,000 adults in Wisconsin with some college and no degree. 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. The UW System is the first public university in the country to develop a competency-based program at the system level.

The primary drivers behind the UW System’s move into the competency-based arena are common to higher educators in every state: the increased need for higher education; changing demographics among undergraduate students; technological innovations; dramatically changed funding and fiscal models; and louder calls for enhanced accountability resulting in better evidence of student learning. 

What Kind of CBE Model Are We Building?

What does it mean to do this as a system? Above all, the model we are developing builds on research and best practices, as well as the deep experience of the UW System in offering online education for both traditional-age and non-traditional students.  It hews as closely as it can to meeting the needs of adult students and ensuring their success.  It involves collaboration across different kinds of UW institutions, including, in the first cohort, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, the University of Wisconsin Colleges, and the University of Wisconsin-Extension (through the Division of Continuing Education, Outreach, and E-Learning). An additional four UW institutions are developing programs for the second cohort:  UW-Parkside, UW-Stevens-Point, UW-Stout, and UW-Madison.

The Academic Model
The academic development is being done by the UW System’s current faculty, and the academic degrees and certificates offered through the Flexible Option are offered by UW institutions. They are approved and awarded by the same accreditation and faculty governance policies as all UW degrees, which decree that academic control of a Flexible Option remains under faculty and administrative shared governance within the offering UW institution. Program faculty and instructional staff determine the competencies, learning resources, assessments, and appropriate levels of mastery.

The Administrative Model
Without seat time as the basis for awarding credit, every administrative function operates differently, including how students are admitted, enrolled, receive financial aid, pay fees, and are transcripted. UW-Extension is supporting the administration of Flexible Option offerings at each institution, and will ultimately house admissions, registrar, financial aid, and bursar functions, among other operational areas.

The Advising Model

One of the signature features of the model is the role of the Academic Success Coach, who works closely with each student as he or she navigates through the curriculum and the operational systems. This is a proactive, wrap-around advising model that enables close attention to the student experience.  Housed centrally at UW-Extension, the Academic Success Coaches work closely with institutional program faculty and staff to ensure that Flexible Option students receive the academic and other support they need to help them succeed, including a host of auxiliary student services like technical support, tutoring, access to UW libraries, Veterans benefits, and other kinds of counseling.

The Business Model

The UW Flexible Option operates with a completely different business model, requiring economy of scale, a large-start-up investment, and revenues that will enable the programs to be self-supporting.

The UW Flexible Option won’t replace the UW System’s traditional, credit-based academic offerings, whether in the classroom or online. Rather, with its foundation in the Wisconsin Idea, and its ongoing commitment to provide affordable and accessible education to more Wisconsin residents, the UW Flexible Option is designed to expand the reach of the university and meet the needs of Wisconsin residents.

Key Milestones and Operational Details

Current Flex Option programs:

  • UW-Milwaukee is offering: B.S. in Nursing (degree completion-RN to BSN); B.S. in Biomedical Sciences for Diagnostic Imaging (degree completion); B.S. in Informational Sciences and Technology; and Certificate in Business and Technical Communication.
  • UW Colleges is offering the Associate of Arts and Science degree, designed to transfer and meet general education breadth requirements throughout the UW System.

Application process: The UW Flexible Option schedule is based on “subscription periods”—three-month spans of time during which students are able to access learning materials, complete assessments, and receive academic support. Students can continue to study and advance as much and as quickly as they like. The UW Flexible Option e-application opened on November 18, 2013. Before a student officially applies to a UW Flexible Option program, s/he is asked to complete a “Flex Fit” self-evaluation. This self-paced online survey is designed to ensure that there is a good understanding of what the Flexible Option really is (self-paced, competency based, etc.), explore student goals and expectations, and guide those students who do not reflect a good match to educational alternatives. The first subscription period for the UW Flexible Option began on January 2, 2014.

Tuition: The UW Flexible Option offers two subscription choices, each with a different tuition.

  • All-You-Can-Learn Option:  Students complete as many competencies and assessments as they successfully can within a three-month subscription period for a flat tuition rate of $2,250. A “competency set” is a grouping of competencies that together define the skills and knowledge in an education area.
  • Single Competency-Set Option: If students would like to study at a slower pace during a three-month subscription period, they may enroll in a single competency set. As with the All-You-Can-Learn Option, students must successfully demonstrate mastery of each competency in the set through a series of assessments. The tuition for this “one-set-per-subscription-period” model is $900.

The development of the UW Flexible Option has been akin to building a new virtual university.  Everything has been reconsidered, from how students are admitted, pay their fees, are transcripted; how faculty determine performance standards (mastery thresholds) and grade student work; a new model for faculty workload; how student service and support is delivered; a student information system built on competencies, not the credit hour; and an entirely different business model, designed to be cost-recovery but requiring a significant start-up investment.  A whole set of policy issues has been confronted, along with a vexing set of challenges—some anticipated, some not—and resulting in creative problem-solving of gargantuan proportions and unprecedented collaboration across UW institutions.

For additional information, go to https://flex.wisconsin.edu/.

To hear more about the UW Flexible Option, we invite you to listen to the March 4, 2014, ACCN webinar at /webinars, presented by staff from the University of Wisconsin System Administration and University of Wisconsin-Extension.


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