THE NEW MODEL:
THE UW FLEXIBLE OPTION
The UW Flexible Option is a student-centric approach to UW System degree and certificate programs designed to be more accessible, convenient, and affordable for adult and nontraditional students. Built with UW’s long- standing commitment to high-quality degree programs, the new UW Flexible Option includes self-paced, competency-based degree and certificate programs that allow students to progress toward degrees and obtain certificates by demonstrating knowledge they have acquired through prior coursework, military training, on- the-job training, and other learning experiences. Because class time is not required in order to demonstrate mastery of a competency, these programs are sometimes called direct assessment programs.
The Flexible Option is built to meet the unique needs of working adults (also known as nontraditional students), whose ages will typically range from 25 to 44 years old, with varying educational backgrounds that may include some associate degree level work, living in Wisconsin (though others from outside of Wisconsin may also be interested in the opportunity). It is estimated that 700,000 Wisconsin residents in this audience have earned some college credit but no degree.
Faculty from University of Wisconsin System campuses identify competency requirements, sets of skills and knowledge which they consider necessary for a student to have before earning a UW college degree. At least initially, the way this works is that faculty members take traditional degree programs and reconstruct them in competency formats with corresponding assessments.
Students enrolled in UW Flexible Option programs make progress toward a degree by passing a series of assessments that demonstrate mastery of these competencies. Students in a UW Flexible Option program
may use their current knowledge to take assessments whenever they are ready. Additionally, students may acquire new knowledge and instruction from a wide variety of faculty-curated sources to prepare for assessments, working with an Academic Success Coach and progressing at their own pace.
ORIGINS OF THE FLEXIBLE OPTION
The idea for the Flex Option grew from the combination of a common set of forces and trends impacting all of higher education and the unique structure of the University of Wisconsin System. Across America, universities and public systems are coping with changing student market demographics, declining state funding, the introduction of massive open online courses (MOOCs), and the increasingly competitive higher education marketplace.
The University of Wisconsin System was particularly suited to meet these challenges. The University System is well-established and has provided a high-quality education for decades. It is highly diverse, with multiple institutions acting independently. The UW-Extension (UWEX) has long played the role of incubating new educational initiatives for the System. Under the leadership of Interim Provost Aaron Brower and Dean David Schejbal, the team at UWEX developed the concept for the Flexible Option, a plan to offer competency- based degree and certificate programs to a growing and under-served market of adult students with some college and no degrees. UWEX proposed the plan to University leadership and the Wisconsin Governor’s Office and has ushered the implementation of the initiative across campuses.
In June 2012, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and the University of Wisconsin System formally announced the development of the UW Flexible Option. The UW Flexible Option, works to advance the System’s overarching goals to increase college attainment among Wisconsin residents, and targets a burgeoning population of
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THE UW FLEXIBLE OPTION CASE STUDY AT A GLANCE
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The University of Wisconsin Flexible Option:
nontraditional adult students whose needs have not been met by either traditional residential programs or the more than 100 online degree programs offered throughout the UW System. President Reilly called the UW Flexible Option “the 21st-century face of the Wisconsin Idea,” a UW System principle that it should improve the quality of life for Wisconsin residents beyond the classroom.
In November 2012, the UW System announced the first cohort of certificates and degrees that would be offered in the Flexible Option format. In his announcement, UW System President Kevin Reilly explained, “One of our core goals is to help Wisconsin create a stronger workforce, and I’m proud to say that our first cohort of UW Flex Option programs aligns closely with some of the most pressing workforce needs in Wisconsin. With innovative new approaches to higher education, we can expand college degree opportunities for potentially thousands of Wisconsin residents looking to expand their horizons and advance their careers,” said Reilly. “In June, we announced with Governor Walker our intention to pursue this bold new model. Today, our faculty is stepping forward to embrace that opportunity.”
INITIAL COHORT OF DEGREES
From the start, the UW Flexible Option was envisioned as a UW System-wide initiative, and all UW institutions were invited to participate. The University of Wisconsin- Milwaukee (UW-M) and the University of Wisconsin Colleges (UW Colleges) stepped forward to be part of the first cohort of UW Flexible Option programs. They saw in the Flexible Option a way to extend their current strategies and do more to achieve their institutional missions. With its unique institutional mission and previous experience in serving adult students through a number of collaborative online degree programs with other UW institutions, UWEX led UW-M and UW-Colleges through the effort, providing administrative and operational support, developing a student support model, and hosting the technological solution.
The initial cohort, launching in January of 2014, is expected to include these degree and certificate qualifications:
To better understand the market for the program, UW- Extension conducted two market studies and an internal analysis. The market studies helped UW focus on the target audience need. UW Extension engaged Huron Consulting Group to assist in its internal analyses to identify what people, process, and technological capabilities were needed to administer the Flexible Option. Ultimately, the results of these analyses enabled UWEX and Huron to build a road map for program development and implementation.
s Initial surveys estimate interest in the UW Flexible Option was very strong, with 57% of those surveyed indicated that they would be likely to apply when they were ready to pursue their degree and assuming the price was acceptable to them.
s Initial studies found the sectors in the upper Midwest that have been posting the most positions that require a bachelor’s degree include health care, professional, technical, and scientific services industries.
sThe internal analysis confirmed that the Flexible Option would require a new academic and administrative infrastructure to support this innovative delivery model, its nontraditional students, and its pioneering faculty.
Combined, these market studies confirmed the demand for the UW Flexible Option and early plans to focus on degrees in the liberal arts and in healthcare fields, and programs focusing on technical and business communications.
COMPREHENSIVE DEVELOPMENT THROUGH COLLABORATION
The UW System operates in a decentralized model, each UW institution acting independently though relying on a central, partially state-funded budget. To build a cohesive partnership, and as part of the internal assessment, Huron worked closely with administrators from across each participating UW institution, interviewing 26 people from UW-Milwaukee, UW Colleges, UW-Parkside, and UW-Extension (UWEX). From these conversations, Huron established recommendations on organization, process, technology, and data considerations for the development and implementation stages. In the fall of 2012, two advisory groups were commissioned to help guide the development of the academic and operational aspects of the project.
CORE TENETS OF THE FLEXIBLE OPTION 3TUDENT
$EVELOPMENT ARE IMPACT EXPERIENCE DIMENSIONS CONVENIENCE
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&LEXIBLE MAIN FORMAT LEARNING
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Certificate in Professional
& Technical Writing Associates of Arts and Sciences Degree
Awarding Entity UW-Milwaukee UW-Milwaukee
!CADEMICUW’s shared governance model ensures faculty input and oversight. The Faculty/IAS Advisory Group began meeting in late October 2012, and completed its work in late January 2013. The group documented a set of core values and principles for the Flexible Option including the role of faculty, the adherence to shared governance, and the assurance of academic quality and rigor. Participating faculty take an active role in developing the Flexible Option by defining competencies and mastery indicators, developing assessments, and curating learning resources. Faculty will also take on a tutoring and mentorship role during implementation.
#OMPETENCIESAt the heart of the Flexible Option are clearly articulated competencies—what students should know and be able to do. UW faculty develop the competency sets for each Flexible Option degree or certificate program and identify appropriate performance standards and the corresponding assessments to test students’ competency mastery.
Assessments range from traditional exams, to rubric- based evaluations of student work and observational analyses. To prepare for assessments, students can review a combination of curated materials that UW faculty members identify as helpful. These are called qualified learning resources.
In June 2013, about 50 faculty and instructional academic staff from UW-Milwaukee, UW-Parkside and UW Colleges and leadership from UW Colleges, UW System and UW-Extension met in Milwaukee to focus on assessment development. The workshop featured sessions led by national experts on assessment best practices for competency-based degree programs. Presentations outlined a range of assessment practices designed to deliver meaningful evidence of student learning and mastery of program competencies. The workshop facilitated sharing best practices across campuses and departments, strengthening the work that had already been completed.
To respond to the challenges associated with grading learning assessments in a competency-based program, a separate grading scale is being considered for the UW Flexible Option, but in the short term the traditional grading scale is being used. The designation of mastery connotes the ability to do something well; it implies that a student is able to use his or her knowledge in settings outside of the classroom. A student who does not master a competency is said to be working toward mastery with the
expectation that the student will sit for a new assessment in the future and eventually demonstrate mastery.
/PERATIONALCollaborative effort across the System provides a single, unified UW Flexible Option student experience across degree programs and assessments from various UW institutions. First convened in the winter of 2012, operational working groups identified the initial support needs of the UW Flexible Option as well as the need to develop new policies and procedures regarding admissions, advising, bursar, financial aid, and registrar functions. The groups, comprised of members of partner institutions, informally report to the Flexible Option team at UWEX who can monitor the overall unified student experience for the first cohort, and then directly manage the functions beginning with the second cohort.
The requirements of a competency-based model for education, led to a fundamental re-thinking across functions. Traditional UW degree programs are structured around credits and courses, academic content delivered to students by instructors, and conventional terms or semesters. The UW Flexible Option is structured around students and has no semesters, no courses, and no classes. This means that, in addition to very different roles for faculty and instructors, academic and student support services like financial aid, admissions, transcription and student record-keeping, bursar and advising, are structured and operated differently.
!DMISSIONSEligibility for admission to competency programs is the same as for students applying to earn the same qualification in a UW traditional program. The Flex Option, however, will have dedicated admissions counselors who will act as the prospective students’ first contact. They will help prospective students learn more about the Flexible Option and determine if it is the appropriate model to meet their educational goals.
In addition, prospective students are asked to participate in a pre-admission assessment called the “Flex Fit” that will assess their readiness to engage in competency- based education. The pre-assessment will help determine students’ abilities to learn in online environments and independent learning environments, and whether they have sufficient language and math skills to succeed in college-level work. Admissions officers will use the results of the study to better counsel prospective students through the admissions process.
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INSTITUTIONS AND HIRING COMES TYPE WHICH
!CADEMICStudents and their progress will be carefully monitored and counseled throughout the competency-based program, with a wrap- around, proactive Academic Success Coach (ASC) model, supported by learning analytics. Each student is assigned an ASC who helps the student understand his/her curricular paths and how best to succeed in a competency-based model. The ASC takes on several traditional roles, such as academic advisor, program mentor, high-level tutor, and life coach. Required to have a role in a broad set of program functions, the ASC role is different from current staff roles and will give students a single point of contact for the support they need. From the student’s perspective, the ASC is a coach and content guide who connects the student to the wider network of people and resources necessary for the student’s success.
3UBSCRIPTIONTo offer a fully student-centric experience and to allow students to progress at their own pace, the working groups addressed the challenges of a traditional term structure and instituted a subscription structure. Once accepted into a program, students may begin studying on the first day of any month. Due to the self- paced nature of the program, students then have three full months in which to demonstrate mastery of as many or as few competencies as they wish, with the subscription ending on the last day of the third month. As in other industries, the higher education regulatory framework lags innovation.
Students who receive financial aid must maintain a more structured pace, as they are required to participate in educational activity at least once per week to remain eligible for aid.
Tuition Pricing:Similar to the flexibility offered through the subscription model, nontraditional students require flexibility in the way they purchase their education.
Therefore, the UW Flexible Option will offer three payment options; “all-you-can-learn,” “assessment only,” and
“competency set.” The hALL YOU CAN LEARNv option gives students access to a three-month subscription during which a student may use all available support structures and enroll in one or several competency sets as appropriate to their educational goals and level appropriate to be successful.
The hASSESSMENT ONLYv and hCOMPETENCY options enable students to only pay for each assessment or competency for which he or she registers. -
4ECHNOLOGYEmerging technology, like MOOCs and online proctoring, makes the UW Flexible Option possible. From a student-centric perspective, these technologies should
work together to offer a unified Flexible Option student experience. Consequently, UWEX is building centralized technical solutions to facilitate UW Flexible Option distance learning across all partner UW System institutions. UWEX is working with administrators in the UW partner institutions to select the optimal solutions. The process of selecting and implementing these technical solutions can take between 18 and 24 months. In the short-run, participating campuses will use their own CRM and SIS systems to facilitate their Flexible Option certificate and degree programs.
ACCREDITATION AND POLICY
As competency-based education is still an emerging model for degree and certificate programs, many policies have yet to be written, and the process for harmonizing existing policies to accommodate the challenges that come with moving away from the credit hour are currently underway.
Accreditation agencies are working with institutions to build processes to extend their accreditation to these new programs. The UW Flexible Option partner institutions are providing policy guidance in the following ways:
s UW-Milwaukee and UW-Colleges participated in the HLC pilot program to evaluate and grant accreditation for competency-based programs. On July 2, 2013, HLC awarded accreditation to the program.
sUWEX is currently in discussion with DOE to gain approval to administer Title IV aid. DOE views the UW System as a “case study” to help the agency develop its new administrative oversight language for direct assessment programs. The DOE process is an iterative one. UW partner institutions will submit their applications which are then reviewed by a team of individuals from several parts of the Department of Education. They come back to the institutions with sets of questions to which they will respond. This exchange continues until DOE reaches a clear understanding of the UW Flexible Option academic approach and plan for Title IV administration.
s Faculty and staff from across the UW System met to form and adjust policies (i.e. grading, proctoring, faculty load) to accommodate the Flexible Option.
sUW Flexible Option leadership remains invested in policy discussions with organizations like: American Council on Education (ACE), Association of American Colleges and Universities
5NIVERSITY 3YSTEM +EVIN
(AAC&U), State Higher Education Executive Officers Association (SHEEO), Association of Public and Land- grant Universities (APLU), and foundation funded events.
To monitor this new initiative, it is important to identify and collect data regarding performance indicators that will allow UW leadership to determine whether an individual UW Flexible Option program, and the entire initiative, is viable. Some of these indicators include:
sEnrollment rates that deliver financial viability sRetention rates/progress towards degree sTime to degree and completion rates sEvidence of student learning across essential
learning outcomes sStudent satisfaction
sTimeliness and responsiveness of student services sDiverse student body with equity of access,
participation, and outcomes
The UW Flexible Option will use a specific designed program evaluation rubric for accountability purposes and quality improvement. Due to this new model and nontraditional student base, standard measures of retention and graduation rates will need modification under the UW Flexible Option.
PLANS FOR LAUNCH AND GROWTH
With a focus on offering a high quality experience, the UW Flexible Option will launch with five degree and certificate programs in January 2014. This will allow the partner institutions the opportunity to closely monitor these programs while developing additional programs to be launched in January 2015. Admissions applications for the first cohort of programs will open in mid- November for the first subscription to begin in January 2014. Over the first year of the UW Flexible Option, enrollment will be limited to allow for focus on student success and program functionality.
As the program administration learns more about its students’ needs and institutional capacity throughout the first year of operation, a second rollout is anticipated to launch by January 2015. Over the next four years, UW leadership projects that the initiative will launch a total of ten UW Flexible Option degree and certificate programs to meet the educational and workforce needs of the state.
Semester-based 3-month subscription, start any month, 12 subscriptions in year
Students can begin their education when it best fits their busy schedules
4RADITIONAL 57 3TUDENT
Credit earned by completion of course
Credit earned by passing competency assessments
Students can receive credit in smaller increments along the way Group-paced courses Self-paced program Students can take
as much or as little time as they need to progress toward a degree
Faculty member instructs students as a group
Faculty mentors students individually
Students receive faculty support that meets their individual needs
Administrative systems facilitate semester-based instruction
Administrative systems must accommodate student progression at varying rates
Administrative systems facilitate semester-based instruction
Academic advisor is reactive Academic Success Coach is proactive
Students receive wrap- around support in all aspects of their program experience
Students earn letter grades Students attain mastery Students do not proceed until they have learned the material
The chart below outlines specific differences between education models, including how these differences impact participating students.
sUW Flexible Option Website: mEXWISCONSINEDU
sUW Press Release: 57
sUW Press Release: 57
sWall Street Journal: #OLLEGE
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