The Wisconsin revolution?

…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.

In other words, you just have to pass the tests.  The full story is here, and for the pointer I thank Brent D.


Sounds like the perfect conditions for the emergence of my idea of free-lance professors:

Free lance is one model, private math tutor from India is another, paid internships with a class, and the most likely, unpaid internships with a class, or hanging out in a Bermuda hotel taking MOOC courses.

All are possible if you focus on testing or outcomes.

Absolutely. My point being that we can now welcome entrepreneurial educators into the world now. We just needed the new institution to be developed to allow for more entrepreneurial possibilities.

So universities become glorified testing centers?


Agree with Yancey. I think there is a good basis for this model of higher ed: Students want a credential for a good job. Employers want someone else to do the sorting as to whom they should hire. Teachers want to devote their time to research. The government doesn't want a bunch of unhappy young people (see 1968). So they all have drifted into an arrangement where the college, as an organization just like a firm, fits all these interests together. Kids pay to get a credential, the employers place value on the credential as a proxy, the college charges the kids for that value and pays the teachers who are happy 'cause they are now paid to do what they want to do, and the government throws a lot of money into the college hopper to keep the machine humming along.

Everything else about higher ed is really just a luxury good. Getting to live away from home? When you're an adult, that is called a second home and is a luxury good, not a "dorm" or an "investment in your education". The eudaimonic pleasure of learning? Luxury good. I love Shakespeare and history and philosophy. Reading in them is just a leisure activity though. Paying someone to talk to me about them would be just another luxury good.

I agree with Yancey: this is how it's always been.

Of course, universities also do research and instruction. But the research side isn't changing.

The point is that it's not that radical an idea that it's not so important if you attend classes so long as you do the assignments and pass the tests. Almost all the classes I took in college were like this. I think most people just have a mistaken view of the purpose of the university; it has always been that the central function here was evaluation / certification / credentialing.

An important point is that to do a good job of evaluation / certification / credentialing, you need to put a lot of effort into it. You need lots of testing opportunities (in essence, each assignment is a test of sorts), they need to be challenging (as in require solving problems and performing analysis), they need expert evaluation (professorial or graduate students to grade them), and they need to protect against cheating (variety, novelty). If you want your degree to be worth something, you need to incorporate all of these things. While I think there is plenty of room for cost-savings in educational innovation, I think people will find that all of these functions are quite expensive, and require an institution similar in many ways to the modern university.

Is it the professors job to teach or do research? Most professors think it is to do research. That is the way to get a tenured position. Many professors hate teaching.

What we need are studies to disentangle all these things. For example, people like the idea of researchers teaching. But is that important? Maybe professors are right to hate teaching.

You might think about what this does to the "free" MOOC model.

You take a free MOOC course, like one or two in statistics. Become proficient and understand the material.

Then, you pay someone else to test your proficiency in the field and they grant you the degree based on some of the knowledge you learned from the free course.

Right. Coursearea and other MOOC providers are hoping to make a revenue model around certification - that some portion of their countless students would pay to take tests that prove they learned the material. Now, Wisconsin looks like it's trying to drink their milkshake. It's a smart move. I'm sure that they will grab thousands of dollars from each student for the very small overhead involved in administering and grading tests - the latter, I'm guessing, could be 2/3 done by computer, 1/3 by experts in South Asia.

Of course much will depend on how hard and reliable the tests are. If they're too easy, the value of a Wisconsin degree will be tragically diluted for the course-taking student. If they're too hard, word will get out and they won't rake in the money like they probably intend to. In any case, it seems that the any incentive old "college experience" is quickly being removed.

Did anyone look at the degrees offered? They are, for the most part, degrees for people who need the "check in the box" for a promotion, not any actual education.

I cannot, for example, pursue engineering, physics, chemistry, biology, or math through this website. Calling it a university seems a bit of a exageration.

You have to start somewhere. All-or-nothing attitudes get you nowhere.


They're just following the market.

There's no obvious reason you couldn't do it for other subjects. Labs might be hard, but math, for example seems a natural fit for this.

They aren't starting anything. The degrees offered have been the same ones offered by other online colleges. There is no eduational value added that a library/Goggle doesn't already provide, and the credentials only work to further professions that are looking for a degree, not an education. There is nothing here that isn't provided elsewhere already.

I'm not looking for all; I'm looking for a step forward.

They are offering the name of a major university. A kid who gets a degree from DeVry looks different from one who gets it from UW. Since most of our reliance on the "college degree" is in our heads, that's a big change.

The last paragraph of the article was funny in this respect:

> "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."

In many ways I think this could be much harder than getting a traditional BS degree in something like biology.

Knowing the information well enough to pass an exam for a single class (with a generally reduced subject matter) is relatively easy (at least for me).

Knowing the information well enough to pass an exam covering everything gets much tougher.

This. And what do you think an employer would prefer?
A candidate "who can fit knowledge on a single subject in his/her head" vs a candidate "who can fit all subjects in his head"?
The clear winner will be the UW Flexible Option.

The bigger question is how the diversity industry is going to respond to this threat.

Deleting comments. Awesome.

For a university class, you typically have three or four exams. I doubt that all the information covered in those tests will be included in the accreditation test. Likewise, many classes have weekly homework problems (sometimes graded). This entire process forces students to keep their knowledge in mind for an extended period of time, which results in more solid learning than just cramming for a single test.

Regardless of that, professors would probably be thrilled to out-source grading to a standardized testing system.

Classes also emphasize useful habits such as showing up on time and interacting with others in real time.

"Classes also emphasize useful habits such as showing up on time and interacting with others in real time."

This. It seems to me that there are two kinds of jobs which require degrees: 1) those where the material learned in the degree are used on a daily basis, and 2) those where the coursework doesn't particularly matter, but the degree signals some combination of diligence/acculturation/general "educatedness."

The first type of job I don't see caring much for nontraditional degrees, not any time soon at least, because of the widespread belief that the traditional model is better for actually educating someone. Due to a glut in applicants with college degrees, these jobs also tend to want some sort of graduate degree nowadays, anyway.

The second type of job (the "check the box" sort) never cared what the degree was in anyway, merely that it signaled that you were marginally "better" than the next applicant, and had some ability to show up on time and stick with a long-term project through the end. In some parts of the country, it signals that you were able to leave the cocoon of your own little locality and mix with people who weren't exactly like you, and in some way are able to function adequately in the cosmopolitan greater society. (We're not talking oyster forks here, but rather the ability to work with someone of a different race, accept commands from a boss without feeling you've been disrespected for having been told what to do, not speak inappropriately about women, know how to tie a basic four-in-hand, etc.: the constellation of little behaviors that you make acceptable in "polite" society.) Online degrees do not signal any of these to employers, either.

If the bachelors is commonly derided as the new high school diploma, the online bachelors is the new GED.

One of the benefits of the class is to determine how quickly the student can pick up and convert new learning into understanding. So, there will simply need to be a new proxy for this. It seems like we don't need 20 years of classes to get at this, so it shouldn't be a problem.

This sounds like the current basis of professional certifications. Does that then mean that a degree is now seen as "just another certification"? This seems like a slippery slope...

But will UW follow the following rigorous academic model?

'To pass the exam you need to score at least 80 percent. But don’t worry—you can retake the exam as many times as you choose. No rush either, the exam is available whenever you choose to take it.'

I would link to the webpage, but quite honestly, I have no idea if that works in a comment or not - and no real interest in finding out.

Why does it make more sense to have to retake hundreds of hours of classwork just to pass a test?

Scott Walker didn't graduate college? I respect that.

Ever since Reagan we've has presidents increasingly 'better educated'. Not to any success in results.

As more institutions do this, I anticipate a trend toward degree collecting. Isn't the job appliicant with 27 bachelor's degrees and 5 master's degrees superior to the one with only 5 bachelor's degrees and 2 master's degrees?

Being an employer, the applicant with 32 degrees is an idiot and the other, less of an idiot.

Agreed. I once interviewed a woman in her 30's with 4 masters degrees. The pattern was that she would get training in a field, then discover after a brief period of time that she didn't like working in that field and thought she'd like to work in a different field. Instead of working in that field at entry level, she got a masters degree in it first. Lather, rinse, repeat.

(no, I don't know how many times she'd been married)

But will anyone want to HIRE these graduates?

All else being equal, what the employer would get is someone qualified that doesn't have up to 6 digits debt load that needs salary to pay down. Maybe the point isn't that university education is expensive, it simply prices the recipients out of the market in many instances.

This would be a more interesting idea if evaluation included creative works like publishable papers, computer applications, works of art, or business proposals. A portfolio is a more interesting metric than an exam.

I think we are on the verge of changes in higher education, but I think they will be more in perception and administration.

Higher education always was really about certification / credentialing, as opposed to teaching / learning. As in, if you go to Harvard, there's a good chance you can get your degree without attending any classes, you just have to do the assignments and pass the tests. Courses give assignments in part because that is part of the certification: it's hard to pack everything into an exam, and often you're not so much interested in what problems a person can solve in typical exam circumstances, as opposed to typical homework circumstances.

If UW wants these degrees to count for anything, they are going to have to produce lots of exams, the exams are going to have to change from year to year, and they're going to require solving problems and writing essay solutions. The work is going to have to be evaluated by an expert. In short, it will take an army of faculty and teaching assistants, just like it does now. The major innovation is simply separating this aspect of higher education from the instructional aspect, which doesn't require so much personalized attention.

It should be noted that the instructional aspect seemingly hasn't required personalized education in a long while: there's nothing in a typical Harvard degree's lesson plan that can't be found in a bunch of books at the library. But perhaps online video lectures will do more to decrease the need for personal assistance in learning.

Re: "The work is going to have to be evaluated by an expert. In short, it will take an army of faculty and teaching assistants..." to check the tests.

Yeah, they'll be located in India or China.

Nobody has pointed out that this is a traditional European model. You don't have to attend class or even do ongoing work during the term; you just have to pass the final exam, and you can choose when to take it. When I taught in Germany I was *required* to base passing the courses entirely on the final exam.

Bologna will ultimately reinforce this system by standardizing the exams internationally -- at least, that's one direction that's being pushed.

The real question is whether the graduate with the "tested into" bachelors degree will get into a professional school (medicine, law) or into a graduate program.

Work experience may then become more relevant than the degree to get admitted to graduate or professional schools.

On the other hand, this may block these folks from making an even more tragic decision of going to graduate school.

Also, will the Wisconsin credits transfer if you go to another school later?

Are there credits?

Yes, that's what it said. I am asking for journalism credits for blogging.

Doug M says: "Many professors hate teaching." If no one teaches how will we have students competent to do research? I am not an academic but commonsense tells me students taught well can do research well. Moreover, I wonder if all the profs employed in universities do top class research.

Comments for this post are closed