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By this time next year, Wisconsin business professionals and top-tier executives might have a more flexible and more affordable way to upgrade their own skill sets or the skills of their workforce, but there is still a great deal of development work ahead.
The new model was introduced by Gov. Scott Walker, UW System President Kevin Reilly, and UW-Extension Chancellor Raymond Cross as a "revolutionary" alternative that could substantially lower tuition costs and even personalize learning by allowing students to start classes anytime, learn at their own pace, and earn credit for what they already know.
Whether the competency-based model truly revolutionizes education has yet to be determined, but some of the groundwork already has been done. In recent years, the UW System has expanded transfer policies that allow students to move college credits from one UW school to another, and its development of online courses has made geography less of a factor in a state with almost 14,000 traditional and nontraditional students.
There are sound financial reasons for the state to invest in this model. It could increase the number of bachelor's degree holders, a statistic where Wisconsin's national ranking is below average. Improving on the number of degree holders would increase the salaries commanded by Wisconsin professionals and therefore the state's tax base.
But the prime reason for this emerging model is workforce development for students of all ages. Wisconsin employers have high expectations for University of Wisconsin graduates, no matter what year they took home a diploma, but taken together, those expectations for soft and hard skills center on the ability to make an immediate contribution.
The man tapped to develop this new model is Raymond Cross, whose complete title is chancellor of University of Wisconsin Colleges and the University of Wisconsin Extension. Cross, who reports to Reilly and the UW Board of Regents, is in the process of assembling a team of UW faculty members from campuses across the state – with 13 four-year campuses, there is plenty of professorial talent to choose from – to develop the program and the accompanying assessment system that will be used to evaluate the existing competencies of prospective enrollees.
Cross has advised employers not to look for this program to address many of the jobs linked to the so-called skills gap. Since many of them, such as welding and CNC machine operations, are linked to manufacturing, that's the task of the state technical colleges. So if you are Marinette Marine and you need welders, electricians, and pipe fitters to construct combat ships for the U.S. Navy, this is not the kind of skill-building exercise that is likely to address your workforce issues.
However, there are some skill and occupational gaps that this new degree model could help address, including several with acute shortages. Cross cited health informatics, computer information systems and computer science, advanced manufacturing areas like plant design, and business and management.
"Those are priority areas, and there are definite needs in those areas and there is a skill or knowledge gap for university-prepared employees," Cross said. "Our goal is to work with faculty on campuses around the system in those program areas."
While there is much development work to be done, the UW is focused on working with faculty to help them translate their program into a competency-based model. So whether it's a UW-Green Bay, a UW-Madison, or a UW-Parkside degree in those fields, faculty programmers must identify competencies for each course and modules (individual units) within a course.
In turn, expect faculty to consult with the business community to gain an up-to-date understanding of what they need from UW graduates, according to Deborah Ford, chancellor of UW-Parkside. "The opportunity for the UW to develop a flexible, online, and competency-based degree program is definitely a new model," Ford said. "One of the opportunities we have, as we determine if our degree programs can be delivered in this environment, is to partner with our business leaders and community leaders as we develop the competencies they are looking for in the workforce."
According to Ford, that exercise could help both online and traditional curriculum development, which is an ongoing process for universities.
Once those competencies are identified, the faculty team will identify the assessment process that will be used to evaluate whether a student or professional can perform in those competencies at the accepted level. "We need to create an assessment model or system that really makes sense," Cross said, "and that is going to require some investment. We want to be able to do effective credit for prior learning, in a systematic way that is rigorous and of quality.
"That will require a lot of work, and we are just getting started with that internal communication process."
Faculty also will help prepare the instructional materials, whether it's video clips of lectures or instructional material that students would normally acquire in a lecture or lab, and evaluate those to determine if they prepare students for a particular competency.
Whether it involves a student or a professional in need of upgrading their skills, the UW will have to validate what they know.
"They may or may not fit into a given curriculum, but we'll know where their voids are, and they only purchase the modules or courses they need to complete that degree," Cross explained. "They will be able to do so while working for their respective companies."
Employers who determine that a particular employee does not have a required set of competencies might be able to use this new model to enhance those skills through a degree program or by completing a certain number of assessments or through a certificate program. "It's another way to bring the assets of the university in partnership with talent-development needs," Ford said.
Even though the program will be offered online, that does not necessarily eliminate the space limitations of classroom instruction. A competency-based model helps with that limitation, but it does not entirely eliminate it, Cross noted.
Will the price be right?
For the time being, the tuition structure for these courses will be the same as they are for an online course from an existing campus program. Students or employers investing in workforce training would save money where the students already know something that fits into a desired competency, and where they can effectively demonstrate that knowledge.
Cross, who has spent time in both academia and the private sector, said there might be a number of options with the eventual pricing structure that allow a student, or his employer, to reduce their costs. The UW is looking at a number of pricing structures, such as being able to buy a unit, not a whole course, and perhaps an all-you-can-learn model where students pay a flat price and can take all the courses they want within a six-month period.
"That is part of the flexibility," Cross explained. "We're trying to give the adult student, in particular, as much flexibility as we can."
The UW System already offers 4,600 online courses, but not all of them will correspond to the competency-based model under development. Some online courses are already competency-based and online, but they are not self-paced. They also don't have some of the pieces that would be needed under the new model that could be unveiled by the fall of 2013, but it's possible the UW could have a couple of courses ready to go "pretty quickly," Cross said.
While there are some private institutions with online degree models, the UW is among the first public institutions to develop such a program. "It's going to be at least a year before we have a program fully ready to go," Cross said. "We've looked at what we believe to be the most positive and most attractive pieces of many different institutions."
Cross believes that the natural, honest skepticism of college professors, the very faculty that will develop the new Wisconsin program, will be a plus rather than a negative. "I appreciate that about our faculty," he stated. "It's healthy for them to ask, 'What is this? What are you talking about?'
"Right now, it is a concept, and it has to be translated into reality, but the faculty is the key. It is their program, and it's their curriculum. They have to participate in helping us change a format."
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