Career Boost: UW's Flexible Option aids working professionals

Oceans of ink have been dedicated to news stories critiquing the number of hours Americans spend at work, and a forest’s worth of pulp has been devoted to jeremiads describing the woes that await any young worker who tries to make his or her way in the world without a bachelor’s degree.

There’s plenty of truth to both narratives, of course. Americans tend to work more hours and take fewer vacations than citizens of other industrialized nations (at least European ones), and a recent Rasmussen poll revealed that 49% of Americans now work more than 40 hours a week, including 9% who work more than 50 hours.

Meanwhile, higher education continues to prove its worth. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median weekly salary for workers with bachelor’s degrees is $1,108, compared to $777 for those with associate degrees, $651 for those with high school diplomas only, and just $472 for high school dropouts.  

So given those two omnipresent realities — the paramount importance of a degree and the all-consuming demands of working life — what’s a hardworking professional without a bachelor’s degree to do?

Aaron Apel faced just such a predicament. As an information systems specialist for the UW-Madison’s Office of the Registrar, Apel has a good job and a good career, but it’s a career with a ceiling. He earned an associate degree in computer science from Northeast Iowa Community College in 1999, but without a bachelor’s, he found his options were limited.

“Without the undergraduate degree, I’m pretty much capped out as far as how far I can advance,” said Apel. “I’ve got aspirations of being more in a leadership role in higher education administration, maybe within the registrar’s office or somewhere else on campus, and without that degree, there’s just nowhere else to go.”

Add in the commitments of his work and home life, and Apel, a 38-year-old father of three, appeared to be in a pickle.

“I have to be [at my job] during the day, which eliminates the opportunity to take traditional brick-and-mortar classes, and then with the children at home, different sporting events, a social life, it kind of eliminates the opportunity for night classes as well,” said Apel. “Also, my wife is in accounting, so she’s extremely busy three or four months out of the year, so taking brick-and-mortar classes wouldn’t be a great fit.”

Apel did, however, find a way around those imposing obstacles, thanks to an innovative, closely watched UW System program that’s still less than a year old but is already creating plenty of buzz and making a difference for scores of nontraditional students.

Officially, it’s called the UW Flexible Option, but there’s more to it than the mere name might imply. Essentially, the UW Flexible Option is a competency-based degree program that allows students to finish their coursework at their own pace, typically online or through other remote channels.

While that may sound like the UW System is simply treading water in the churning wake of the University of Phoenix and other pioneering online colleges, there’s plenty of reason to think the system is well ahead of the curve. For one thing, people who earn degrees through UW Flex can take full advantage of the UW brand.

“One of the features of UW Flex that is different from other competency-based programs that exist in the country — and there really are only a handful of the type that we have — is that we’re offering the actual degrees from our actual institutions,” said Aaron Brower, interim chancellor for UW-Extension and UW Colleges, and one of the architects of the UW Flexible Option. “So that bachelor’s degree in nursing at UW-Milwaukee is the same degree as the brick-and-mortar program. What Flex does is provide a different route to that degree. Internally, we say there’s no asterisk at the end of that degree.”

Fleet and flexible

As appealing as that part is, there’s plenty to be said as well for the program’s “flexible” and “competency-based” elements.

First of all, students learn at their own pace, and they aren’t limited in the number of credits they can earn during a given subscription period. For a flat tuition fee of $2,250, students sign up for a three-month subscription, and during that time they can advance through the program as quickly (or slowly) as they like — and they can do their coursework whenever they want to. That creates not only a high degree of flexibility for students who need to create a work-life balance, but also a greater degree of efficiency for students who are prepared to “show what they know.”

“On average, students are completing about 1.2 competency sets per subscription period,” said Brower. “So that’s a lot faster as a way through than if you were doing this at a normal course pace.”

The other key element of UW Flex is its emphasis on giving credit for skills students have already mastered, which provides older, nontraditional students like Apel a wider onramp onto a degree track. Students can draw on experience acquired during their years in the workforce to complete assessments that help them finish their degrees.



It’s not a 100% new wrinkle, as a handful of other universities across the country have begun their own programs, but according to Brower, the UW Flex program retains all the advantages offered by the UW System as a whole.

“Each one of [those other competency-based programs] has started in a sense as an offshoot institution connected to their regular program,” said Brower. “They’ve hired faculty specifically to teach in this, they’ve created brand-new degrees and new infrastructure to make it work, and as a result it sits alongside that standard institution, and I think then people do wonder if they’re really the same. For us, we’ve got the same faculty, the same institution, and the same internal accreditation. … The same faculty are doing the evaluations, developing the competency tests, and doing the assessments. So if you’ve got faith in our UW programs, then you really are getting the equivalent here.”

All eyes on UW

The UW Flexible Option began enrolling students last November and coursework began early in January. The program has started out small — with four degrees offered by UW-Milwaukee and one by UW two-year colleges — but interest in the program has been high ever since it was announced. Last August, President Obama cited UW Flex as a prime example of programs that are poised to make college more affordable. An

October New York Times story called the program “perhaps the most watched competency-based experiment” in the nation. And while it was still gearing up, American Council on Education President Molly Corbett Broad praised the program in an interview with The Wall Street Journal, calling it “quite visionary.”
But if people are looking for proof that the UW System is onto something, they need look no further than the interest the program has generated both among potential students and employers.

According to Brower, around 12,000 people have at least started the enrollment application process, even though the program is currently serving only around 100 students. Brower said that the degrees offered — including an associate of arts and science from UW two-year colleges as well as a B.S. in nursing, B.S. in biomedical sciences diagnostic imaging, B.S. in information science and technology, and a certificate in business and technical communications from UW-Milwaukee — were largely chosen to address skills gaps in several industry sectors.

“We know that for businesses in Wisconsin in particular, there are really four main areas of need,” said Brower. “Health care is an area that we need more trained workers in, IT is the second, business is the third, and the fourth is advanced manufacturing. And advanced manufacturing doesn’t lend itself easily to this model, so that’s not one we’ll pursue. But the other three are areas we’re really trying to build out of.”

Brower said that the program began at UW-Milwaukee because that institution was most prepared to jump in, and UWM was “in some sense bursting at the seams of demand and looking for ways to expand.” But four more schools are ready to join the party next year — UW-Parkside, UW-Stevens Point, UW-Stout, and UW-Madison, which will offer an alcohol and drug counseling certification program.

Those, of course, will be expanded as the program begins to take root.

“As we’re looking for new programs, it’s a combination of two things,” said Brower. “One is, where are the needs greatest, both for the state and the nation in terms of advanced training in a variety of areas, and where are the programs available, and do the institutions have the ability to mount these new programs?”
While UW Flex has had a relatively modest beginning, it could begin to herald a sea change in the way degrees are delivered, in Wisconsin and elsewhere.

“We’re building these programs intentionally so that they’re scalable,” said Brower. “I’m not sure what the limit will be on the number before it gets so big that we can’t manage it, but we’re building it intentionally to have room for easily several hundred up to maybe 500 to 600 per program if they’re all doing well.”

For employers in industries that see the most acute shortages of trained professionals, that may be a godsend. Brower said that the UW Flex nursing degree program has attracted the second most interest, behind the IT degree, which has been by far the most popular.

For Mary Beth Kingston, executive vice president and chief nursing officer for Aurora Health Care in Milwaukee, the UW Flex program is a welcome resource for both Aurora and the nurses it employs.

Kingston says Aurora encourages everyone on its nursing staff without a BSN to go back to school, citing research that clearly demonstrates better patient outcomes when staff members hold bachelor’s degrees. But she also notes that it can be difficult for hospital staff to attend brick-and-mortar classes given the high demands of their jobs — an inconvenient reality that ultimately limits hospitals’ options.

“Years ago, when I was working as a direct care nurse, I had gone to a four-year program for my basic preparation, but I had friends who did not, and they had to jump through many hoops to be able to go back to take their BSN,” said Kingston. “They didn’t want to start all over again, and that really turned people off. So I think that saying we recognize that you have skills, that you have knowledge, and giving the individual credit for that is wonderful.”

To Kingston, there are also some less tangible — but no less significant — benefits to continuing education.

“The other thing that I think is great about the program from an employer’s viewpoint is that, when we have people who go back to school, they bring a vibrancy to the workplace, and that’s an intangible that’s very real,” said Kingston. “So you have individuals who are learning things in school that have now sparked their curiosity and imagination, and they bring that back to the work setting.”

Meanwhile, the fledgling program has already achieved proof of concept, if at least one of its students is to be believed.

“The couple of courses that I’ve taken so far have been pretty straightforward, but the knowledge and the rigor of the assessments are on par with what I’ve experienced before in the traditional delivery method,” said Apel, who’s enrolled in the information science and technology bachelor’s program. “So it’s not a cakewalk.”



The Future of Education is Free?

In a February 2012 luncheon meeting of the Wisconsin Innovation Network, Wisconsin Institute for Discovery Director David Krakauer, the afternoon’s keynote speaker, started heads spinning and tongues wagging with his iconoclastic vision of the future of higher education.

With a disarming matter-of-factness, Krakauer dropped a bomb that would have likely drawn at least a reprimand from a less enlightened institution than the UW.

Citing Moore’s Law, which observes that computing power roughly doubles every two years, Krakauer remarked that computing is becoming so inexpensive that it’s essentially free.

“Computing and computer storage is free, and that’s the critical point that comes out of an exponential process,” Krakauer said. “It means an awful lot to this university and it’s not yet being acted on. … That’s why Facebook and Google have such a hard time. How do they make money? You can’t charge to search. But it also means that the future of education is free. Undergraduate education as we know it is no longer a source of revenue. …

“There’s absolutely no reason at all that you should ever go to a course in thermodynamics or calculus and hear someone talk about it. It’s madness. That lecture has been given a billion times by at least a million people who are better than you. I have students working with me, and I ask them, ‘Do you go to your lectures?’ ‘Not on Thursdays and Fridays we don’t.’ ‘Well, what do you do?’ ‘Well, we watch them online; they’re so much better.’

“So my point is, if they’re free, and they’re being given to you by Richard Feynman, why on earth would you go to a new person? So here’s a case where there has to be a complete rethinking of the way we do our business. And I think a lot of people on this campus get it.”With programs like the UW Flexible Option rapidly changing — and challenging — the old brick-and-mortar college experience, we thought we’d catch up with Krakauer and give him a chance to elaborate on his earlier comments.The following is an abridged version of that interview:

IB: Do you stick by your comments from the WIN luncheon?
Krakauer: Yes, in essence. I think the acquisition of information will be free. Certification can be for profit. They are not the same thing. Whereas knowledge, the most precious and elusive property, is generated by communities, and this is what the university should be investing in 100%.
IB: Has your viewpoint changed at all? If so, how?
Krakauer: Not really. I only worry that my point can be misunderstood. The key idea is that if we think of education as lectures, then this educational model is being disrupted. If we think of education as social, exploratory, intimate, and experimental, then this education will survive the near-future evolution of online education, and we need to amplify our support of these fundamental elements.
IB: Given that this [new approach] would radically alter the university’s purpose, what do you see the UW’s and other educational institutions’ roles evolving into?
Krakauer: My answer above should provide a clue. I think we have been complacent. In trying to solve what is at its core a problem of scale (how do we scale the tutorial, the atelier, the apprenticeship?), we have gravitated toward the worst model possible — the large lecture hall with its stultifying telegraphic model of information transmission. The great value of an online education is that it will force us to develop far more interesting educational and pedagogical techniques that respect our essential social, experimental, and intimate natures. It is not what the MOOC [massive open online course] replaces, it is what the MOOC induces.
IB: Do you still think a lot of people at UW “get it,” and what does that mean for the future viability of the university?
Krakauer: I think that most UW staff and faculty do get it. At some level, the individuals understand the predicament very clearly, but the cost of change is perceived to be very high. If a faculty member has invested many years in perfecting a lecture course for which they get positive feedback, they are then reluctant to invest in a new model that is untested, untried, and unproven, even if it does promise many advantages. My suggestion is that we embrace experiments: The students get to play an active role in reinventing education and we get to be empirical and honest educators. And of course, the property of individual inertia is amplified as you move up through the bureaucracy, which I see as the real problem at universities.
IB: Anything else you’d like to add?
Krakauer: Yes, everything is a shade of gray. … The winners in this game of reforming education will be those who learn to use the best of the old world and are thoughtful and critical about the new. The losers will be the orthodox and the risk-averse as well as the technological Pollyannas.

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