While the traditional measure of progress toward a degree is based on credit hours and seat time, defined as the number of hours a student spends in class, this new vehicle of learning, the UW Flex Option Program, emphasizes outcome measures.
The program will debut at UW-Milwaukee late this fall with four degree tracks and one certificate opportunity – two nursing degrees, a bachelor's degree in diagnostic imaging, a Bachelor of Science degree in information science and technology, and a certificate in professional and technical communication.
UW Colleges also will roll out the flex option this fall through 23 general education courses within its associate of arts and sciences degree.
"Education right now works well for many people, but it doesn't work well for some people, and the idea is how do we provide quality education to people that need it but that our current models don't work for?" said Aaron Brower, provost for UW-Extension and special assistant to UW-Extension president Kevin Reilly for educational strategies.
Self-paced, tailored to individual student need, and driven by faculty, the flex option is designed for working professionals who want to advance their credentials with a shorter time to degree.
The flex option provides an alternative "flexible" route for students who have already acquired some college credit to fulfill existing degrees, Brower said.
Instead of sitting through classroom lectures or participating in online courses, flex students will focus their attention on competency clusters, or learning outcomes.
"It's about acquiring competency and then demonstrating that you have that competency," said Laura Pedrick, special assistant to the provost for strategic initiatives executive director, UWM Online.
The learning objectives posed in the flex program will mirror those of college courses.
"The important point is at the end of the day, all degrees – whether traditional, online, blended or flex-based – have the same learning outcomes," Pedrick said.
However, the instructional design will play out differently as flex students are awarded credit for demonstrating their mastery of competencies through assessments at their own speed.
For example, nursing students enrolled in the flex model may need to demonstrate their understanding of medical terminology through a pencil and paper exam or exhibit their patient care skills through clinical observations conducted by nursing faculty.
The flex program will primarily be administered online through self-paced learning experiences.
Advisors, faculty mentors and success coaches will enhance competency learning by working with flex students to identify what competencies they can comprehend right away and those that will require more rigorous study. Students with partial college credit or industry experience may be able to complete a set of competencies at the beginning of their flex career, depending on their acquired skillsets.
"This is a very individualized learning path, and there will be a lot of work between students and advisors helping them chart their path," Pedrick said.
These advisors will also evaluate flex students' progress and oversee assessments.
The flex model will incorporate a powerful advising component so that students are adequately supported through the completion of their degree or certificate, according to Pedrick.
The role of faculty members will evolve from "sage on the stage" to "guide on the side" in order for them to customize the attention they give students to suit their particular learning needs, Pedrick said.
While faculty members facilitating the development of the different flex options have yet to define the lengths of terms under the new approach to learning, they have outlined competencies and are starting to identify the corresponding assessments.
Chad Zahrt, assistant dean of the School of Information Studies, has served as project manager of the flex option within information science and technology, coordinating the rollout of the program and ensuring that its learning outcomes parallel those of equivalent classroom courses.
"The flex degree was a natural fit primarily because we have a relatively entrepreneurial spirit in the School of Information Studies, and we like exploring new modes of delivery," Zahrt said.
Zahrt and his design team of one faculty member and two instructors are laying out four competencies at UWM this fall that will count toward the Bachelor of Science degree in information science and technology. Two tracks will be available within the degree – one in information security and one in information science – but students will not be required to choose a track. The flex model will focus on the school's core curriculum, and students will be able to incorporate competencies from both tracks into their flex education according to their experience, knowledge and desired career path.
Once completed, the flex program will contain material transferred from at least nine established courses under information science and technology. Zahrt envisions the program could have competencies related to 15 courses when considering necessary electives.
Competencies include introduction to information science, introduction to front-end Web development, system analysis and design, and information technology ethics.
Within introduction to information science, students will have to understand and define information science. Within other competencies, students may have to create, develop and launch a Website or Webpage using HTML code. Assessments for competencies will range from machine-graded online exams to portfolios and papers.
Working IT professionals enrolled in the program will have an opportunity to prove their mastery of particular competencies from their IT experiences as they start.
"You have to engage in the actual assessment exercise," Zahrt said. "There has to be some deliverable to prove that you can meet the competency."
Within the certificate in professional and technical communication, Dave Clark, associate professor in English at UWM, has structured a program equivalent to about 18 credits and six courses
Students pursuing the certificate will study technical writing one and two, public speaking, managing group work, project management, and information design.
In designing the competencies with his communication colleague William Keith, Clark has relied on his experience teaching technical writing skills to area businesses to identify the skills needed by graduates of the program.
"We think there are a lot of folks out there who need this kind of training, and certainly my experience with them has verified this," Clark said.
Feedback from the business community has been instrumental in constructing competencies within each flex program that will take flight this fall.
"Part of that competency development is actually talking with businesses and working with their accreditors and other external stakeholders to make sure that the things they want students to do are what's valuable for graduates of this program," Brower said.
While UW-Extension aims to expand flex offerings to at least a dozen disciplines at multiple UW schools, the programs being rolled out in this first phase address some of the most critical workforce needs in the state.
"It's exciting to be an innovator like this for UWM, and I do think that these are needed by the State of Wisconsin," Pedrick said. "It's a lot of work, but I think it's leading to a good place."