Calling it the "21st century face of the Wisconsin Idea," University of Wisconsin System President Kevin Reilly on Wednesday announced that UW-Milwaukee would offer four new "flexible option" degree programs in the fall that will allow adult students to earn credits online at their own speed using knowledge learned anywhere, be it a classroom, on the job, in a free online lecture or in the military.
The new programs are the first under the new online educational model announced in June.
"It's competency based, not classroom based," said UW System spokesman David Giroux. As soon as students display competence in an area, using assessments developed by UW System professors, they can pass through to the next stage.
The new offerings — bachelor's degrees in nursing, diagnostic imaging and information science, a master's in nursing and a certificate in professional and technical communication — are the first in an expected wave of flexible degree offerings. They are intended to make university degrees more accessible to the estimated 750,000 adults in Wisconsin who have some college experience but no degree, which can stall professional advancement.
Reilly acknowledged that the degree offerings will likely attract students well beyond the state's borders.
"There will be international and national students outside of Wisconsin interested in this program," he said at a press conference. "That certainly ... could be an interesting source of revenue for the state and for the university."
UW Extension Chancellor Ray Cross, who is leading the development of the program, said UW System regents will work on pricing the degrees in the next few months, noting they'll likely be cheaper than traditional degree programs as many students would pay only for the assessments, which would be offered separately from instruction.
UW System officials first announced plans for flexible degrees, believed to be the first by a public university system in the country, in June during joint appearances with Gov. Scott Walker. They asked for $3 million in start-up money from the Legislature in the 2013-15 budget request, submitted in August and expected to be voted on next year.
Walker, who noted he doesn't have a college degree and might eventually get one through the online program, repeated his support for them on Wednesday and said he'd like to expand the offerings to other professional fields.
"Using a competency-based degree model coupled with online testing has the potential to revolutionize higher education," he said in a statement. "Today's announcement is the next step in that direction."
Public universities have offered online courses for some time, and some also offer credit for past work and life experience. Wisconsin offers 4,600 online courses, which follow a similar schedule and structure as traditional on-campus classes.
The new offerings differ by breaking courses down into smaller units that students can start and finish whenever is convenient without regard for the typical academic calendar and by letting students quickly test out of material they already know.
"This is a game changer," Cross said.