WHAT has historically been thought of as education is changing every passing day. Many facets of the classroom haven't changed much over the years, but the questions of what comprises an education and whether a classroom must be part of that education have never been so present.
Case in point: The University of Wisconsin's “Flexible Option,” set to debut this fall, will allow students to earn a bachelor's degree without ever setting foot in a traditional classroom. “It is a big new idea in a system like ours, and it is part of the way the ground is shifting under us in higher education,” Kevin Reilly, president of the University of Wisconsin System, told The Wall Street Journal.
Designed for nontraditional students, those in the program can literally test their way to a degree in nursing, diagnostic imaging, information science and technology, or a certificate in professional and technical communication. While online curricula is available, students can use what they learned in any previous coursework, through military training or on the job in attempting to pass the tests without accessing actual coursework.
The tests are designed to determine if the takers know what they're expected to know. In the education world, this concept is known as “demonstration of mastery.” University of Wisconsin faculty members are creating the tests. Students are free to use whatever resources they want to help them pass the tests, whether that's a university class or any number of free online courses.
In some ways, the program mirrors conversations happening in the K-12 sector. Is a diploma or degree about seat time and checking assignments, projects and internships off a list? Or is it about the acquisition of knowledge and the ability to know when and how to use that knowledge? College students have long had the ability to gain credit for college courses by passing College Level Examination Program tests. But those tests have focused largely on introductory level courses such as biology, algebra and history.
Adult learner programs in higher education have allowed students to use some on-the-job experiences to substitute for courses in fast-track degree programs. Still, such programs tend to have a classroom component or at least assignments that must be completed outside the classroom. The new Wisconsin plan acknowledges that some degrees still require clinical or practical training. Nursing is the most obvious example. Officials have yet to announce the cost for students, although it's expected to be cheaper than traditional and the more common adult-learner focused efforts.
Increasing the number of Oklahomans with bachelor's degrees is a significant issue. This is an area of focus for those in the higher education arena. The experiment in Wisconsin is worth watching.
It's hard to imagine a no-classroom approach ever usurping the value of the traditional college learning experience. But learning doesn't happen only in a classroom or while sitting in front of a computer screen. It happens as people go about their jobs, travel and have life experiences not captured in a classroom setting. For higher education to recognize this reality, while applying a measurement yardstick to it, is an interesting and promising idea.