When Gov. Scott Walker on Monday announced plans for a new online education program (PDF) at the University of Wisconsin System, it was news not just to the public, but to most UW staff and many high-level administrators.
Several UW administrators confessed to Isthmus that they didn't know the details of the plan and referred a reporter to other administrators.
Unlike other large UW initiatives, such as the Human Resources Design Project, that invite input throughout the university system, Monday's announcement seemed to come out of the blue to the university community.
David F. Giroux, executive director of communications and external relations at the UW System, says he understands the confusion. "What we announced was the idea," he says in a phone interview. "We know the audacious goal in front of us and now we have to make it happen. There hasn't been a lot of conversation about this yet."
Perhaps because of this, there are already misconceptions floating around about the program, he adds. "We're getting calls from people who want to enroll today," he adds. "There is no new program to enroll in today."
Giroux credits Ray Cross, chancellor of UW Colleges and UW Extension, with spearheading the idea. Chancellors at all of UW's campuses have been part of developing the idea and the governor's office has been involved for a few months.
Now, it's time to involve the university at large in refining the idea and making it happen, he says.
Universities like MIT and Harvard have led the way in creating online classes. And some UW campuses already offer classes -- about 4,500 -- online, but the degree program is being designed for non-traditional adult students who want to further their education.
"What's new is the notion of it being self-paced," Giroux explains. "Most of our online learning is still semester-based. If you're learning more slowly than that because you have children and a job, there's no option to slow down. If you're moving faster than that, there's no way to speed it up."
"This is an opportunity to let the learner dictate the pace," he adds.
The System hopes to have some initial, pilot offerings in the fall, but which programs and courses remain unknown. Giroux says that initial courses will likely be in business, management, health care and information technology -- professions where there is a high demand for more employees.
Faculty and staff will need to translate course materials into an online format, so that the classes "maintain their integrity and academic rigor."
Pricing of the courses also remains an unknown, Giroux says. Would out-of-state students opt to stay home if they could get the same education for less-and would that siphon already tight resources away from the university? Giroux doesn't expect that to happen. Rather, the university sees it as an opportunity to expand its market, competing with for-profit universities like DeVry and the University of Phoenix, which already offer online degrees, but at a much higher cost than public universities.
"If we can bring UW quality courses to that marketplace and even just maintain our current price, we're providing a superior product at one-third the cost," he says. "We see this as growing the pie, not slicing up the pie into smaller pieces. There will always be a market for the traditional college experience."
Uncertainty about the program has led to a lot of confusion, Giroux admits. He says that some people believe incorrectly that the university will give credit for work experience.
But if people can demonstrate, for instance, that they've learned a great deal about accounting after working in the field for years -- and can prove that in a test -- the UW could award them credit for it. This allows people to test out of certain modules of a course, and move onto areas they don't know.
"We'll never give anyone college credit for what they've done," says Giroux. "Our goal is to give credit for what they've learned."