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Innovations at the UW will make college more affordable and accessible
A different way to learn
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The New York Times recently called 2012 "the year of the MOOC," the strangely compelling (and somewhat ironic) term for massive open online course. MOOCs are taking the world of higher education by storm, as millions have signed up for online, college-level instruction from online vendors like Udacity and Coursera. In a college town like Madison, MOOCs are a very big deal indeed.

Isthmus recently published a thoughtful article by Dave Cieslewicz examining the implications of MOOCs for the University of Wisconsin. While the article didn't reach any definitive conclusions, it was hard to miss the ex-mayor's note of skepticism that a virtual university could be anything but a hollowed-out version of the real thing. Some UW faculty and staff quoted in the piece agreed, claiming that "the trouble with the Internet is that it's placeless" and "the [university] space shapes us."

Well, perhaps some…but not everyone.

The fact is that people learn in myriad ways. Some approaches work better for a particular individual than others. Nevertheless, the U.S. higher education system is still largely wedded to a rigid pedagogy structured around four years at a brick-and-mortar institution, leading to a diploma that serves as a white-collar union card and gateway to the professional workforce.

It would be an exaggeration to say that this system is broken, but it isn't working for everyone. Since 1985, the overall cost of living has essentially doubled, but college tuition and fees have have increased by 500%. Skyrocketing costs have led to the accumulation of $1 trillion in student debt. Many students are having trouble repaying these loans, prompting warnings that student debt will be the next financial bubble to burst and potentially trigger new government bailouts.

The unfortunate outcome of these developments is that, at current prices, a four-year college education is either not accessible or not a particularly good investment for some young adults. More and more of them are, in fact, explicitly choosing to say no to college.

One reason higher education costs have soared is that academia lags other sectors in using information technology to deliver "products" more efficiently to end users. This is clearly not true for university research, which of course has been transformed profoundly by IT. But when it comes to higher education's core teaching mission, it is ironic that institutions directly involved with transmitting information have been IT laggards.

The MOOCs have responded to this unmet entrepreneurial opportunity by using online technologies to link students and instructors at a fraction of the cost of a university course. Doing so may lack the intangibles and sense of place found at the UW, but many are willing to make this trade if it means they can avoid crushing debt. It is also far from clear that the relationships and tacit aspects of learning cannot be replicated in other ways, such as face-to-face study groups or perhaps more lifelike, flexible and rewarding online interactions as IT technologies inevitably improve.

With respect to the UW, it is also important to recognize that the university is in the process of establishing a flexible degree option that responds to the need to deliver higher education services more efficiently. The flexible degree concept was announced (PDF) by Gov. Scott Walker's office in June 2012 (and was recently renamed "the flexible option"), and in some ways it is an interesting variation on, and enhancement of, the MOOC.

As with MOOCs, instruction and testing can take place online. The flexible option can also be pursued at the student's own pace; he or she is not tied to the ordinary schedule of lectures and tests throughout a semester. Perhaps most interesting, the student earns credit by demonstrating competencies and understanding of the subject matter, but this understanding can come from anywhere, not just the course instruction. As the flexible option proposal states, "students with extensive knowledge from the workplace, free open courseware or other life experiences will be able to quickly move closer to degree completion by having their knowledge assessed and credited." The UW flexible option can thereby complement and integrate the MOOCs' "free open courseware" into students' plans for obtaining college credit at the UW.

The flexible option is still at the pilot and development stage, but four flexible option degree programs and one certificate program are intended to be up and running by autumn 2013. These will be the first degree programs of their kind introduced by a state university. By creating a flexible and more affordable platform for obtaining college degrees, the flexible option may also be a boon to the UW by providing "a University of Wisconsin solution to expand access and affordability to students across the state and beyond."

MOOCs are here to stay and an overwhelmingly positive development. Universities face some challenges in responding to them, but the UW's flexible option may point the way on how this can be done. In fact, the flexible option may turn out to be a brilliant idea, and one of the most intriguing reform proposals from this reform-oriented governor.

Larry Kaufmann is an economic consultant based in Madison.

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