University of Wisconsin-Extension

Competency-based learning gives students the flexibility to earn a degree or certificate at their own pace

Overview

The UW Flexible Option is the first system-wide, competency-based initiative in the United States. It is led by partnerships throughout the University of Wisconsin System (UWS) and the University of Wisconsin-Extension (UW-Extension). The UW Flexible Option draws upon the expertise of faculty to offer a more personalized, convenient, and affordable way for adults and other non-traditional students to earn a degree or certificate.

Challenge

Credits Based on Competency, Not Class Time

The UW Flexible Option’s self-paced, competency-based degree and certificate programs let learners start any month, work at their own pace, and earn credit using knowledge they already have. Including knowledge gained through prior coursework, military training, on the job training, or other learning experiences. Credits earned are based on competency, not class time.

“We are rethinking the model of higher education by giving students the freedom to structure learning in whatever way works for them,” says David Schjebal, Dean of University of Wisconsin-Extension. “From a program perspective, we want to help students who want to complete their degrees complete them quickly, reducing the burdens of cost and time.”

Solution

Leveraging the Right Technology

To deliver this innovative model of teaching and learning, UWS decided to leverage its existing Brightspace environment. Unlike traditional instructor-led, time-based online courses, the platform needed to be designed to support self-directed learning—a cornerstone of the Competency-based Education (CBE) philosophy. By using the current infrastructure, the UW-Extension team would be able to save time and money. They were equipped with a tool that was both widely configurable and something staff were already familiar with.

Intelligent Agents Facilitate Communication

Using an array of intelligent agents, students and faculty receive timely notices about relevant activities within the course. These intelligent agents have proven critical in keeping faculty and students engaged within the program’s self-paced format.

The Right Content When it’s needed

The custom configuration of Brightspace for the Flexible Option also includes a built-in content browser widget. An online offering led by an instructor usually prominently features in the News tool on the homepage. This allows timely, one-to-many communications between the instructor and a cohort of students.

Release Conditions Ensure Mastery

The Flexible Option defines three essential roles to which students in the program can be assigned, depending on their enrollment status and how they choose to engage in learning. One role provides access to the entire offering including learning resources, assessments, and grades. The second role omits learning resources. The third role, for expired students, allows former students to view their grades. The role-based permissions in Brightspace allow UWS to offer customized content to students.

Release conditions are also used to control access to content and assessments. Access is granted based on prior assessment level. In CBE, there are occasions where learners need to demonstrate mastery of a competency in one area before progressing to the next.

Optimized for Student (and Faculty) Success

With students working independently and at their own pace, it was important for the Flexible Option learning experience to be inviting and optimized for student success. Using cascading style sheets (CSS) within the Brightspace platform, the UW-Extension team was able to design and develop student-centric pages and interfaces. Designs are sensitive to cognitive load concerns, ADA compliance, and contiguity principles that facilitate knowledge transfer.

Helping Students (and Faculty) Feel at Home in the Program

Getting students and faculty set up and oriented in the Flexible Option program is vitally important to student success. To ensure a good first experience, the program takes advantage of Brightspace for the delivery of “Flex Basics.” This is an introduction for students, which sets expectations and provides new students with an orientation. It also allows them to practice some of the basic technology skills they’ll need to succeed.


“Success for Flex is defined by meeting student needs, simply put. Anytime you begin a new program, you want to make sure you are meeting student needs and people are actually engaging. For now, we are exceeding the business plan.”
Ryan Anderson, Director of Instructional Design and Development University of Wisconsin-Extension

Result

Exceeding Expectations

In its original plan, UW-Extension projected it would serve 150 students in its first year of operation with the Flexible Option. The program ended up serving more than double its goal, with 350 students enrolled by March 2015.[1] UW-Extension received expressions of interest from thousands of students but purposefully kept its enrollment numbers low to ensure the best possible experience.

The Flexible Option program has already celebrated the graduation of eleven of its students, with many more expected in the future. In just a short time of operation, the Flexible Option program has been able to prove it can save students time and money when achieving their degree. In one instance, a student was able to earn 33 credits in just three months. They had a financial savings of almost $8,000 and graduated with Summa Cum Laude honors.[2]

[1] Figures courtesy of University of Wisconsin-Extension
[2] Ibid.

 

Additional Resources