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Online Degree Program Lets Students Test Out of What They Already Know

The University of Wisconsin plans to start a “flexible degree” program online focused on allowing undergraduates to test out of material they have mastered.

The new program, geared toward working adults with some college education, operates under a “competency based” model, said Raymond Cross, chancellor of the University of Wisconsin Colleges and University of Wisconsin-Extension. This model is similar to the Advanced Placement program, in which high-school students take AP tests to pass out of college-level courses.

In the university’s new program, college courses will be broken down into units. For example, a higher-level mathematics class could include units such as linear algebra and trigonometry. Students can then test out of certain units (instead of full courses) and spend time learning only material that is new to them. Eventually, the units will build into courses, and then a degree. The flexible-degree program and traditional-degree program will have identical course requirements, and since each flexible degree will be associated with a specific campus, the student will receive a diploma from the originating campus and not from the system.

“We’re trying to find ways to reduce the cost of education,” Mr. Cross said. “Implicit in the model is the idea that you can take lectures online from free sources—like Khan Academy and MITx—and prepare yourself for the competency test. Then take the remaining courses online at UW.”

The biggest challenge, he says, is determining how to best test competency. Some units will require tests, while others may require written papers or laboratory work. The difficulty of measuring “competency’” for any unit will affect the program’s pricing structure, which has not yet been determined.

The idea of competency-based credentials is common in technical and health fields, Mr. Cross said, but it is rare at traditional universities. The program is part of a push to encourage Wisconsin’s 700,000 college dropouts to go back to a university.

“With higher ed now, people often have a piece or two missing in their education, so we are responding to the changes in our culture and helping them pull all these pieces together,” Mr. Cross said. “Students already interface with a lot of different institutions and different classes and professors, and this will help that process. I don’t think this diminishes traditional higher ed at all. I think it’ll enhance it.”

The first courses in the flexible-degree program will be available starting in fall 2013. The university is still developing exact degree specifications, Mr. Cross said. Likely degrees include business management and information technology.

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