Friday, January 25, 2013

Say What About the Flex Degree?

On June 19, the University of Wisconsin System announced an initiative called the Flex Degree which was described as competency-based online instruction.  That day, I blogged about it, noting that while I certainly had some concerns, there were enough potential positive effects of the program to withhold full judgment either way.

Friends on both sides were surprised.  Colleagues who know and respect the priority I place on access and affordability for all potential students thought I should have been more strongly supportive of the "innovative" initiative that has the promise to drive down costs.  Others, of the liberal activist persuasion, noted  Governor Scott Walker's involvement, and the strong likelihood of negative repercussions for faculty job security and the quality of education delivered.  Still, I demurred, deciding to wait to hear more.

Unfortunately, information hasn't exactly been forthcoming.  I keep up to speed, reading the papers and blogs, and talking with those "in the know" and yet, I still have no clear picture what this Flex Degree really is.  Perhaps it's because where I spend most of my time, UW-Madison, isn't involved?  Maybe faculty at Parkside and Milwaukee have a clearer picture of what's happening? Maybe this initiative doesn't involve us tenured faculty at all, leaving the process to the administrators?   I've tried to check things out-- and am hoping this blog stirs discussion so I can learn more.  All I've heard thus far is that the faculty at Parkside are seriously concerned about the effort, and had a disagreement about the program with their Chancellor, resulting in the displacement of their Provost.

The media's been the only source of information-- and the coverage alone is enough to raise concerns.  (Also, there is not one investigative reporter covering higher education in Madison now.) It's undoubtedly bad press for UW System when the Wall Street Journal leads its coverage with a headline "College Degree, No Class Time," as it did this morning. Here is what we "learn" from that story:
  • A degree obtained online will carry the same name on it that degrees earned on campus do.  You won't be able to tell if the degree was earned at Parkside, Madison, or Flex.
  • UW System official encourage students to obtain their learning from MOOCS like "Coursera, edX and Udacity."
  • The charges for the tests and related online courses haven't been set but it will be cheaper than attendance on a campus.
Wow, seriously?  Each of these aspects raise trouble.  Why try to "hide" that the degree was awarded for learning acquired elsewhere, including via under-assessed methods like MOOCs?  How could the initiative possibly get past "go" without an assessment of cost-effectiveness?

Instead of concrete planning, it seems this process relies on a set of fairly broad, vague statements. Do what's good for the workforce. Do what the Governor asks. Do something "big" (According to UW System President Reilly-- the Flex Degree is a "big new idea").  Make it "fresh."

These are platitudes that have been circulating in the education reform crowd for years.  The rhetoric is typically framed as colleges and professors are "behind" (engaged in "the monastery model") and need to catch up. Interestingly,  Jeff Selingo of the Chronicle of Higher Education wrote in his blog yesterday about the perspective held by Aaron Brower, a professor of social work at UW-Madison and the lead administrator on the Flex Degree initiative.   From Brower's point of view, "Our students have all the information that we have as professors, so there is no premium on access to information."
Hmm. Well, first, that sounds right-- and simple-- but it's not really.  The people actually working to get online education right (and many are in the for-profit industry-- which doesn't mean their knowledge should be disregarded) know that "access to information" is far from sufficient for students and that professors really enhance that access by sifting, coordinating, distilling and analyzing that information for students.   The best initiatives thus far do not rely on technology alone-- they involve technology and people.  This is because, as UW Extension Chancellor Ray Cross puts it, "faculty are the guardians of quality."

Brower knows this, and knows it well. And I think, therefore, that the biggest problem with the Flex Degree at the moment lies in how it's being rolled out and messaged.  There are far more details available about this initiative than what's reaching our ears, but one has to look to meeting minutes to find them.  For example, reading the minutes from a UW LaCrosse meeting about the Flex Degree I learned that "Faculty are at the heart of the endeavor:  they will determine the outcomes/competencies and the assessments that will provide the evidence of student learning—nobody else can do this...Without faculty and academic staff involvement, the program will not attain the quality we envision, programmatically or pedagogically."  And I'm pleased that apparently Governor Walker has told Ray Cross that he'll provide new funding for this initiative, rather than grab at our base. 

So maybe the Flex Degree is better than it appears, and its communications arm is simply failing to message it correctly.  One powerpoint talks about the "First to Flex," a physical metaphor that doesn't work well when it comes to education. There is also this wordy, vague video on You Tube.

Bad media is a huge problem that could sink the whole ship.  Let's see that turned around, fast, before the nation begins to associate the University of Wisconsin with degrees that stand for nothing.