Essay on how to create a direct-assessment degree program

A little over a year ago, I left my post as vice president for education attainment and innovation at the American Council on Education to become chancellor of the University of Wisconsin Colleges and University of Wisconsin-Extension, a job I was attracted to because of the strong access, attainment and innovation values that are at the core of these institutions.

For example, UW-Extension is the home to the UW Flexible Option Program, and the UW Colleges offer their entire two-year liberal arts transfer curriculum in a competency-based format.

Having spent the past year overseeing one of the first and most visible direct-assessment competency-based programs in the country -- and the only one within a major public university -- I’ve had a number of aha moments that could only come from hands-on involvement in the real day-to-day work that makes these programs an exciting new option for institutions and their students.

However, developing a competency-based program, especially of the direct-assessment variety (no classes, per se), is not easy. Everything is new: identifying and describing competencies; developing meaningful assessments; gaining accreditation and federal approval (which we did); recruiting faculty and staff to participate; developing workarounds to student information systems while we develop new ones to support these programs; and explaining the concept again and again to the public, business and government leaders, and prospective students. Add to that the complexity that partnerships bring since, in our case, our current programs are offered in collaboration with other University of Wisconsin institutions.

We relish our role as pioneers because we believe we can make a dent in the need for postsecondary attainment in our state -- and beyond. But to make competency-based programs work, you need to find your allies -- people who can tolerate ambiguity at times and many roadblocks along the way. You need to establish the means to reward them financially and in other ways, because forging new territory takes enormous time, energy and commitment.

Classroom Teaching

Though we in higher education have been focused on student learning outcomes in broad terms for decades, faculty who developed our UW Flexible Option programs embraced the tasks of delineating competencies on a far more granular basis than they had done before. They also took on the enormous job of creating meaningful authentic assessments, not simply multiple-choice exams, and guiding our academic success coaches, who in turn guide our students.

Our first programs were in professionally oriented fields like health care and information technology that naturally lend themselves to a competency-based approach. I am particularly impressed with the faculty within the UW Colleges (the 13 high-access two-year transfer institutions that are the on-ramp to the UW System), who created a direct assessment version of the first two years of liberal arts general education, providing a strong rebuttal to those who say the liberal arts cannot be taught in a competency-based format.

I know that any time faculty take a close look at the curriculum, courses get better. I have heard from our faculty that they believe their involvement in designing UW Flexible Option programs improved their classroom teaching. Surfacing competencies and shifting to a mastery model, where one competency must be mastered at a particular level before moving on to the next, is finding its way to various degrees within our traditional programs.

Second-Class Citizens?

A recent interview-based briefing by the Education Advisory Board highlighted the difficulty some students and employers have understanding the direct-assessment competency-based model. I agree with the EAB finding that emphasizing flexibility in student recruitment, rather than using the term “competency based,” is more effective.

I disagree with the EAB recommendation that the competency-based format is best suited to and should focus on short postgraduate degrees and programs. While it is true that the most experienced students will tend to adapt to the format more quickly and will persist to completion, it would be a shame if we did not deploy this effective and flexible teaching model to address the critical need for postsecondary attainment at the associate and bachelor's degree level. Our experience with UW Flexible Option gives us great optimism that competency-based education is here to stay and through this modality, we will make a difference.

The general media often describe competency-based education as a “shortcut” to a degree. For example, The Atlantic titled its September 2015 article about Western Governors University, “The Online College That Credits Life Experience.” A recent survey by Public Agenda indicated that nearly 600 colleges are creating competency-based credentials. I worry somewhat that all these new programs may try to take shortcuts in program design, will shortchange students and sully the reputation of CBE.

We have an advantage because regular UW faculty are directly involved in program design. Students earn a standard degree from a University of Wisconsin campus and understand these credentials have and are perceived as having great value.

The earliest graduates who took part in UW Flexible Option’s bachelor’s degree completion programs finished their degrees quickly, in less than two years. These nontraditional working students with some college experience but no degree were able to avoid one of the greatest barriers to degree completion in this student population -- obtaining academic credit for courses completed elsewhere. Other forms of credit for prior learning (transcripted credit and portfolios) have not been shown to break down barriers significantly for nontraditional students, the majority of whom will have attended three different institutions before finally earning a degree.

Direct assessment allows students to leapfrog the current credit transfer miasma by completing assessments designed by faculty, thus proving what they already know or can do. This is not “credit for life experience,” but recognition of university-level work that was accomplished elsewhere, whether in a formal class at another institution or in the workplace. It doesn’t matter where, when or how the learning took place. As long as the student can demonstrate it, he or she gets credit for it along the pathway to completing the program.

Another positive consequence of direct assessment program design is greater use of faculty-curated open educational resources that students can access as they learn new material and prepare for assessments. Faculty who design for us may have been exposed to the OER world for the first time, realizing the wealth of quality materials available for free and perhaps integrating more OER into classroom-based programs. Greater use of OER is especially important for institutions that have a high-access mission and a focus on affordability, such as ours.

Direct-assessment competency-based programs are not for everyone. A younger, first-time, first-generation student needs more face-to-face interaction and support. Students enrolled in competency-based programs should have a smooth pathway to transfer into a traditional online or classroom-based program if they find that the format is not the best choice for them.

Our need for greater postsecondary attainment -- and the highly diverse nature of students in the U.S. -- calls for multiple pathways to a degree, including flexible means for meeting the needs of older, experienced, working students and getting them to the finish line.

Cathy Sandeen is chancellor of the University of Wisconsin Colleges and the University of Wisconsin-Extension.

More Wisconsin Campuses Plan No-Confidence Votes

Faculty members at three additional University of Wisconsin campuses are planning no-confidence votes concerning Ray Cross, university system president, and the system’s Board of Regents, the Journal Sentinel reported. The proposed measures at Milwaukee, Eau Claire and Green Bay are similar to a resolution passed by the Faculty Senate at the University of Wisconsin at Madison last week, versions of which were quickly adopted by faculty governance bodies at River Falls and LaCrosse.

The resolutions concern Cross’s and the board’s approval of new systemwide layoff policies for tenured faculty members, which many professors said fall short of protections in place before the Wisconsin Legislature took tenure out of state statute last year, and those recommended by the American Association of University Professors.

Cross released a statement after the Madison vote last week in which he said that he wants to work closely with faculty members, but that he also has to "work in partnership" with state leaders. "This state and its people are counting on us, working together, to help improve and expand quality of life and economic prosperity," he said. The board released a statement affirming its support for Cross. A system spokesperson said he had no additional comment.

Ad keywords: 

U Illinois Non-Tenure-Track Faculty Union Ratifies Contract

The non-tenure-track faculty union at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign ratified its first contract late last week, after two brief strikes since April over stalled negotiations. Union members’ protests centered on several key issues, including the standardization of multiyear contracts across the university for eligible instructors. The university had stated that it wanted individual academic units to maintain some discretion on contracts, and the parties eventually agreed that after five years, non-tenure-track faculty members will receive “rolling contracts,” or continuous employment, with at least one year’s advance notice of non-reappointment. Longer, multiyear contracts also still may be issued.

The contract also includes a 2.5 percent raise in pay, retroactively for last academic year, and a raise in the minimum full-time salary to $45,000 by 2018, according to information from the American Federation of Teachers- and American Association of University Professors-affiliated union. Notification of reappointment will be issued by May 1 under most circumstances. The agreement includes additional assurances of non-tenure-track faculty participation in governance.

Shawn Gilmore, union president and a lecturer in English, said the contract would “stabilize the working lives of non-tenure-track faculty” and ensure the “long-term support they deserve.” Barb Wilson, interim campus chancellor, and Ed Feser, interim provost, in their own statement said the university is stronger when non-tenure-track faculty members are “integral partners in governance, when their teaching is protected by academic freedom and when they have appropriate predictability and stability in their appointments.” The agreement addresses those priorities, they continued, “without supplanting the roles of the departments and colleges as important stewards of hiring and promotion for our academic programs. It also preserves the flexibility of units to offer multiyear contracts according to their own needs and financial capacity.”

Ad keywords: 

Profiled for Doing Mathematics on a Plane

An airline passenger reported a professor of economics at the University of Pennsylvania for suspicious activity after mistaking a complex equation he was working on for possible terrorism, the Associated Press reported. Guido Menzio, the Italian-born professor, said a woman sitting next to him passed a note to a flight attendant expressing concerns that he was a terrorist as he scribbled calculations on a piece of paper. He was soon interviewed by airline and security personnel as the plane was delayed on the tarmac. The woman, who'd claimed she was ill, was removed from the flight.

Menzio, who was flying from Philadelphia to Syracuse, N.Y., on an Air Wisconsin-operated flight en route to Ontario, Canada, for a conference at Queen’s University, initially thought he was being questioned about his seat mate's stated illness. But Menzio said he was told the woman was concerned about the “strange” things he was writing. He explained what he was doing and the plane took eventually took off -- minus the concerned passenger. Yet Menzio told the Associated Press he was bothered that the conversation had escalated to such a degree. "Not seeking additional information after reports of 'suspicious activity' … is going to create a lot of problems, especially as xenophobic attitudes may be emerging," he said.

A spokesperson for American Airlines, which ran the flight, said the crew followed protocols to take care of a sick passenger and investigate allegations. The woman was rebooked on a later flight.

Ad keywords: 

New Layoffs for EDMC

Education Management Corporation, a large for-profit chain, last week announced layoffs of 200 employees in the online division of its Art Institute of Pittsburgh, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported. The company has struggled with slumping revenue and enrollments in recent years, as well as federal and state lawsuits and investigations. Last year it announced the closure of 15 of 52 campus locations of the Art Institutes. The new layoffs represent 3 percent of the company's 20,000-employee workforce, EDMC said.

New paper suggests open-minded researchers produce higher-quality research

Smart Title: 

New paper suggests researchers who are more open to other disciplines and worldviews produce higher-quality research. 

Kansas Chancellor Vetoes Funds for Multicultural Student Government

The chancellor of the University of Kansas on Wednesday vetoed a proposed $2 fee intended to fund a new multicultural student government, leaving the future of the organization in doubt.

Student demonstrators, led by the activist group Rock Chalk Invisible Hawk, demanded the creation of the parallel student government during campus protests last year. In March, the Kansas Student Senate approved of the student fee increase to support the new organization. But on Wednesday, Bernadette Gray-Little, the university's chancellor, wrote to the Student Senate's executive committee, saying she could not recommend that the Kansas Board of Regents approve the new fee.

The University Senate Code only allows for three governing bodies on campus: the Faculty Senate, the Staff Senate and the Student Senate. Altering the code to officially allow for a fourth representative body would require at least year of deliberation, Gray-Little wrote, meaning the fee would be created before the multicultural student government officially existed.

"I believe that the independent student government proposed in the document sent to the University Senate is not an optimal way to achieve the goals we have for diversity and inclusion at the university and, indeed, may lead to greater divisiveness," Gray-Little wrote. "I realize that this proposal grew out of concern about the accessibility and openness to student government to all of our students."

Trinity Carpenter, interim secretary for the Multicultural Student Government, told the Lawrence Journal-World that the group plans to keep pushing for funding.

"This hurts, because we are the marginalized students who know there is a need for this resource," Carpenter said. "It’s even harder to accept because they have admitted there is a need for this institution and are not supporting it."

Ad keywords: 

New presidents or provosts: Alverno Aston Athens Carl Albert Cumbria EWU Lesley Lowell UNLV

Smart Title: 
  • Alec Cameron, deputy vice chancellor (education) at the University of Western Australia, has been appointed vice chancellor of Aston University, in Britain.

Students Criticize Iowa's Response to Alleged Hate Crime

While police investigate an apparent hate crime against a black University of Iowa student who was severely beaten near campus Saturday night, university officials are working to explain how more than three days passed between the attack and the institution’s response.

The university first released a statement on Twitter early Wednesday, responding to concerned students using the hashtag #ExplainIowa. Iowa officials said they did not learn of the attack until Tuesday, when they were contacted by a television news station in Chicago, where the student’s family lives. “We are deeply disturbed by the incident and concerned for the student,” the university tweeted.

The 19-year-old victim told police that he was walking in an alley in downtown Iowa City, across the street from the university’s campus, when three men began punching him and yelling racial slurs. He suffered damage to his eye socket and lost most of his two front teeth. He was released from the hospital Monday evening, at which point he reported the crime to police. Iowa City police said the case is being investigated as a hate crime. The suspects were described as being three college-age white men.

After the university was contacted by ABC7 in Chicago, officials reached out to the local police department for more information and then met with the student and his family Wednesday morning. It was after the meeting -- 84 hours after the incident occurred, 36 hours after the crime was reported to police and 12 hours after the news report aired -- that the university released a campus crime alert about the attack, as required by federal crime-reporting laws.

The delay angered many students on campus, who took to Twitter to ask how a news station in Chicago learned of an alleged hate crime against a student before anyone on campus did. “How many black students must be a victim of a hate crime before an alert is sent out,” one student asked. Tweeted another: “Thanks, Chicago, for letting us know what happened a 10-minute walk from my room.”

Iowa officials originally defended the university's response, noting that an alert was issued as soon as officials learned enough information about the attack following the news station’s report. Later, the university released a more conciliatory statement, saying the victim’s family had actually first contacted campus police to report the incident, but they were directed instead to the Iowa City Police Department because the crime occurred off campus. If Iowa students were involved in the attack, the university added, “they will be subject to disciplinary procedures,” including suspension or expulsion.

“We later learned that the student did visit UI police late Monday night, but because the crime occurred off campus, he was directed to ICPD to file a report,” the university said. “This was intended to prevent the victim from having to share his story multiple times. However, we now recognize this as a failure in current UI protocol and will be working with many campus and community partners, including ICPD, to improve reporting mechanisms for the future.”

Ad keywords: 

Campus Crime Down; Reports of Sex Assault Up

While the overall number of crimes reported by colleges and universities fell between 2001 and 2013, the number of reported forcible sex crimes has increased by 126 percent, according to a report released Wednesday by the National Center for Education Statistics. Between 2012 and 2013, the number of reports of sexual assault jumped from 4,000 to 5,000. It is unclear if the increase stems from a rising number of incidents, however, or more students reporting the crimes, the American Institutes for Research, which co-authored the report, said.

Arrests for drug law violations also increased, by 70 percent, according to the report. There were 781 hate crimes reported on campuses in 2013, a number that has stayed about the same since the incidents started being tracked in 2009. Overall, the number of campus crimes fell by 34 percent between 2001 and 2013.

Ad keywords: 


Subscribe to RSS - administrators
Back to Top