UW System's Online Endeavor

Tuesday, June 19, 2012
Today Governor Scott Walker (whom my son happily continues to call "RecallWalker") and the UW System announced a joint effort to provide competency-based online degree programs. The program will be initiated and led by UW Extension faculty and staff under Chancellor Ray Cross.

My feelings about Walker are well-known.  I have a hard time believing he has the best interests of UW System at heart.  That said, I don't think this was Walker's idea, and I don't think his interest in it means it's necessarily a bad idea. Here are a few reasons why:

1) Competency-based online instruction has been implemented all over the world. It aims to break the link between seat-time and credit in order to get students accessible, affordable degrees. Those are good objectives. Credit for sitting in a seat for a certain amount of time has never felt smart.

(2) The typical conservative approach to implementation is a clear effort to undermine full-time faculty --bring in an outside group reliant on adjuncts. In other states that is Western Governors University.  (Ok, slight modification-- WGU uses full-time contracted faculty. Not tenured. And not really faculty-- they don't instruct or grade, they "mentor" and coach.)  While he may have considered it, that's not what Walker's done here. Smart- because if he had, the faculty and academic staff would have been rightly up in arms -- me included. (Indeed, that's what's happening in California.)  Instead, this program is led by UW Extension faculty and staff.  That's good- Cross is smart, and I am betting he brought this idea with him, perhaps even discussing it in his job interview.

(3) The focus here isn't UW-Madison (despite some poor press tweets)-- it is aimed at folks on the margin of no credential or an online credential. That's the right demographic.

Now, here are the key questions and big things to keep an eye on:

  • What will be the balance between industry and educators in crafting these programs?  If they are too specific, the programs will have little value over the long haul.
  • Who will actually teach?  Will UW Extension put the resources in to ensure that full-time faculty add online teaching to their load, or segregate it to adjuncts?
  • Good technology isn't free. Will Walker invest in helping UW Extension with the resources needed to ensure the platform for delivery is of high quality?
  • Will some potential students perceive this as their ONLY option for higher ed in the state? Will this mean other opportunities will be constricted or narrowed? Will these programs serve as entry points to other blended or in-person forms of instruction?
One way to ensure quality is pushed higher is to encourage the kinds of students who now take in-person courses to try out these online classes, perhaps in summer, and have them react/respond with their demands.  They will help raise the bar and keep standards high. In other words, diverse online classes of learners, rather than segregated ones, will ensure the quality of instruction.

So no, this isn't a blanket endorsement of a Walker policy. I would like to know more about the evolution of this plan, and the role faculty played in it.  But from what I know, it has evolved with the input of UW Extension and UW System, and is explicitly run by them.  That, at least, is a step in the right direction. 

Edited 6/20 for the parenthetical on WGU's staffing model.