Flexible Online Degrees and the Future of the 21st Century University

By Richard Grusin

This year’s C21 theme “What Should 21st Century Studies Do?” has sparked many interesting discussions this semester among C21 fellows, UWM faculty and graduate students, and visiting speakers. These discussions almost invariably come around to the question of the future of higher education in the 21st century. This question has been sparked mainly by debates in print, televisual and socially networked media over the value and dangers of the rapid and enthusiastic proliferation of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Classes), often in relation to questions of student debt and reduced government support for higher education. Locally the question often comes back to the desirability of the “UW Flexible Degree” announced in June by the Office of Governor Scott Walker.

The future of higher education in the 21st century was raised again by the recent announcement by Kevin Reilly, the president of the UW System, that UWM intends to be the first UW school to offer flexible degrees for working adults: “UWM Chancellor Michael Lovell announced during a news conference Wednesday that UWM will repackage existing courses into mostly online formats for the following Flexible Option degrees: a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in nursing; a bachelor’s degree-completion program in diagnostic imaging; a bachelor of science in Information Science & Technology; and a certificate in Professional and Technical Communication.”

These flexible degrees will include partnerships with two-year colleges in the UW system for fulfilling online general education and liberal arts requirements. Their aim is to allow working adults (or pretty much anybody over 18 with a part- or full-time job) to get a college degree on their own timetable and at a reduced rate: “The new college degrees will be more affordable and accessible for working adults because, in addition to moving at their own pace, students will take only the courses they need. They won’t have to spend time and money on coursework if they can prove through competency testing that they’ve already mastered it.” A key motivation for providing these degrees is to provide UWM with additional “revenue streams” in an era of severe cutbacks in state support for public education.

While in the short run this increased revenue may look like an attractive way to support UWM’s core teaching and research missions on its Milwaukee campus, in the long run the development of flexible degrees, “which will not be differentiated from degrees earned at UW campuses,” runs the risk of devaluing both the importance of embodied classroom education and campus life and the significance of a University of Wisconsin degree for those who earn it through taking classes in the context of a full-fledged campus experience. At a moment in which the aim of a college education is seen mainly to prepare students for the workplace, what incentive will students have to pay more money to follow a coherent curriculum or to live on campus, particularly when they can get the same degree more quickly, at their own pace, and for less money?

One question that especially needs addressing is whether establishing “flexible degrees” will legitimate and accelerate the deskilling of the professoriate, the reduction of tenured faculty members that has been under way since the last decades of the 20th century. By offering college credit for “on-the-job training, military experience or previous coursework,” “including the growing number of MOOCs [taught] through universities such as Harvard and MIT,” will these flexible degree programs serve to supplant the full-time tenured faculty that make up the core of UWM’s research and scholarly identity, replacing them with part-time, precarious laborers? While doing so would work in the short run to provide cost-saving in salary and benefits, in the long run would devastate the public research university.

Indeed as director of C21 I am concerned about the almost unquestioned assumption that flexible degrees represent the way that education must and will develop in the 21st century, as when UW System President Riley calls them “‘the 21st century face of the Wisconsin Idea,’ a guiding principle that education should improve the lives of state residents.” We need to make sure that the move to flexible online degrees does not preempt or foreclose the possibilities for other innovative uses of digital technologies which could strengthen and transform the role of higher education in the 21st century. Most importantly the decision to design and implement these degrees should not be made in the absence of a robust campus (and system-wide) discussion about the wisdom of doing so, a discussion in which faculty, students, staff, and administrators might address questions of the efficacy of such flexible degrees and of their consequences and implications for all facets of the UWM community. Before moving ahead with the full-scale implementation of online flexible degrees, we need to have a frank and open discussion about the consequences of such degrees for the future of higher education in the 21st century.

[Richard Grusin is the Director of the Center for 21st Century Studies and a Professor of English at UWM. He is author of Premediation: Affect and Mediality After 9/11.]

One thought on “Flexible Online Degrees and the Future of the 21st Century University

  1. thanks for this post, which is especially helpful for those of us not in Wisconsin. The many dubious assumptions of MOOC manifest destiny include the ludicrous idea that what works for short-term technical certificates will necessarily spread to all of higher education. It’s like saying, “my fig tree needs water once a summer. therefore the future of watering is one watering per summer.” Or, “25 MPH is a good speed on this street.” Our governor has had a similar religious experience (see Toby Higbie at http://utotherescue.blogspot.com/2012/11/the-governors-thinking-has-become-very_25.html) Therefore the future of driving is 25 MPH.” And it only gets worse from there, when you look at the absence of specific educational goals by which the technology will be judged, the financial interests behind the discourse, and the potential destruction of the learning-research ecosystem in favor of a celebrity broadcast model in which local faculty and staff will in effect be tech support. Christensen’s The Innovative University is probably the clearest window into this. we need (1) serious faculty studies of the educational outcomes of existing online programs, and I have a UCHRI (at UC Irvine) project trying to identify what kind of students are taking online and what the outcome is (we are very concerned about racial and class disparities) ; and (2) educational visions based in the liberal arts that hold MOOCs and online to faculty-defined educational standards. At the moment, online is educationally unaccountable

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