The University of Wisconsin System regents focused on alternative learning methods in their meeting Friday, hearing an update on the flexible option degree program and online courses.

The UW System Board of Regents heard updates on its new online program from Ray Cross, UW Colleges and UW-Extension chancellor, and Aaron Brower, interim provost of UW-Extension.

The online flexible degree program, which gives adult learners UW System degrees based on assessments of prior knowledge, will kick off in late fall, Cross said. UW-Milwaukee and UW Colleges are the only institutions so far that will offer degrees, although faculty across the system are working on adding more degrees, Cross said.

Brower said the UW System is waiting for accreditation for the program, a decision that will come in July. Accreditation would allow students to get federal financial aid, Brower said.

Because officials modeled the program after accredited programs, Brower said he thinks the system’s application will succeed. 

“We’re building off existing accredited degree programs [so] there’s a little bit of an on-ramp there that will be to our advantage,” Brower said. “We expect that it will go well.”

Although she said the program’s development is “very exciting,” student regent Tracy Hribar said UW System officials have to ensure the program is affordable.

Brower said the assessments – which, if passed, give credit for knowledge acquired through previous through education or work – help ensure students pay for what they need. He contrasted his own experience in the pilot program, in which he passed tests for the first two sections over a weekend, with a traditional learning experience.

“I would be in week four of the first semester bored out of my mind and paying tuition on that course,” Brower said. “So I think that piece in and of itself will make a huge difference with affordability.”

The regents also discussed expanding their involvement with Massive Open Online Courses. 

UW System President Kevin Reilly praised UW-La Crosse’s remedial math MOOC and said UW-Milwaukee is also working on a water technology course. He also said UW’s four upcoming MOOCs already have 22,000 enrollees.

“This is a way for Madison to promulgate its high quality brand on a world stage and also learn more about pedagogy along the way,” Reilly said.

MOOCs are becoming more popular in higher education because of the number of people they can reach, Reilly said. The UW System should participate in it, he added, partly because of the “FOMO factor,” or fear of missing out.

Regent Chuck Pruitt said he had some concerns MOOCs often might not reach first-generation or low-income students. Even if they do take MOOCs, they may not finish because they would not be getting the one-on-one help they would be getting in a traditional learning system, he said.

The regents also learned of $1.76 million in additional retirement overpayments from the UW System. Regent Gerald Whitburn, who chairs the audit committee, said all of the sum would be recovered.

The new overpayments come on top of more than $34 million in overpayments last year, $20 million of which has been recovered. Previous retirement overpayments have all been recovered, but UW System officials have yet to recover some of the health benefit overpayments.

A contract is also nearing completion for an outside company that will do a risk assessment of the UW System, Whitburn said.

The regents also approved a $2 million budget increase for the first phase of the Memorial Union renovations. That increase will go to building a theater lounge on the north side of the theater.

Board members also voted to approve a new Bachelor of Science degree in pharmaceutical sciences at UW.