What if college diplomas certified that the person had actually learned something? That he had demonstrated mastery of material, rather than just logging the requisite number of hours sitting in a chair in a lecture hall?
That's the idea behind the University of Wisconsin's Flexible Option, which lets students who have received instruction from a variety of sources—including online providers of course material like Udacity, Coursera, or Marginal Revolution University—take tests to prove that they know their stuff. The University will issue these students a diploma that's indistinguishable from the standard sheepskin—probably at a much lower price.
First up? Maybe Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who championed the program in his state:
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has championed the idea, in part because he left college in his senior year for a job opportunity and never finished his degree. He said he hoped to use the Flexible Degree option himself.
"I think it is one more way to get your degree. I don't see it as replacing things," Mr. Walker said.
He's right that this is a cool option, but he's wrong that it won't replace more traditional paths for some people. University of Wisconsin may have just taken the first step toward its own obsolescence—or at least radical redefinition.
Look, it's the obligatory nervous prof quote:
Siva Vaidhyanathan, a media-studies professor at the University of Virginia who has written about the future of universities, called the program a "worthy experiment" but warned that school officials "need to make sure degree plans are not watered down."
Translation: I really like my job. Please don't take it away.
This could be the first step toward disentangling the many functions colleges and universities now perform. Some people will still want the four-year combination sleepaway-camp-and-drunken-TED-conference experience that is the current standard for undergrads. But other people—especially folks who are mid-career and busy being, say, the governor of a state or working at the nuclear power plant—would rather just learn the materials and then get a respected institution's stamp of approval.
Expect to see more of this in the very near future.