Monday, June 21, 2010


You’re Not Helping!

Last week Congress held some hearings on accreditation requirements and the definition of the credit hour. In reaction to the increasing percentage of federal financial aid that’s going to students at for-profits, and the somewhat generous interpretations some for-profits have had of the ‘credit hour,’ Democrats decided to mount a spirited defense of the seat-time based credit hour.

Note to Congressional Democrats: you’re not helping! The credit hour is the wrong hill to die on. If anything, it’s a major part of the problem. And I say that as both a bona fide lefty-liberal and a community college administrator.

Honestly, this seems to be one of those cases in which people seem to take sides depending on who their allies are, rather than the logic of the position itself. Democrats usually have strong backing in traditional higher ed, so they’re taking a position they presume will be popular there. Republicans have no use for higher ed generally, and have an ideological weakness for privatization, so they’re siding with the for-profits. But the logic of the positions is backwards.

The crisis of public higher education isn’t the for-profits. It’s unsustainability. The for-profits are just a symptom of that. And the credit hour is part of the unsustainability. If you want to save public higher ed, both for its voters and for the actual good that it does, you need to let it find a sustainable way of operating. This isn’t it.

Generally, a credit hour has been defined as fifty or fifty-five minutes of class per week for about 15 weeks, plus the presumed out-of-class work that goes with it. Most classes carry either three or four credits. For the sake of simplicity, the minutes of class are usually referred to as “seat time.”

In the best of times, it’s a slippery definition. Although it measures time-in-a-room, it doesn’t really measure time-on-task. And the ‘out-of-class’ component is essentially taken on faith. In my years on faculty, nobody ever told me that I was supposed to calibrate the out-of-class time to a specific ratio, and I didn’t. Based on the varying amounts of work I did for classes as a student, I’d be hard-pressed to say that they hewed to any consistent rule.

Even if we agreed to look past those, though, two major problems have arisen that are eating away at the foundation of the entire conceit. One is online education, and the other is cost.

Part of the definition of online education is that it renders the concept of “seat time” unintelligible. Some people read (and write) more quickly than others, and the presentation is usually asynchronous. “Go at your own pace” is part of the appeal. For courses that were originally developed in a traditional format and have simply migrated online, credit-hour designations usually reflect how they started. (If in-class Psych 101 was three credits, then online Psych 101 is also three credits.) But as we start developing new courses online, and even entire courses of study, that expedient isn’t always available.

As weak as the original ‘anchor’ for determinations of credit hours was, its absence seems to allow for a college to say that just about anything can count for just about anything. This is the loophole some for-profits exploited, inflating the credit hours granted for instruction in order to maximize the amount of financial aid revenue they’d realize. For reasons I won’t pretend to understand, the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association gave its blessing to the institution that inflated its hours. Now some members of Congress are pushing for a federally mandated definition of a credit hour, to take it out of the hands of promiscuous accreditors and to prevent the squandering of taxpayer money on bogus courses.

It’s as if online education never happened. But it has.

Worse, though, a time-based definition of productivity -- a three credit class requires forty-five hours of seat time, say -- writes “zero productivity gain” into law. To understand this, you have to understand that ‘more productivity’ does not mean ‘more work.’ It means ‘more accomplished in the same amount of time.’ If you get more work done by just working longer, you aren’t increasing productivity; you’re just doing more of the same. Failure to understand this has led to all manner of misplaced polemic.

If you declare that no matter what you do, you can’t award credit unless you’ve consumed the same amount of time as last year and the year before that, then you’ve guaranteed zero productivity gain. Worse, you’ve actually penalized any attempt to improve productivity.

When the productivity of the economy as a whole is increasing a few percent a year, and higher ed isn’t, then all else being equal, we should expect the cost of higher education to outpace inflation by a few percent a year. Which is exactly what it has done for the last few decades. Add some cost-shifting from the public sector to tuition, some unfunded mandates, and the occasional boondoggle, and you’ve got a really impressive cost spiral.

If you want to save public higher ed, you have to break the cost spiral. That means you have to break the credit hour. Writing it into law is precisely wrong.

If you want to break the growth of the for-profits, don’t do it by chaining everyone to dead weight. Improve the publics, and make us more appealing as alternatives; students will vote with their feet. Move money away from student-based aid and into institution-based aid; reverse the cost-shifting trend. That will strengthen the publics and make for-profit skimming much harder. But for the sake of all that is holy and good, don’t mandate that we must never move beyond the productivity level we had in 1950. That’s not helping.

I'm glad to see you take on this topic, even if you don't propose an alternative that would be less susceptible to manipulation than the current system.

To begin with, you should have called out the college and the responsible administrators by name, although it was a good start to call out the slacker accrediting agency. But do you really think that the same agency would deal any better with an alternative metric? IMHO, many problems in higher ed start with the standards applied at the boundary, whether it is the "C" line in a class or the "C" line in an re-accreditation decision. Credit hours are a symptom, not the cause.

Second, you need to spell out, at least in broad outline, what you think the alternative should be for determining how much a particular course should contribute to a degree program - that is, how much "credit" it is worth. Outcomes? Who sets them? More importantly, who assesses whether they supply the same value as a similarly named course elsewhere? And, finally, how will it be determined if students using alternative means of taking the class have met those same outcomes when different people do that assessment? That is the really sticky problem that agencies only look at on paper (graduate degree of the instructor).

What is your alternative, and how many additional non-teaching staff will be needed to ensure it works across the country?
You've reached the real issue: how do we increase productivity in teaching/learning?

How do we get students to learn more in the same time (or less)?

It's been done so far by increasing the number of students learning at a given time (increasing class size), but how do we increase individual learning?

(And when you answer that, then you can also work on medicine, which has he same types of problems. That is, both are working with humans who learn and heal non-instantaneously and with variation, and with two very different sorts of inputs--the teachers, doctors, and students, patients at the least--and difficult to measure results.)
But what if you just can't increase productivity? Isn't that part of the problem?

You can make all the teachers the best teachers in the world, and all optimize instruction for their students, and you're still going to hit a hard limit at some point. You can't increase productivity infinitely in education; it's just not possible.

It's like having a baby -- it takes 40 weeks. That's what it takes. You can shave off a week here or there, but take off much more than that, and the end product suffers.

Given that, shouldn't we, as a society, just accept that cost of education will lag behind inflation? And then budget accordingly?

If not, what am I missing here?
I don't believe that someone pointing out a problem always has to provide a solution to be taken seriously, but you've brought this up a number of times without, as far as I remember, hinting at a solution. Do you have a suggestion?
"“Go at your own pace” is part of the appeal."

Um, having taught online, having talked to many students about their online experiences, and having done a lot of independent self-training on teaching in an online format, I have to jump in to say that your assertion above is directly responsible for many students failing to thrive when they enroll in online courses.

1. Online courses still have assignments, and those assignments still have deadlines. In order for a student to make progress and learn throughout the semester, they can't just do all of the work of the course in the last two weeks of the semester and turn it all in at the end.

2. Asynchronous formats still require that all members of the course are on the same page and having the same conversation at roughly the same time. Just think about how your blog works. Yes, it's an asynchronous format, but it does assume that the readers are all basically on the same page within a 3-5 day window of time. That's why it's possible to have asynchronous conversations.

Online courses that are effective *don't* actually leave students to their own devices to choose their pace, at least not in my experience. Rather, they allow students to budget their time so that they don't need to have their butts in a seat at 10 AM every M/W/F, but the course itself needs to be set up to give students the structure that they need to succeed, which means putting in a lot of checkpoints that are often unnecessary in a f2f format to make sure the student does his/her work consistently and doesn't fall behind and fail the course.

That is, if you value students interacting with one another and with learning not only the fundamental concepts of a course but also how to engage with other people about those concepts.

So, two questions.

1. To echo others, what is your alternative to the credit hour, and how does it solve the problems that you note with the credit hour?

2. In terms of online formats, if you were to completely divorce them from the regular term/credit-hour system, how would faculty who teach online be compensated and how would their contracts work? Because if you have 30 students going at their own pace, with 10 finishing after 6 weeks, 8 more finishing at 15 weeks, and the remainder finishing at 30 weeks, what does that mean for instructors? Do they get new courses on top of the stragglers? Do students continue to sign up for courses, starting them when they're not yet finished with others? And isn't that oddly like the way "incompletes" often have worked in grad programs, and isn't that usually seen as a bad thing? What's the solution to that problem?
I've been uncomfortable with the "3-credit-hour-class" structure of higher education ever since I started teaching in (um, 1973). The problem is what to move toward and how to move toward it. And the problem with that is that the transition is anything but easy.

Look at what happens when schools try to move away from the tyranny of the grade, bu having instructors write assessments of student work instead. Students have hated that (and still do); grad school admissions committees hated that (and still do); employers hated that (and still do). And, for what it's worth, a lot of the facutly weren't too crazy about it (it required a fair amoount of additional work).

And moving away from the course-credit based system will have problems. The first has beenmentioned already--the natural move is to a competency-based system of assessment. But who determines the competencies? How does one compare competencies across institutions? (I realize that this is a problem now, but we wave our hands and ignore it, letting the course-credit system carry the weight.) How do we determine the relevant competencies for a major/monor/degree program (including gen ed)? Who is responsible for seeing to it that the competencies in gen ed are, in fact, achieved?

(An aside there. We have begun to move to defining gen ed in competency terms, not in terms of specific courses completed. One of the competencies is in written communications. The faculty in my program--business--are adamantly opposed to the idea that we have any responsibility for assessing student competence in written communications. But if we don't do it--or participate in assessing it--then where does it go? To people who teach writing courses...)

One take-away from the experience with gradeless transcripts is that first-movers get penalized for changing. Another takeaway is that identifying the problem is a lot easier than coming up with a workable solution. My personal takeaway is that this is another reason I'm glad I'm retiring in two years...
To alter the "credit hour" changes everything in higher ed from transcripts to state reimbursements to Pell awards. I doubt that Dead Dad (or anyone for that matter) can summarize a solution in one post. Besides, the unintended consequences could be devestating, therefore requiring much thought and deliberation by many.

My two problems: Is the definition of "credit hour" really the problem? Really? Why change the entire system if a few are taking advantage of it? It's like the coach making everyone run when only one player is late for practice. That one guy screwed up, make him run!

Second, why does the government falsely believe that they are omnipotent in all areas of life? And what gives the federal government authority over this decision? At some point the folks in DC need to understand that great ideas actually do come from outside the beltway. All we need are the expectations and educators can help solve this preceived issue....which is?
"you have to understand that ‘more productivity’ does not mean ‘more work.’ It means ‘more accomplished in the same amount of time.’"

How do you accomplish more in the same amount of time, if what you're accomplishing is student learning?
Wouldn't that require students to become smarter year after year, able to master the same material in a shorter and shorter time?
Dr. Sparky--

Learning more ion the same time does not necessarily require that everyone become continuously "smarter." If people learn how to study more effectively...if we can design assignments and activities that allow people to study more effectively...there are a lot of things that could be done to raise productivity of time spent on learning tasks that don't require that the people involved suddenly become different people. (Think about the addition of books to the educational experience, compared to a world in which books were so expensive that a person's estate would list all the books in it b y title. Think about the potential effects of computers, which I'm not sure we have actually done a particulary good job of incorporating in what we do.)

None of the changes are particularly easy.
"But what if you just can't increase productivity? Isn't that part of the problem?"

Yes. That's the whole of the problem, actually -- as well as our unwillingness to acknowledge this truth.

As we get richer and richer, we will need to invest more and more of our resources teaching one another how to do things. That's something which just is true.

It's also something which has nothing to do with the for-profits, which are essentially mafia fronts for laundering Federal student loan money. That's a result of lax accreditation standards which came about because Higher Ed is unwilling to police itself.
OMG, this is NOT rocket science! All you have to do is publish guidelines for the minimum amount of TOTAL WORK that should yield one credit. Many of us tell our students that they will need to spend 2 hours outside of class for every hour spent in the classroom. If that is the case, then 1 credit is equivalent to 45 hours of work across a semester. So, if you design a course that the average student can complete in 135 hours of work, then you have a 3-credit course. This takes care of on-ground, online, hybrid, or whatever types of delivery systems you choose.
I'd split credit-granting institutions from teaching institutions.

All the testing and essay reviews go online. Students take online tests and submit essays online, scores are returned. Local teachers coach students, giving individualized help and feedback as necessary. Students can zip through introductory algebra in two weeks, if they want, and go straight on into more advanced math. Or they can take a year to do algebra, struggling, but in the end REALLY knowing it.

It's crazy that institutions both teach and give credit. They're grading themselves, in effect, which lets the predatory for-profits commit fraud.

You wouldn't want the credit-granting agencies to be too monolithic. Need at least two or three in each field to be competitive. I would imagine that they would compete in terms of rigor and quality of graduates.

Local teachers could then compete to be effective coaches. They might also want to devise instruction modules and ask the credit-granting agencies to test them. Good module-designers might look forward to joining the credit-granting agencies (which would be international and online; no need for physical presence).
Good post, keep up the good work.
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