Thursday, March 29, 2012


All You Can Learn?

A few days ago I mentioned that the credit hour must die, and several readers asked for clarification.  (In a Leslie Neilsen voice: “Death is the end of life.  But that’s not important right now.”)  

Now I see that a new for-profit, New Charter University, is trying to kill the credit hour.  I have to admit being fascinated.

As the Chronicle tells it, New Charter charges students a set fee per month as a sort of membership.  As long as their membership is current, students can take as many or as few courses as they want at any given time.  The courses are offered online -- “taught” might be too strong a word -- and students can move through modules at their own pace.  When they’re ready, they take exams.  As they accumulate something like credits, they move toward a degree.  (The article mentions that NCU isn’t regionally accredited at this point, so the degree may not count for much, but I anticipate the accreditation coming.)

It sounds like a wonderful setup for older, self-directed students who have significant life experience but lack paper credentials.  The beauty of it is that students who already know certain parts of courses can just blast through them and spend more time on the parts that require actual effort.  And since it’s self-directed and asynchronous, there’s no issue of transportation, work hours shifting, or the various stuff of life that makes showing up consistently in the same place and time for fifteen weeks a challenge.

Put differently, even if students earn “credits,” they don’t need “credit hours.”  The unit of time has been broken.  If you can blast through a basic course in ten hours instead of the prescribed forty-five, good for you -- your efficiency isn’t punished.  Conversely, if you need a hundred hours, well, hell, they’re your hours.  Take what you need.  Instead of failing after forty-five and retaking all forty-five -- including the parts you already mastered -- you can just take the time you need and get it right.

In a way, it seems like an obvious thing to try.  But ask any experienced administrator why we don’t, and we’ll all give the same answer: financial aid.  The entire financial aid system is based on credit hours which, in turn, are based on clock time.  And rather than getting away from that as distance education has rendered clock time less relevant, they’ve actually tightened the screws on clock time in light of perceived abuses in the for-profit sector.  NCU’s breakthrough is to skip financial aid altogether.  You put cash on the barrel every month, and it’s all you can learn.  How you get the cash is your problem.


To recap: productivity refers to value divided by time.  When your value is denominated in units of time, your productivity can never increase, by definition.  (Its cost can and will inflate, but that’s not the same thing.)  Public colleges -- those designed to serve people who may not have much money -- are legally forbidden to increase their productivity.  But for-profits can, as long as they skim only the student population that doesn’t need financial aid.  In other words, the sector that most needs to innovate is forbidden to do so, while its growing for-profit competition can barrel ahead without compunction or restriction.  And while the publics experience a pincer movement of flat productivity, increased costs, and decreased state support, the for-profits charge more than their cost of production and plow some of the proceeds into marketing, all the better to skim the students who aren’t constrained by financial aid.


The credit hour must die.  As someone who is dedicated to public higher education, and who believes strongly that the publics will be worth saving only if they stay good enough to attract people who have other options, I don’t like where this leads.  If we’re going to compete, we’re going to need to be free to experiment.  And we’re going to need the financial aid rules, union contracts, state regulations, and regional accreditation agencies to adjust, to let us do that.  They all assume the credit hour as traditionally understood, and they have the cumulative effect of tying us to an anchor.  No wonder we struggle to stay afloat.

I don’t know if NCU will work, but it’s trying some of the right things.  I’d love to see the publics free to experiment like that without forcing students to go without financial aid, but we’re not there yet.  Maybe, just maybe, a high-profile success in another sector will finally break the logjam.

So good luck, NCU.  I hope to be able someday to adapt some of your innovations to a setting that’s also based on access and fairness to everyone.  Preferably while the change is still voluntary.

From the instructor side, I'm having difficulty in seeing how this would work. I teach in history, with a heavy 4-4 load (more than 150 students per semester, with no grading assistance). The only reason I can keep up with my grading at all is because most of my students are on the same topic at any given moment. I'm trying to image grading essays or (worse yet) trying to have discussion boards going simultaneously on every topic from the Constitutional Convention to World War II.

Or is the assumption that I upload all my materials and have nothing but multiple-choice tests? That could sure be self-paced, but I'm not sure I'd call it a college education.
Be a bitch to work that in a class with labs. It would be expensive having every lab in the course set up, ready to go whenever a student wandered in to do it.

There's also a fairness/consistency issue. If every student in the course has the same assignments, then those who go later can have (will have, likely) seen the marked-and-returned assignments of those that went earlier. If the assignments are worth marks this gives them an edge. (And if they're worth no marks, many students won't do them.)
It sounds to me like they're offering interactive training sessions online followed by tests. That is so far from what I do as a teacher, I don't even want to call it education.

I'm seriously questioning your judgement right now, Dean Dad.
Ask, and the market will answer, if you let it.

I wonder how this will compete against the free courseware being offered by some universities.

Ironic, if it's knowledge and education you want, it's so valuable we can't put a price on it, so it's free or almost free. On the other hand, a credential costs big money.
Not all courses will scale as well as others, but some will scale quite well. For instance, in a math course, students could be graded primarily on one or two exams with assignments and quizzes in-between serving as self-tests to let the student know what he or she still needs to work on. A student who is only weak in one or two areas can focus on those until he feels that he understands it then take the final without spending much time doing assignments/tests in areas where he is already strong.

In courses where writing is a major component, this is much harder. But, many schools don't require much writing now even when they should. At my CC, our core U.S. History classes each require students to write a five page paper which is laughably short. In the online version of the course, there is no paper requirement because the writing requirement is (supposedly) satisfied by the writing done for online discussions.

I'd rather see schools require a lot more writing which would, inadvertently, make scalability much more difficult. That is not, however, the current trend.
i think i depends on credit hours .
Best of luck

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This reminds me more of a gym membership plan, than a way of rethinking higher education. Many health clubs offer term contracts where you can use the facilities as many times as you want for the duration of your membership. The way they make their money is by betting (correctly) that most people who sign up will use the facilities a few times and then lose motivation. So you pay up front for the whole thing while you are feeling aspirational, and then you hardly end up using it.

That could be a good business model for a gym, but it strikes me as a terribly cynical and pedagogically unsound way of running a college. Unless, of course, education is not actually your goal at all.
We don't have "credit hours" at my college (or the university I graduated from), we have "credits". The name is irrelevant to the meaning, which reflects a unit of learning, not time. You see that all the time in labs, where the credit is unrelated to the time spent doing the work and writing the reports.

Further, if your college considers only 45 hours of work enough for 3 credits, with no need to do anything outside of class, you have no reason to complain about what Levy wrote concerning faculty effort. At my college, we don't give credit for what you do while simply sitting in a chair in class.

"When your value is denominated in units of time, your productivity can never increase, by definition." But it isn't, so it can. Mine has increased dramatically in the last decade. I'd also argue that the productivity of the system being described is nowhere near that of the 600 student lecture hall or 2000 student cable-TV-lecture delivery system that was introduced in the 1960s.

Similarly, we have that 1960s idea of self-paced classes at my college, both old-school and new-school. And I know it can work very well because I was a guinea pig in two different studies (one "programmed learning", which is what these computer systems are, and the other self-paced with multiple versions of mastery exams that had to be passed to move on) that both worked great for me.

Finally, this might work really well once computers can grade essays. We already used computer-aided rubrics, so that may only be a matter of time.
In days of yore this was called programmed learning. It worked for the really bright. EVERYTHING works for the really bright. It sucked for everyone else
I still don't understand how educational productivity is supposed to "increase". The raw material hasn't changed in 20,000 years, and we've been practicing how to affect it for the past 400. I can see where some knowledge will be more useful than other knowledge, but I have no idea how we can cram more knowledge into the average college student.

Does anyone here go to some school where the students are not learning at pretty much the best pace they can manage?
Or is this some kind of Class Warfare Blame The Victim thing, where we blame colleges and students for the fact that students can't devote their full attention to their studies because of economic issues?
I know this is an old post, but it's been rattling around in the back of my head. I've yet to get anything coherent, but it definitely reminds me of the employee development online classes at my current (private industry) employer. About half are industry-specific, courses we have to take for regulatory compliance. Most of the rest are MSOffice courses, and I HATE them. In a subject where it's possible to accomplish the same task in a ludicrous variety of ways, it only acknowledges one as correct. As someone who's been using Word et al since the mid90s, I find it irritating at best, and insulting at worst.
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