Wednesday, December 05, 2012
The Best Idea I’ve Heard All Week
As regular readers know, I have a bone to pick with the “credit hour.” Although it’s nearly ubiquitous in American higher education, its origins were pedestrian and it tells us nothing about actual learning. Worse, in many of its applications, it defeats any efforts to increase productivity, since it denotes learning in units of time. When you denote learning in units of time, it becomes impossible -- by definition -- to become more efficient in instructional delivery. If you need 45 hours of seat time for three credits, then that’s what you need, whether you could have picked it up faster or not.
For a while, I thought it was just me. Over the last couple of years, a few voices in the wilderness -- Jane Wellman and especially Amy Laitinen -- have made similar (if more thoughtful and focused) arguments. Now I read that the Carnegie Foundation itself has received a grant to look at redesigning the Carnegie hour!
Yes, yes, yes.
The stars are aligning for some serious progress.
Until recently, it was possible to argue that the credit hour was, like Churchill’s democracy, the worst possible system except for all the other ones. But that’s changing.
At one level, a decade of outcomes assessment has taken many colleges away from a purely artisinal model of evaluation -- grading -- and has encouraged/forced them to develop more systematic approaches to measuring student learning. There’s still a tremendous amount of work to do -- and some serious workload issues to confront in doing it -- but the direction is clear. It’s now normal for degree programs to specify student learning outcomes, and to be able to measure them. That’s huge.
Online education has thrown the whole concept of “seat time” into question, too. Since most online instruction is asynchronous anyway, it’s becoming harder to say with a straight face that learning has to happen in 75 minute chunks.
Now, MOOCs are starting to raise issues about the notion of “credit” itself, even independent of the “hour” part. Alternative credentialing methods -- “badges” -- are starting to pop up among serious people, and showing signs of acceptance. They’re still in the early stages, of course, but they have both momentum and logic.
At the same time, the federal financial aid programs are actually getting more persnickety about the most backward-looking elements of the credit hour, in response mostly to abuses in the for-profit sector. At the very moment that people and institutions are starting to entertain the possibility of something new, the agency charged with ensuring access to higher education is tightening the reins.
So there’s a need for some sort of system or measure that prevents a Wild West of colleges doing whatever the hell they want and charging the government for it, Given how many financial aid policies, internal policies, and even faculty union contracts are based in part on credit hours, a serious alternative will need to be multifaceted and thoroughly vetted. This may be the chance for that to happen.
I know a lot can go wrong, but this is the best idea I’ve heard all week.
Now I just wish that you would admit that efficiency is mostly about faculty-student ratios and that the credit hour has been decoupled from time for at least 40 years. That is when I took a class where I did accomplished all of the objective outcomes in about 1/3 of the usual time. (I'll leave it to an expert to tell us if it is actually closer to 65 years, since I think credit-by-exam appeared with mass numbers of returning GIs.) Please don't ignore the facts.
Competency-based learning assessment did not appear as a result of the internet. Get over it. The issue is about evaluating course content when there is no reference point to determine what constitutes a unit of "college learning" in some particular subject at some particular college. I don't entirely get the point, because anyone who has been around for a while knows there have been significant changes over time in the learning required for a particular course.
The system is now available. It's called the "free market." It requires the government to stop the funding.
Ummmm....not sure where to start on that one.
Perhaps the idea that rational actors in the free market need enough information to make a rational choice and clear the market of the "wild west" providers efficiently.
But education, as anyone in this corner of the interwebs knows, is more complicated.
First off is the fact that it is a product unlike most others. If the car you drive doesn't move forward, it's the manufacturer's fault, it's not your fault as driver. If you take an education and it doesn't move your career forward, then it is more ambiguous what is at play (your own capacity, economic forces beyond the control of you or the college etc).
Then there is the issue of opportunity cost. In a truly free market system, there would always be new competitors popping up. Some good, some just out to make a quick buck. A taxpayer-supported and vetted system is more likely to be consistent, even if the opportunity for innovation is lower. Free market true believers often pay too little attention to the failed enterprises in the free market: in education each failed college comes with a massive human cost for their graduates and students. Yes, theoretically, eventually, the "best" colleges will rise to the top. But there is always an ambient amount of destructive chaos in a free market and, in the college context, that means destroying the futures of those unlucky enough to have succumbed to smart marketing and chosen the wrong horse.
I guess this means I'm a communist. Hmmm...good thing I live in Canada where we are free to have such ideas without being shouted down.
The connection between the credit our and mindless bureaucracy seems pretty clear, though. This semester I was hired, for a tiny handful of peanuts on an adjunct basis, to manage a one-credit special studies course, online, for a young man who, before he arrived at Heavenly Gardens Community College, had the temerity to take freshman comp at a school that operates on the quarter system.
Because he clearly had not spent enough time with his tail attached to a seat in a classroom, HGCC decided to grant him two credits instead of the required three, per semester.
So, he was made to take ONE CREDIT of English 101 to fill in the requirement.
This entailed doing a few hoop-jumps and turning in one sourced paper. The paper he submitted was well written, coherently argued, decently researched, and accurately documented.
This exercise was a waste of my time, a waste of his time, a waste of taxpayer money, and a waste of the student's money. It was, in short, a one-credit rip-off.
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