Wednesday, May 22, 2013


Credits and Credit Hours

Sherman Dorn asked a great question earlier this week.  In response to the growing wave of enthusiasm for “competency-based” degrees, as opposed to credit hour-based, he asked why we couldn’t achieve most of the good that “competency-based” would achieve just by dropping the “hours” from “credit hours.”  Since the standard objection to credit hours is that they’re denominated in units of time, and are therefore impervious to productivity improvements, why not just drop the “time” part, keep the “credit” part, and call it good?

I’ll have to dust off my old 90’s notes for this one.  (Let’s see...Kurt Cobain?  No...Winona Ryder?  No...Floating signifiers?  That’s it!)  Because then “credits” become floating signifiers, attached to no particular meaning.  They could mean anything, and would therefore mean nothing.

That matters because of online degrees and for-profit providers.  

In my DeVry days, we were careful with the weekend program -- which was specifically geared at working adults -- to keep the number of classroom hours congruent with the requirements for the number of credits given, even when it became inconvenient.  The idea was to avoid the suspicion that fell upon certain competitors, who made a habit of awarding outsize numbers of credits for various courses to both make it easier for students to complete programs and to keep their own labor costs down.  Give students eight credits for a three hour class -- that is, charge them for eight hours, but only pay the instructor for three -- and everybody wins: the students finish faster, the faculty at least have work, and the institution makes out like a bandit.  

If we just declare that credits mean whatever a given provider says they mean, then there’s no basis for denying federal funding or regional accreditation to a college that awards twelve credits for a three-hour class and a paper.  And now that many of those classes are online -- in which the entire conceit of “seat time” becomes vaporous -- there would be nothing at all to put the brakes on a given college twisting “credits” to mean whatever is convenient at the time.

Historically, the redeeming feature of the “credit hour” was that it was at least based on something.  The fatal flaw was that it was based on the wrong thing.

That’s the appeal of competencies.  Let the students demonstrate that they’ve picked up a skill, and let them move on.  Where they picked it up doesn’t really matter.  Some will move faster than others, and probably most will vary their speed depending on the task at hand.  

Yes, the documentation aspect of competencies is a bear.  The European project of “tuning” wasn’t done in a day, and doing it here isn’t easy, either.  SNHU’s College for America -- the first fully competency-based provider that received DOE approval for federal financial aid -- handles the issue of documentation by keeping it entirely in house; it doesn’t accept transfer credits.  For a student moving from, say, a competency-based college to a credit-based one, the transfer evaluation component is largely uncharted territory.  That’s not to be discounted.

But it’s the best and fairest way to break Baumol’s cost disease without just surrendering to a Wild West of credits meaning whatever anyone says they mean.  The great appeal is twofold: break the cost chokehold while maintaining academic integrity.  I haven’t seen a better way to do both.  Is there one?

They have ALWAYS been a floating signifier; removing "hour" simply respects what has been reality for more than a half century if not since there was a second college in the world.

You are not supposed to earn a credit for sitting in a seat for a fixed period of time, you are supposed to earn it for what a typical student of some poorly defined caliber might learn with reasonable effort in about three times that period of time.

Do you seriously believe that every section of some course taught in the same format (let alone sections of radically different courses across many majors) results in the same amount of learning for a given final passing grade? Or that every course requires exactly the same amount of effort by the typical student? Utter nonsense.
DD, when you advocate for a competency-based system as a solution to Baumol's, two big questions always occur to me that I've never heard you answer.

First, I can see how competencies can make it easier for an individual student to move through the system faster ("more efficiently"). But how does this work from the institution's perspective? How does an instructor coach n students toward competency, each moving at the rate most suited to them? It sounds like you're proposing moving towards instruction via private tutorial, which seems to push towards *lower* institutional efficiency. In your vision of competency-driven education, what do professors spend their time doing?

Second, in the past you've spoken out against the dream of "unbundling" the university, rightly pointing out that doing so raises transaction costs (among other undesirable outcomes). How does a move toward competency-based credentialing not serve as an attempt to unbundle the services traditionally provided by university faculty? Isn't the natural outcome of an academe-wide movement to competencies a system of standardized national competency exams, and a horde of instructors whose purpose is to teach to those tests?

Most fundamentally, I suppose, my objection is this: do we really think that it's possible to have continual productivity increases when it comes to teaching calculus to large numbers of people? Certainly individual motivated students can learn the material much faster than the usual three semester sequence plans for, but those students are already using their time efficiently: they get the work for their credit-hour classes done quickly and then spend their free time engaged in extra curriculars, networking, or other productive activities. But do we really think that the average time it takes an entire class of students to learn the material of Calc I-III can substantially be decreased? If not, how is an attempt to fight Baumol's cost disease anything but quixotic?

My apologies if these are questions you've addressed before: I'm a relatively new reader to your blog and haven't yet had the time to read through your history of posts on the subject.
When I was an undergrad, back in the 1990s that you speak of, we only had "credits" and not "credit hours." Further, every course was worth one credit. Your standard MWF classes, your language classes with early-morning drill sections, literature seminars, large lectures with recitation, science with labs, everything was one credit.

And this was at a four-year school that you have probably heard of that is accredited by NAESC.
What makes you think that a competency-based would result in efficiencies? I think it is just as likely that a whole host of students would take longer to demonstrate competency than they would to complete a tradiational semester-long course . Of course if one thought cynically about the motivation of administrators, one might imagine that they would cause the bar for competency to be set lower and lower until the desired efficiencies appeared
Also there is worry about teaching to a test like what is happening in K-12 education. In my courses I have to unbreak an algorithmic approach to material. The I do, We Do, You Do model. That is great for certain material and an excellent way of improving test scores. It is a poor model for getting students to problem solve. It is training them to be computers. We have computers.
My apologies if these are questions you've addressed before: I'm a relatively new reader to your blog and haven't yet had the time to read through your history of posts on the subject.

I've been reading Dean Dad for a while, and he writes this same column semi-regularly. CCPhysicist then explains again that changing the words "credit hour" or "credit" to "competency" doesn't, in reality, change anything else. Dean Dad then studiously ignores CCPhysicist's comment, and rewrites his column again the next time. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Echoing what Anon@4:24 AM said, the segment of higher education that I am in (selective liberal arts colleges) have not used credit-hours for years/decades. A course is 1 credit, or sometimes 1.5 credits or occassionally 0.5 credits. This does not correlate particularly well with the amount of "seat time"; it is based more on a vague notion of how much work (relative to some standard) the course is. I don't think that we have realized any efficiencies from this.

The credit-hour thing is clearly a one of "deandad"'s pet peeves but it strikes me as more a matter of semantics that anything else
I confess I'm getting a little tired of hearing about "Baumal's cost disease" and how education costs more than it did when I was a student and how the only way around that is ending tenure and so on.

Working in a high school myself, with kids in university, from my own experience the education we're paying for now is very different to what it was when I was in high school or university.

High school teachers around here provide a lot more support to students, a lot more communication with parents, and have more regulation to deal with than they did when I was a kid. Consider, for example, report cards. I still have some of my old school report cards: handwritten, with letter grades and very short comments ("good work"). Report cards now come out more frequently, have a percentage grade, half a dozen "learning skills", and a paragraph for comments.

Universities likewise do more than they did when I was a student. Recreation centers, residences, food facilities, etc are a lot nicer (and more extensive) than they were when I was an undergraduate. We had limited computer access, not campus-wide wifi. Undergraduates didn't get on-campus parking (few had cars). These amenities don't do anything to improve teaching, and do raise the cost.

Could we go back to those days? I'm not certain I'd want to — kids now graduate from high school because they have support who would have dropped out when I was young. But let's not pretend that these accomplishments (and they are accomplishments) are free: they cost resources, so the whole system costs more. But don't blame the English teacher because she isn't somehow teaching more students to make up for the cost of the new climbing wall in a brand-new state-of-the-art fitness center with HD TVs and high-speed wifi.
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