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.