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?