Thursday, December 6, 2012

Down With Credit Hours!

Apparently, somebody over at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching has been reading my blog. Either that, or they've got some really smart people who can figure stuff out better than I can. I'm betting on the latter.

At issue here is news that the Carnegie Foundation, which invented the standardized measure of a "credit hour" in higher education over 100 years ago, is now recommending that the measure be scrapped. Even more interesting, they are suggesting that it be replaced with something that measures "competency instead of time spent in class". After 100 years of calculating what students do based on how much time they put in, now perhaps we can measure based on what skills and abilities they gain.

It's not hard to see how the credit hour is an insidious force. Among those of us that teach, how many of us have run into the student who argues, in effect, "I put in my time, I deserve an A"? I would venture to say it's nearly 100%, and although not all students think this way more of them have tendencies in this direction than they would like to admit.

But as everybody who has read Thomas Kuhn (including the grad students I've tortured over the years) knows, you can't just take away a paradigm - you have to replace it with something better and more widely accepted. There are at least two serious barriers to doing so in this case:

• The Faculty/Standardization Battle: One of the great advantages of the credit hour is that it's standardized - it means the same thing everywhere you go, at every university. The Chronicle article linked above puts it this way:
And yet, said Ms. Silva [senior associate at Carnegie], some standardization may be necessary. Without it, a new unit could be easily watered down. "To earn a credential or a badge isn't going to mean anything if everyone measures it differently," she said.
This means that faculty are going to have to give up a LOT of control. Right now, if I teach an introduction to International Relations class, I can teach pretty much whatever I like in terms of content (so long as it passes my department's muster and it meets the time definitions for credit hours). The skills and competencies that students develop in my version of the class may be wildly different from those that students elsewhere get. There may even be significant differences within departments.

There will be significant demand for standardization from the outside - from students, employers, parents, state governments, and others who actually pay for the product we produce. Fighting that battle may have unintended consequences - like further eroding support for tenure, and pushing universities to further increase the ratio of untenured to tenured faculty. I don't see an easy fix for this problem, and since faculty control the curriculum and its delivery they may be able to stonewall this issue for a very long time.

• The Social Promotion Problem: We have a model of education that focuses on standardized competencies - high schools. With the advent of "graduation tests" (under No Child Left Behind, most if not all states have some version now, usually taken starting in the 10th grade), schools are supposedly only passing students who have demonstrated the standard competencies we've decided are necessary for a high school diploma.

But these tests have come up against fierce resistance from parents and others who recognize that our schooling system serves two purposes. One is indeed education - to impart knowledge and skills to our children. The other is social - to establish the individual child as a member of society based on time spent in school. Witness the social stigma attached to a 21 year old still in their junior year in high school, and you can understand what this is about - it's about "putting in the time".

So if universities manage to establish some kind of competency standards (with all the attendant complaints about "teaching to the test"), will they have the guts to stick with them? Moreover, will state legislators - who are currently on a big, loud bandwagon with the words "shorter time to degree" and "degree completion" written all over the side - have the fortitude to see success rates go down, and time to degree go up? Competency based systems sound great until somebody actually implements one - then we discover the price that has to be paid. And a lot of people don't want to pay that price.

For myself, I am all in favor of educating for ability rather than time. Nor do I, personally, have a problem with letting a student take as long as it takes to master whatever it is they're trying to master. That's the model of good martial arts education, and it works pretty well. Of course, there's not much standardization in the martial arts world, so everybody can teach to whatever standards they think best.

But since my influence is near zero, my opinion doesn't matter much. When I look at the forces arrayed against change, I have to wonder about the prospects for a credit hour replacement. I appreciate that Carnegie, which invented the darned thing for a different purpose 100 years ago, has gotten on the bandwagon. But the opposition will be steep and multifaceted. And in the end, the reigning credit hour paradigm may keep its position simply through inertia.

1 comment:

  1. Given the papers I'm currently grading for my senior seminar, my students are a looong way from competency when it comes to writing.