Credit Hour– Debatable Currency of Learning, Degrees, Credentials: Re-Examine Role of Credit Hours In Education…

Credit hour (or course credit, or credit, or credit unit, or student hour, or Carnegie unit) is the currency for academic degrees and credentials used in most colleges, universities, other educational institutions…

Sometimes simplest concepts are most problematic, for example; the notion of the ‘credit hour’, which seems like a self-evident term: One earns a college ‘credit’ for an ‘hour’ of academic work. But quantifying work is a very complicated affair and one ‘hour’ of work is often a misnomer…

According to Michael Arnzen; the ‘credit hour’ could be an anachronism, given various asynchronous methods of learning (as in online courses), and other changes that electronic media and new approaches to teaching have on the notion of ‘time’ spent learning…

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The ‘credit hour’ is a cornerstone to the administration of student learning-education; it’s the basis for evaluating student entry into college, determining student completion of course work, degrees… faculty workload, efficiency, and evaluation are rooted in this unit… However, many are critical of the ‘credit unit’ due to the arbitrary use of ‘time’ as basis for measuring education attainment.

Generally, the criticism is that student learning varies greatly even among individuals who are taught the same material. Variations are even greater among the various faculty members, departments, topics, schools, colleges, universities… This has become an even greater concern in this era of distance learning and telecommunication. Frustration is particularly high among those involved with transfer of credit among institutions… Unfortunately, the credit hour has become a proxy for student learning…

Credit Hour vs. Competency: According to Celia R. Baker; the credit hour’s clout is weakening, however, with a dawning realization that four years spent in college does not guarantee success at a job. A 2006 study by National Center for Education Statistics show; 69% of college graduates could not perform basic tasks, such as; comparing opposing newspaper editorials or comparing cost per ounce of different foods.

 According to Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa in their book; Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses: When 2,300 students at many four-year colleges took the ‘Collegiate Learning Assessment’ to measure higher-level skills taught at college, 45% didn’t demonstrate significant improvement in learning during the first two years of college and 36% did not demonstrate significant learning over four years of college…

A survey by the Association of American College and Universities show; one-third of employers said ‘no’ when asked if college graduates are well-prepared to succeed in entry-level positions in their companies. And when employers drill down to grades on transcripts when screening job applicants, it’s hard to tell what graduates know… Grade inflation can be blamed for that..

According to the Teachers College Record, in 2008, 43% of all college grades were A’s and in 1961, the number stood at 15%… According to Judith Easton; the idea of increasing competency measures at universities is highly desirable, because ‘seat’ time doesn’t tell everything– it’s not an ‘outcome’ measure... decisions about restructuring outcome measures should rest with colleges and universities, not government… even though credit hours are the basis for the government’s Pell grants to students, which amounts to billions of dollars…

In the article  Curious Birth and Harmful Legacy of the Credit Hour by Amy Laitinen writes: Time-based units were never intended to be a measure of student learning. In the early 1900s, Andrew Carnegie was troubled that most professors made too little money to save for retirement created a free pension system administered by Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. In order for colleges to participate in the program, they had to adopt a standard unit for admissions, which was based on a system used at the high-school level that measured time spent on a subject…

But colleges didn’t stop there. Carnegie’s pension system spurred them to convert their course offerings into time-based units to determine faculty workload thresholds to qualify for free pensions. And so credit hour became the fundamental building block of courses and degree programs in higher education… Unfortunately, it has also become the primary proxy for learning…

The Carnegie Foundation did not intend for this to happen and now it believes it’s time to consider how a revised unit, based on ‘competency’ rather than ‘time’, could improve teaching and learning in high schools, colleges, universities. Theoretically, colleges supplement the credit-hour count with an objective measure of how much students learned: Grades... But it’s hard to reconcile that measure with the research suggesting that nearly two-thirds of provosts and chief academic officers think grade inflation is a serious problem: In 1961, 15% of undergraduate course grades were A’s; today more than 40% are A’s.

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While the stated mission of higher education may be about learning, the research findings on poor learning outcomes and rampant grade inflation, along with the difficulty of credit transfer, tell a different story… Without broader agreement about learning outcomes, credits and the value of degrees will remain opaque. Measuring ‘time’ is easy, but measuring ‘learning’ is hard. However, that doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be done…

Federal policy can help catalyze such efforts by leveraging the government’s authority to use financial aid– a huge incentive for institutions to pay for learning. Today the multibillion-dollar federal financial-aid system runs on the credit hour. And it gets only what it pays for: Time…

As higher education becomes increasingly necessary and expensive, measuring ‘time’ rather than ‘learning’ is a luxury that students, taxpayers, and the nation can no longer afford. While Carnegie’s free money for pensions dried up long ago, the federal government is spending hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars to pay for time-based credits and degrees of dubious value… Paying for what students learn and can do, rather than how or where they spend their time, would go a long way toward providing students and the nation with desperately needed, high-quality degrees and credentials.

In the article Hour by Hour by Paul Fain  writes: An over-reliance on the credit hour, which links the awarding of academic credit to hours of contact between professors and students, has led to many of higher education’s problems… There is very compelling evidence that what we have right now isn’t working… The standard of one credit hour for each hour of faculty-student contact time per week falls short, because the credit hour does not measure learning… Grades are supposed to do that, but plenty of research has identified problems with grade inflation. And even if grades did work, the credit hour still wouldn’t allow flexibility for students to learn at different speeds…

As a result, the credit hour is at the intersection of three of higher education’s thorniest issues: Cost, Time, Quality. However, blowing up the credit hour won’t be easy, in part because it’s so convenient, and reforms need to be both thoughtful and deliberate: Define the credit hour too tightly and innovation would be stifled. Define it too loosely and taxpayers would get taken for a ride… Several colleges have experimented with decoupling college credit from ‘seat’ time using ‘competency-based education’ to challenge status quo, and tie credits to ‘direct assessment’ of student competencies, rather than a traditional credit-hour calculation…

In the article Defense of the Credit Hour by Richard Schur writes: I like the credit hour and I know that I should embrace an educational structure that measures ‘learning’ and not ‘time’. A standard that embraces self-paced learning, experiential learning, competency-based tools, many people argue, is better than one that marks the time students have endured in a class.

Furthermore, the credit-hour standard is expensive to deliver, and inefficient in linking ‘seat’ time to actual ‘learning’; making it impossible for institutions to realize the productivity gains associated with technological advances… But I find myself being quite conservative and traditional on the subject. I want to save the image, if not the reality, of a teacher and class meeting together over a semester, quarter, or trimester to explore a set of questions…

Education takes time and must happen in a particular space, either physical or virtual… I believe, perhaps foolishly, that education is a process, not a destination. Education is not reducible to a set of facts or skills. Rather, it’s about a way of being in the world, a set of habits, which help develop curiosity and wonder… An education is beginning, not an end… My paradigm for teaching comes from Socrates… If we read Socrates carefully, we understand that it’s not learning that he valued, but wisdom and virtue– knowing when to do the right thing, at the right time, for the right reason.

Having the time to think and reflect is not the luxury that many of the critics of the ‘credit hour’ claim it is. From the perspective of the classic liberal-arts tradition, taking the time for deep thought and reflection is what makes a human. To deny our students that experience is to diminish their humanity…

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The higher education model hasn’t changed much in hundreds of years: Academic years are divvied up into semesters, which are made up of courses, for which students earn credits. When students have slogged through enough semesters to earn plenty of credits, they are granted a degree or some sort of credential…

According to Daniel Greenstein; many of today’s students aren’t interested in a classic college experience of dorms and all-nighters. Rather, they need college to be ‘unbundled’, and to be able to integrate it selectively, sometimes a course at a time, into their busy and full lives… Hence, new academic models are emerging that offer the flexibility needed by students whose education occurs in fits and starts.

We need to do a better job preparing students for post-secondary programs, so that they can make informed decisions about which education path is right for them. And, need to more fully explore how to deliver a personalized learning experience to all students– one that is both productive and affordable…

According to Robert W. Mendenhall; credit hour is the coin of the realm, but it’s badly in need of an update… it’s time we measured learning rather than time… we don’t need the credit hour as a pricing measure, financing measure, or even faculty-workload measure… According to Carol A. Twigg; the concept of a credit hour based on ‘seat’ time is a relic… but you must have some kind of a currency that can be traded.. The challenge is to find a way to measure the course content– whether it’s delivered at a distance or in an accelerated format…

According to Mitchell L. Stevens; The credit hour by itself ‘isn’t a measure of quality, it’s about quantity’… At a time when general public is questioning the cost and value of higher education, this could force the sector to measure quality in addition to quantity… But the question of what a credit hour means today, and in future, isn’t going away anytime soon…