Posted by: clholoman | January 21, 2013

Giving Credit Where Credit is Due

It is a cliché to say that higher education is facing dramatic change. They probably said that when Plato took over from Socrates. While I believe (without in any way being overwhelmingly confident) that the general contours of the American system of higher education will be much the same in the short-to-medium run, many parts of the landscape will change dramatically. Some of these tectonic shifts are already occurring: decreased funding, sometimes sharply, for the publics; a rapidly changing demographic of incoming students (with perhaps significant remedial needs due to well-intended policy choices); increased oversight by regulators at all levels. etc.

One of the next battlegrounds, and one that may be somewhat less familiar to those outside higher ed, is the credit hour. Born out of a need to standardize faculty workload for pension purposes, the credit hour, based on “Carnegie units” of student work, became arguably the cornerstone of the entire American system of higher ed. And it had beneficial consequences (apart from the flourishing of TIAA-CREF!): it provided “portability” of education. Over time, however, the credit hour became unmoored from any underlying standard. A class was worth three credits because that’s what we said it was worth. (This is a bit overstated. Depending on location, institutions might be held, at least nominally, to very specific standards by either state regulators or regional accreditors. NY State educational law, for example, clearly specifies the definition, including 2 hours of outside work for every hour of in-class time. And the Dept. of Ed talks al a lot about  “defending the integrity of the credit hour.” What the practical results of all this are is questionable.)

Now, given the way technology has altered the concept of “seat time” and a perceived (and, one must admit, sometimes (often?) real) disconnect between credits earned and knowledge (or more accurately skills) gained, the credit hour is under attack. This article is a very nice summary (and gives me a chance to note the presence of the higher ed page of the New America Foundation over in the blogroll on the right.) This cuts to the heart, not of what we do, but how we do it. I heard it put recently “in the past, time was fixed (a semester) and knowledge attained was flexible. Now knowledge is fixed and time to acquire it is flexible.”

But does this emphasis on “competency based education” undermine the values and outcomes of a liberal arts education that we cherish and, indeed, employers routinely note as their most desired skills for new workers? I don’t think so, necessarily, but there’s enough there to cause some squirming. (And look! It brings us back to the title of this whole blog!)

This raises lots more questions to discuss.



  1. Excellent issue to discuss, particularly for those of us wrestling with the question of how much work needs to be assigned in online courses to make them worth the same number of credit hours earned during the same course offered in the classroom. Should credit be given for the time involved, the work produced, or the skills/knowledge gained? Needs thought.

  2. […] higher ed (see C. Christensen’s book and subsequent debate) As I have written about before (here, for example, but really almost any entry tagged “Education) the trick is knowing what needs […]

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