More Cracks in the Credit Hour

Excerpt from Paul Fain's article.

The foundation that created the credit hour in 1906 now wants to rethink it, with a shift that might help competency-based higher education.

The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching on Tuesday announced that it would use a $460,000 grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation to study the Carnegie Unit, which forms the basis of a time-based measurement of student learning. The credit hour calls for one credit per hour of faculty instruction and two hours of homework, on a weekly basis, over a 15-week semester.

A virtual gold standard in higher education, the credit hour is deeply ingrained as a measuring stick for academic quality, accreditation and access to federal financial aid.

But it is viewed by many as outdated and inadequate as a measure for student learning. Critics say the focus on “seat time” has stymied progress on promising approaches like online programs that are self-paced and competency-based -- where students earn credits for proving what they know, not for how long they spent on course material.

For example, a recent report from the New America Foundation and Education Sector described the credit hour’s deficiencies and linked it to several of higher education’s problems, such as inefficiency in the transfer of credit between institutions, which can waste students’ time and money.

The report noted that the Carnegie Foundation did not intend for its definition of the credit hour to be used as a yardstick for learning, having originally created the unit to help professors earn pensions. The foundation has long warned about problems arising from an overreliance on the standard, and it said those issues have become more urgent.

“As expectations for schools and students have risen dramatically and technology has revealed the potential of personalized learning, the Carnegie Foundation now believes it is time to consider how a revised unit, based on competency rather than time, could improve teaching and learning in high schools, colleges and universities,” the foundation said in a written statement.

Thomas Toch, a senior managing partner at Carnegie, said the credit hour “seems increasingly antiquated” due to advances in technology and emerging methods of content delivery.

Accreditors and the U.S. Department of Education are working through how to regulate institutions that want to move beyond the credit hour. It’s unclear how much the Carnegie Foundation’s new tack might help them in those efforts, but it probably won’t hurt...