Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Credit For Actually Learning—Not Time In Class—Is Shaking Up Higher Education

By Ben Schiller

The credit hour is the standard way of measuring achievement in U.S. higher education. It's the unit students have to accumulate before they can graduate. It's used in assessments of how much to pay faculty. It's an organizing force on campus and in relations between institutions. It's a currency that everyone understands—but also something that an increasing number of people criticize. Are students really learning or time-serving? Does making everyone learn at the same pace hold back students who could learn more quickly, and does the credit hour-system raise costs unnecessarily?

In its place, a growing number of institutions are developing courses based on "competency"—or what students actually learn—rather than the number of hours they put in. Competency-based education (CBE) is a hot topic among policy-makers, foundations, and colleges because it has the potential to lower costs, broaden access to education, and perhaps raise standards. But, as two new reports point out, CBE isn't a perfect solution. In some cases, it may be more expensive than the traditional model, and, importantly, it's still unclear what could replace the credit hour as a universal unit.

The first report comes from the American Enterprise Institute and looks at the current "landscape" of CBE. Author Robert Kelchen identifies 34 colleges offering some form of CBE. Not all of those publish enrollment data, but, of the nine that do, he counts a total of 140,000 undergraduates and 57,000 graduate students on CBE programs currently.

CBE seems to open up colleges to older people. 9 out of 10 of the students Kelchen found are over 25 years old. About half are studying part-time, presumably because they also have to work and/or look after families. The programs themselves take different forms. Some grant credit based on backwards-looking assessments of learning ("prior learning assessments"), some just on the assessments of whether students have mastered new material.

The institutions include Alverno College, in Milwaukee, George Mason University, the Kentucky Community and Technical College System, and the University of Wisconsin, which offers "Flex Option" degrees (we wrote an in-depth post about that program here). It gives three months of "all you can eat" access, allowing students to complete as many competency tests as they like. The flat-rate cost is $2,250. Other programs charge for packages of credits, plus fees for exams and assessments.

Kelchen argues that CBE is not necessarily cheaper than traditional degrees, partly because many programs don't offer federal aid. Some students could get Pell grants for standard degrees, for example.  So, it would be a disadvantage taking CBE courses. Or, depending on their level of preparation, motivation and the amount of time they have, students may not be able to complete "all-you-can-eat" courses quickly enough to make the cost worthwhile. It's like a gym membership: how expensive it is depends on how often you go?

The more fundamental question is how to assess the quality of CBE teaching and how to replace the credit hour. That's the subject of another report from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching (CFAT). It concedes that the credit hour is problematic because it "discourages educators from examining more closely students’ strengths and weaknesses" and "masks the quality of student learning." But it also notes that the credit hour ensures students receive consistent amounts of teaching time, plays a vital role in the administrative functioning of higher education, and "makes possible innumerable exchanges and interconnections among institutions."

The credit hour, in fact, was never designed for its current role. It was invented by the philanthropist Andrew Carnegie a century ago—and named the Carnegie Unit—as a way to pay faculty pensions. It wasn't meant as a proxy for what students learned; that's what tests and exams are for. The report says throwing out credit hours isn't a panacea, and it's surely right. After all, there are lots of reasons why colleges fail to teach students properly, why students don't bother learning, and why employers say graduates are unprepared. It isn't all linked to the credit-hour, despite what some suggest (this is a good example of the credit hour critique).

CFAT says we should move slowly, in case we throw out the good with the bad. "American education has a long history of promising reform ideas that have failed to achieve their intended outcomes," it says. "It is one thing to have good ideas for change; it is another to execute effectively and efficiently in our large, complex educational systems."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

When comparing the credit hour unit to the competency based learning unit, it really seems as if they can both exist in any college. For instance, older and more motivated students can take competency based classes in order to save time and get the most bang for their education buck. On the other hand, traditional college students can take credit hour classes. This would hold especially true for student looking to move onto graduate school where a specified number of credit hours in particular classes are required for admission.

In addition to this, competency based education could alter how different students attack the coursework for their major. At my undergraduate institution, each class taken, regardless of the subject, was the equivalent of four credit hours. This was especially frustrating for STEM students as students would spend much more time focusing on classes such as organic chemistry or physics as opposed to an English or Public Speaking class. Despite the drastic difference in the amount of time allotted to coursework between these different subjects, students receive the same amount of credit for their efforts. While some schools allocate more credit hours to classes with heavy workloads, colleges would be unable to be successful if they adopted a 100% competency based learning system.

Also, I feel that Master’s programs would benefit from highly structured competency based learning system as students could complete as much or as little of their coursework as they want. Therefore, Master’s degrees could still be quickly attainable for full time students, yet be completed at a reasonable amount of time for part time students who are holding down jobs. On the contrary, I do not think that PhD., M.D., and law school programs would be not conducive to a lot of competency based learning. It seems that these students are already working at their maximum capacity and giving them the option save time and money would be a bad option to allow. Most of these students would try to take on more and either burnout or focus more on simply retaining knowledge rather than learning how to apply new material in a meaningful and practical way.