The Slow Death of the Carnegie Unit & the Future of Education

The Carnegie Unit is yet another 19th and early 20th century industrial revolution educational technology that has a questionable future.  It may well be that certain emerging innovations will lead to the death of this system.  Consider that the Carnegie Unit preceded the contemporary concept of learning objectives, outcomes, or standards (which have their own potential forthcoming disruptions). Nonetheless, with the first use of measurable learning objectives came the first signs that the Carnegie Unit has an uncertain future.  To understand this, allow me to tell a short story about yet another historical educational technology, the learning objective.

There is a core value, an embedded bias, to learning objectives.  They do not value how much time a learner spends on a subject, how much time one spends in class, how one goes about learning the intended knowledge and skills or even why one learns.  Learning objectives are single-mindedly concerned about whether one reached the stated objective. Do you know it? Can you do it? Can you demonstrate that you know it or can do it?  That is the core value of the learning objective (there is a second embedded value, but I will save that for another article).

However, when the learning objective first came on the scene, it did not replace the Carnegie Unit, even though the two failed to share the same core value.  The Carnegie Unit has the value of time, how much one dedicates a given class. It has nothing to say about what one does or does not know.  In fact, the Carnegie Unit was originally married to the concept of a course, discreet classes that collectively constitute one’s formal education in many schooling systems. While different numbers have been used, an example is how we get to the idea of what makes up a 3-credit hour college course. A typical semester is often about 15 weeks long. For a 3-credit course, that means 3 hours of course time each week with double that time intended for homework. That means 9 hours a week for 15 week, totaling 135 hours. That is the time expected for a 3-credit course. To this day, accredited colleges and Universities need to show how they measure what is worth a certain amount of credits, and the answer is still largely determined by calculating the hours spent on the course. Note that this has nothing to do with what the person has learned.  That is why the marriage between the learning objective and the course was doomed from the beginning. Their fundamental core values did not align.  They had irreconcilable differences.

Freed from the course and potentially the Carnegie Unit, the learning objective found a kindred spirit withe another educational technology know as competency-based education. These two share the same core value.  It is just that the competency has more real world experience, while the objective is a bit of an academic…having been married to the course for so many years.  And yet, a learning objective freed from a course and placed in the real world is largely inseparable from a competency. They have their differences, but their strong shared values are more than enough to overcome any such differences.  And so the two have discovered one another, and are likely to find many years of happy union. At least that is what the learning objective thinks.  What he does not know is that his new partner is slowly poisoning him.  Now that he is removed from the course, his days are numbered.

Imagine earning a degree without having to take a single course, without having to sit through one class session.  This is possible with a competency-based model.  While this is nothing new to certain degrees by research outside of the United States, it is a largely foreign concept to most in US higher education. Consider Western Governors University, Southern New Hampshire University, and most recently the University of Wisconsin System Flexible Option. They are all examples of a developing trend toward competency-based higher education in the United States. While the regional accrediting bodies along with the federal government continue to cling to the Carnegie Unit in the United States, that is likely to change.  For now, schools like these three must document how their new models might potentially translate into the language of Carnegie Units, but that will change within the next decade.  As it stands, these competency-based programs allow one to progress through a “degree” by demonstrating competencies and not by competing courses. The models at each of the three schools have their differences. However, a true competency-based model would not even accept course credit as evidence of meeting a competency for a program.  Courses do not have meaning in this new world of competencies.  As with learning objectives, what matters is whether you can provide demonstrable evidence…in this case evidence that you met the required competencies.

Consider a MBA program that bestows the degree once you demonstrate your ability with the twelve program competencies.  The school may create specific measures for determining that you meet a given competency.  This could be performance on a more traditional test, a portfolio, or completion of some sort of authentic assessment (maybe successful completion of a business simulation, creation of a business plan that meets certain established criteria, or development of a marketing mix for a real or simulated business).

It is with these assessments that the competency-based models of today still have ample room for improvement. Many still cling to the vocabulary and constructs of the days when they were embedded within courses, and they tend to think that their value still depends upon the institution pre-determining the specific assessments. That makes things easier to measure.

And yet, this model has already abandoned the course, and it can soon abandon many other trapping of traditional schooling. This could, in fact, serve as a connection between the growing movement of self-directed unschoolers and organized schooling.  Mix self-directed unschooling with competency-based education and we get an educational model that is entirely driven by the same core value that emerged with the birth of the learning objective.  It doesn’t matter how much or how little time you spent on it. It is not about time on task. It is about whether you can provide evidence of what you know and what you can do. Even if that is not what always gets one a job in some situations today, it is what leads one to thrive and excel in work and avocations. This reveals the fatal flaw of the Carnegie Unit.  It has nothing to say about competence and confidence of the learner, and these are the words that will rule in the future of education.

2 thoughts on “The Slow Death of the Carnegie Unit & the Future of Education

  1. Thomas Okon (@thomasjokon)

    Great insight as always Dr Bull. I did not know of the Carnegie unit, but now understand this antiquated idea of “seat time”. Mastery or assessed competency in a subject would certainly do away with “Letter Grades”

  2. Mary Hilgendorf

    Excellent analysis! I wholeheartedly agree. We are seeing the transitions away from the Carnegie factory model in professional certifications, but the traditional liberal arts machines will be difficult to change. Hmm… Quite similar to transitions away from business factory models.

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