I’m a critic of the Carnegie Unit as a soon-to-be outdated educational technology. I’m also outspoken about the dangers of engaging in educational changes that do not take into account the current systems. It is not wise or helpful for a home renovator to start tearing down walls without first determining whether they are load-bearing, if there is plumbing to consider, not to mention electricity. It also helps to have viable plans for a better design. The same is true in education systems. Despite my critique, the credit hour is an integrated part of higher education. Changing it impacts everything from financial aid to athletic eligibility, teaching load (and pay) to how tuition is often calculated. As such, I appreciate the thought-provoking questions provided in the recently published, The Currency of Higher Education: Credits and Competencies, a 2015 report from the American Council on Education and Blackboard. This report outlines several critiques of the credit hour while also offering substantive considerations for those who might opt to enact alternatives.
I am hopeful that we can continue this valuable conversation about alternatives to the credit hour system while keeping in mind a few cautions.
1. This need not be an either/or debate.
There are many applications of competency-based education that use credit hours. There are also examples of education that do not use credit hours, but they are also not interested in competency-based education. In the broader conversation, there is a risk of confusing direct assessment with competency-based education. I’ve not seem a direct assessment program without a focus upon CBE, but I’ve seen plenty of forward-thinking CBE approaches that are not direct assessment. Concordia University Wisconsin’s M.S. built around competency-based badges with credit equivalency is one such example. By stepping back from the either/or approach, we may find promising practices that minimize limitations of the credit hour system while not breaking it. With that said, I do expect a time in the future when the credit hour as we know it will be abandoned, or where most of the educational innovations take place beyond the reach of the Carnegie Unit police.
2. Beware of misrepresenting what takes place in the dominant credit-hour system.
While I’m not convinced that the authors of the previously mentioned report intended it this way, there is a danger in the credit hour versus competency-based education contrast. In that report, the authors wrote:
One of the issues that often comes up in the debates over credit hour-based learning and competency-based learning concerns validation of learning achievements. Assuming both models employ assessments of student learning and achievement, the controversy is really about what is being assessed in each instance. To put it most boldly, what is important to validate in a student’s learning experience – the amount of time put into a chunk of instruction and the student’s ability to reiterate what was contained in that instruction, or mastery of a competency that is demonstrated by the student’s ability to apply it in a given situation? p. 10
Notice the contrast in this paragraph. The credit-hour environment it alluded to as one where student learning is “validated” by measuring the time of the instruction and having students restate what was included in that instruction. Competency-based education is represented as validating student learning by requiring students to demonstrate mastery. It seems to characterize the credit-hour system as inherently against deep learning. The subsequent paragraphs in the report soften the above quote, acknowledging that few would accept such a characterization of assessment in a credit-hour framework. However, such statements about the Carnegie Unit framework remain common, and there is a danger of creating a straw man. While the credit hour system has plenty of flaws and limitations, describing it in this way risks unintentionally insulting a massive number of committed and effective faculty who take great interest in student mastery and helping students achieve high levels of learning (even if these faculty may not be formal proponents of mastery learning or competency-based education). As such, there is an important distinction between the universal usage of the Carnegie Unit and the true priorities and values of educators in that system. Most faculty today do not use the credit hour as the primary measure of learning, even as they work within that system. In fact, my guess is that most faculty don’t even know about many of the existing regulations from regional accreditors or the federal government that are tied to the credit hour.
In my writing about the limitation of the letter grade system, I challenge people to try the syllabus experiment. Find a syllabus, review the list of graded assignments and assessments (as well as where they are placed during a given course), look at how assignments are weighted, and then consider whether an “A” in that course represents mastery of the stated course objectives or something else. Also consider whether it is possible to get a “D” or “F” while learning a great deal in the course.
It is an eye-opening exercise for many, but there is an unfairness about it. I am asking people to evaluate a course syllabus using an outcome-based, mastery learning, or competency-based approach. Yet, that is not how many (perhaps even the majority of) faculty think about their courses. Instead, they design what they consider to be robust, rigorous, challenging assignments and exercises. A twenty-page essay on a student-selected topic about the French Revolution may or may not provide evidence that students mastered explicit competencies or course objectives, but there is a good chance that it does provide evidence of substantive student learning and deep thinking…at least if the student writes a good paper. The same could be said for a robust collection of essay questions on a mid-term exam. This leads to a third caution.
3. Beware of making efficiency, evidence, scalability and transferability the core values of worthy education.
These are words that come up often in conversations among advocates of competency-based education (including myself). I’ve used some of these words in my own critique of the letter grade system. For example, I argue that an “A” at one school is not equal to an “A” from the same course in another school. That is a limitation of the current system. Any solution to that problem, however, requires that instructors, programs, and Universities give up some of their autonomy; as has already been done in programs leading toward licensure or culminating in a test for entrance into the profession. It demands that equal standards and comparable measures of student learning be used across contexts. That is one of the proposed benefits of a CBE approach – that it is one step closer to such a system.
This is a massive philosophical shift. Are we ready for it? Do we collectively agree that higher education institutions should have such a top-down, industrial model for academic standards and evidence of student learning? The instructional designer in me is compelled to conduct an instructional analysis, task analysis, and set up performance objectives. At the same time, my humanities proclivities respond with a warning against radical reductionist approaches to education that ignore the possibility that the whole is greater than the sum of its discernible or easily measurable parts. We are far from having a shared vision about such things.
Yet, it might be that competency-based education is gaining traction because society as whole is becoming more comfortable with such a future, a future where universal standards are set for all or most institutions…which is only a step away from then developing a more universal means of measuring student achievement of those standards. Evidence of this shift is found in the growing list of of state, national and other standards for various professions, disciplines and content areas. It is also a possibility because an emerging and next generation of personalized and adaptive technologies depend, in part, upon having such a system in place. Oddly, our dream of personalized and individualized services could be what drives us to more universal standards, measures, and direct assessment approaches.
A Few Final Thoughts
What are the core values that we want to drive, shape and inform education of the future? Are we juxtaposing direct assessment CBE models and the Carnegie Unit because we believe that direct assessment is a superior model for widespread use across higher education. Or, are we championing it as a valid alternative, useful in some contexts, less so in others?
I am a consistent advocate for choice in education. Part of the strength in the US education system exists in its diversity of aims, methods, strategies and philosophies. We see this on the K-12 and higher education levels. There are over 4500 degree-granting institutions in the United States, and they represent a myriad of visions for eduction, sometimes dozens of visions within the same institution. Common disciplines and professions represented in these 4500 institutions have shared standards, goals, values, and philosophies; but even within a discipline we find many schools of thought. There are formal and informal education standards than transcend institutions, but there remain many distinctions. There are also professional organizations and associations that bind professionals and scholars across institutions. As such, the commonalities and distinctions in modern American higher education create a wonderfully complex mass of Venn diagrams. My vision for CBE is not to clean up this mass of Venn diagrams. I want to add to it. It lobby for CBE competing with traditional and other future models, some that don’t even make use of conventional higher education institutions. The true test will be the extent to which a given institution meets the needs of a population well enough to keep it viable.