4 Reasons Why Credits & Credentials are Killing College

“Killing” is too strong of a word, but credits and credentials are not, nor have they have ever been, the greatest value of a higher education. That  comes from the community, mentors, and time to invest in serious and prolonged study. You don’t need credits or credentials for that to happen.

I’ve been exploring the affordances and limitations of credentials for several years, and while I remain an advocate for emerging credentials like digital badges, the exploration of this topic is also leading me to have a growing concern that a focus on credentials and credits is blinding us to the more important topic of learning. The more college becomes about earning credentials and credits, the more it risks losing a focus upon learning, study and hard work, rich experiences, deep intellectual engagement, the power of a learning community, exploration, and experimentation. Even as more people write about, think about, and even choose alternatives to traditional higher education, there seems to be a a heightened emphasis upon the college degree and diploma.

Here are four reasons why credentials and credits are holding colleges back.

1. People are mistaking credits and credentials with actual learning. 

Imagine that you need to take someone to the emergency room. Just as you are nearing the ER, you see a large sign pointing to the ER. So, you pull over, lean the person against the sign, and breath a sign of relief. Yes, that is an absurd narrative because we all know there is a huge difference between the essence of something and a sign or a symbol for that thing. The same thing is true when it comes to learning, credits and credentials.

Some schools think that the value of their offering resides mainly with their credential. Consider the news about the University of Illinois offering a MOOC pathway toward an MBA. You can actually go through the course experiences for little to no money, but if you want to get the degree, you need to pay about $20,000. In other words, the University of Illinois suggests that the primary offering worthy of payment is not the education itself, but the credential that you get if you hand over the $20,000. And how much extra did it cost them to issue that diploma? Was that really a $20,000 transaction?

Perhaps they don’t realize how wonderfully they’ve set themselves up for a brilliant disruption. They are helping accelerate not only the democratization of higher education, but also the demonetization (both of which I support in various forms). Consider the implications if there really is no difference between two people’s learning and accomplishments other than the fact that one paid $20,000 and got a diploma, and the other didn’t pay the money or get the piece of paper. They both learned the same amount. The public is smart enough to follow this to its logical conclusion.

At the same time, we have some advocates of competency-based education championing this new model because it can decrease the cost of a degree and speed the time to completion. Those are admirable in many instances. Yet, the real power behind CBE is an education that leads to true (and real-world tested) competency. It doesn’t have to do with the credential.

2. Organizations outside of formal education, free from credentials and regionally accredited credentials, have more freedom to innovative.

In other words, the regulations tied to being a credit and credential issuing organization prevent many higher education organizations from keeping up with some of the most democratizing (and sometimes demonetizing) innovations in higher education. Yes, I am referring to organizations like Udemy, Lynda.com, and General Assembly. I’m also thinking of brilliant but simple innovations like Experience Institute, an organization focused upon providing people with a series of rich apprenticeship experiences as “core courses” in program that is completely separate from college credits or credentials. Where is the value? It is in the experiences and expertise nurtured amid these apprenticeships. They also introduce people to the power of a much more self-directed learning experience.

As much as some regional accreditors shout that they are pro-innovation, they continue to come up with new regulations that put regionally accredited institutions at a huge disadvantage in this increasingly connected world. As an example, look at the confusion and struggle between the US Department of Education and regional accrediting bodies as they try to create policies and regulations around developments like competency-based education, blended learning, adaptive learning, self-directed learning and experiential education. They consistently make up policies based upon constructs that are sometimes decades old. Without realizing it, their regulations sometimes restrict best and promising practices more than amplify or ensure them.

3. People are beginning to have a Wizard of Oz discovery that there is nothing inherently magical about regionally accredited higher education institutions. They are not full of wizards with secret skills and knowledge only accessible through those institutions.

Give me 10-20 really gifted teacher/facilitators/experts in various areas, put them in a space with a group of willing learners, add the necessary fund and resources, and you can have just as impactful of a learning experience as what happens for many in the pursuit of their college degrees. In other words, there is nothing magical about the formal credentials of the instructors, whether it is a regionally accredited institution, or whether they issue credentials and credentials. You can design alternate learning communities with comparable or better results and for less money. Much of the startup world knows this and I have no doubt that future startups will amplify this point in powerful and disruptive ways.

4. We are on the verge of a self-directed learning revolution.

Browse my blog and you’ll find plenty of predictions. At one point or another, I’ve argued that digital badges, open education, and competency-based education are each going to change education as we know it. I stand by those. However, the greatest disruption to institutions that believe credits and credentials are their prime offering is an increasingly informed population. We’ve experienced the democratization of much knowledge and information over the past decades. Now some of the greatest innovations are coming around finding ways to help people help themselves by tapping into all the knowledge and people in a connected world. This is the brilliance behind Sugata Mitra’s work on self-organized learning environments and the school in the cloud, not to mention the world of social media. I contend that this is also why we are seeing such an increase in the number of K-12 schools experimenting with more self-directed learning contexts. Self-directed learning is the differentiating literacy of the late 21st cent 22nd centuries. Put increasingly self-directed learners together and you get a powerful grassroots community of learners. The learning happening in such communities is already equaling or surpassing what happens in some credit-based programs leading to regionally accredited credentials. Once these eduhackers figure out how to truly democratize the credential or establish and equally valued alternative, they will be a true force in the modern educational landscape.

Credits and credentials are widely recognized and trusted, and there is something to be said for trust. Yet, if we allow ourselves to notice the different strands of innovation today, and if we follow them into the future; it is not difficult to see that traditional notions of these two conventions are a potential deterrent to a wise, competent, and confident populace.  Any organization that makes credits and credentials their primary sources of nourishment will eventually find itself struggling for survival.

Which Way? Direct Assessment Drive or Carnegie Unit Court?

CBE or DII’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.

Our dream of personalizedYet, 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.

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.