Carnegie eyes replacing Carnegie unit

The Carnegie Unit, which measures learning based on time in class rather than actual learning, may be on the way out. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, which developed the measure in 1906, will study ways to measure competency using a $460,000 Hewlett Foundation grant.

. . . the unit is a gauge of the amount of time a student has studied a subject. For example, a total of 120 hours in one subject, meeting four or five times a week for 40 to 60 minutes, for 36 to 40 weeks each year earns the student one “unit” of high school credit.

The Carnegie Unit was developed to push for higher standards, not to measure learning, says researcher Elena Silva.  “It is not a good universal measure for student progress. … We are curious to know how it might be changed and more aligned with better, richer tools for measurement.”

It’s about time to rethink the credit hour, writes Matt Reed, a community college administrator.

It’s now normal for degree programs to specify student learning outcomes, and to be able to measure them. That’s huge.

Online education has thrown the whole concept of “seat time” into question, too. Since most online instruction is asynchronous anyway, it’s becoming harder to say with a straight face that learning has to happen in 75 minute chunks.

Now, MOOCs are starting to raise issues about the notion of “credit” itself, even independent of the “hour” part.

. . . At the same time, the federal financial aid programs are actually getting more persnickety about the most backward-looking elements of the credit hour, in response mostly to abuses in the for-profit sector.

Financial aid and faculty contracts are based on credit hours, at least in part, Reed writes. Figuring out an alternative will require a lot of work. So let’s get started.

What’s a credit worth?

Academic credits mean whatever a college says they mean, notes the Chronicle of Higher Education in a subscriber-only story.

A weeklong service project in the Dominican Republic: 1 credit. An electromagnetic-energy lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology: 1 credit. A summer internship in fashion: 1 credit. A training program in “meeting facilitation” at McDonald’s Hamburger University: 1 credit.

Such designations, based more or less on time, depend on institutional discretion. No Fort Knox backs the currency of credit.

That makes it very tough for community college students hoping to transfer credits, notes the Chronicle. For example, a student who passed Technical Mathematics I at Bronx Community College would get anywhere from zero to four credits at City University of New York’s 11 senior colleges. At some colleges, the student could fulfill math requirements with Technical Math I; at others, the course would count only as an elective.

The U.S. Education Department is defining the credit hour to make sure colleges don’t hand out easy credits to qualify students for federal loans. But it’s not easy to say how much work is worth a credit, especially with the expansion of online learning.

The new definition starts with the standard Carnegie Unit definition based on “seat time” and study time, Inside Higher Ed explains.

The rules would define a credit hour as “one hour of classroom or direct faculty instruction and a minimum of two hours of out of class student work each week for approximately fifteen weeks for one semester or trimester hour of credit,” or equivalent amounts of actual instruction for quarters or other time periods.

The college can establish “reasonable equivalencies” based on “intended learning outcomes.” What’s reasonable? What’s equivalent? Till now, faculty members have decided this.

Both non-profit and for-profit colleges opposed the credit-hour definition in public comments, notes Inside Higher Ed. In a letter (pdf), the American Council on Education called the proposal “misguided” and warned of  “serious unintended consequences.”

As drafted, the proposal threatens to impose a rigid, one-size-fits-all federal definition on institutions and puts in place a structure that invites inappropriate federal intrusion into areas of academic decision-making.

The rule could force for-profit colleges to change their schedules, suggests the Chronicle in a second subscriber-only story. Flexible scheduling designed for working adults is a “huge financial boon to the colleges.”