It’s time for a smarter (and cheaper) sheepskin

High-tech start-ups are retooling college instruction, writes venture capitalist Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn, in The New Republic. We need to “make certification faster, cheaper and more effective too,” he writes.

. . . a diploma is essentially a communications device that signals a person’s readiness for certain jobs.

But unfortunately it’s a dumb, static communication device with roots in the 12th century.

We need to . . .  turn it into a richer, updateable, more connected record of a person’s skills, expertise, and experience. And then we need to take that record and make it part of a fully networked certification platform.

There’s a lot more to college than earning a diploma, responds Michael Gibson, who works for the anti-college Thief Foundation, in Forbes. To lower the debt to party ratio, we need to consider “all the friendships formed at school, the esprit de campus, all the networks.” What about beer pong?

College consists of: the clock tower, the stadium, the frat/sorority house and the admissions office, Gibson writes.

Taken together this is like an awful cable TV package. To get HBO, you also need to pay high prices for all those unwatchable stations like the Hallmark Channel. The future of higher education will involve unbundling this package and offering cheaper, higher quality substitutes.

The clock tower represents the amount of time spent studying a subject.

 Classes are measured in hours per week; exams are given in hour length chunks; and students need some requisite number of hours in any subject to signal mastery. It is remarkable that we still use the hour as a substitute measure for learning to this day.

. . .  we are on the cusp of having the technology to unbundle and decentralize this piece of the college puzzle. Coursera, Udacity, and other massively open online courses are only getting started in their effort to demolish the clock tower and provide the customized certification Reid Hoffman describes. What the fireplace, another medieval invention, is to the cold, the clock tower is to learning: proximity used to matter. And now it doesn’t. Central heating is better.

The stadium represents the tribal experience, which is very important to alumni. The frat house represents the friendships that lead to future networking. The admissions office confers status. These will be harder to replace than the clock tower, writes Gibson.

In the near future, the residential college experience will become a luxury item, I predict. Most people will decide it makes more sense to hang out with their friends, play beer pong, root for a professional football team and earn a low-cost career credential.

Credits without hours?

There’s a growing wave of enthusiasm for degrees based on competency rather than credit hours. Echoing Sherman Dorn, Matt Reed asks whether high ed should just drop the “hours” from “credit hours.” His answer:  Because then “credits” could mean anything or nothing.

For-profit providers have an incentive to inflate credits, writes Reed, who’s worked in the for-profit sector.

In my DeVry days, we were careful with the weekend program — which was specifically geared at working adults — to keep the number of classroom hours congruent with the requirements for the number of credits given, even when it became inconvenient.  The idea was to avoid the suspicion that fell upon certain competitors, who made a habit of awarding outsize numbers of credits for various courses to both make it easier for students to complete programs and to keep their own labor costs down.

. . . If we just declare that credits mean whatever a given provider says they mean, then there’s no basis for denying federal funding or regional accreditation to a college that awards twelve credits for a three-hour class and a paper.  And now that many of those classes are online — in which the entire conceit of “seat time” becomes vaporous — there would be nothing at all to put the brakes on a given college twisting “credits” to mean whatever is convenient at the time.

The “credit hour” was at least based on something, even though it was the wrong thing, he writes.

Competencies require a reliable way to document that students have acquired the skills they claim. That’s not simple. Southern New Hampshire University’s competency-based College for America — the first to receive approval for federal financial aid —  doesn’t accept transfer credits. That doesn’t answer the question: How will a student transfer from a competency-based college to a credit-based one?

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.

Competency credentials ‘blow up’ the credit hour

Southern New Hampshire University plans a $5,000 online, competency-based associate degree that would “blow up the credit hour — the connection between college credit and the time students spend learning,” reports Inside Higher Ed. A regional accreditor has approved the university’s “direct assessment” method. The university will apply for federal approval to qualify students for federal aid.

In competency-based models, students demonstrate their learning through assessments, notes Inside Higher Ed. “If the tests lack rigor and a link to real competencies, this approach starts looking like cash for credits.”

Southern New Hampshire’s “College for America” will start with an associate degree in general studies and add competency-based bachelor’s degree programs.

The university will assess 120 competencies for the associate degree. Lumina’s Degree Qualifications Profile, which attempts to define what degree holders should know and be able to do, served as the basis for defining those competencies, along with the university’s general education goals. Other sources were used as well, like the U.S. Department of Labor’s competency pyramids.

Competencies are broken into 20 distinct “task families,” which are then divided into three task levels. For example, the “using business tools” family includes tasks like “can write a business memo,” “can use a spreadsheet to perform a variety of calculations” and “can use logic, reasoning and analysis to address a business problem.”

When students pass tests on the competencies within a family, “they will be deemed to have the knowledge and skills necessary to pass a 100- or 200- level, three-credit course,” according to the university.

The university is partnering with large employers, including ConAgra Foods and the City of Memphis, which will steer workers to the university’s College for America.

Twenty other colleges and universities are working with Western Governors University — also online and competency-based — on degree programs that will let students earn relatively low-cost degrees at their own pace and in their own homes.  Competency-based programs are expanding, according to a Lumina report.

Report: Give credit for learning, not time

It’s time to measure learning, not “seat time,” concludes a new report, Cracking the Credit Hour by the New America Foundation. The credit hour is outdated, argues Amy Laitinen.

Colleges often reject credits earned elsewhere, a huge waste of time and money for the 59 percent of students who attend two or more schools.

Seat time assumes a “traditional” student who lives and studies on campus, yet only 14 percent of undergraduates attend full time and live on campus. Meanwhile, more students are taking online courses that let them move at their own pace.

 While some students earn credits for little more than sitting in class, millions of professionals who have acquired college-level learning on the job have no way to get credit for their learning.

. . .  students who earn credit through programs that assess and award credit for things they already know are more likely to stay in and complete college than those who don’t.

The federal student aid program’s reliance on credit hours has stifled innovation, the report argues. Many “believe that their safest bet, if they want to keep access to federal financial aid, is to do what they have always done: use time to determine credits.”

The report recommends changes in federal policy, such as adopting Western Governors University’s competency-based model for awarding credits. This should “be the norm,” said Education Secretary Arne Duncan. In addition, the report urges federal experiments with learning-based financial aid, such as aid for credits earned using Prior Learning Assessments or outcomes-based financial aid. Finally, direct assessment of student learning is permitted under the Higher Education Act but has never been used, Laitinen notes.

“In an era when college degrees are simultaneously becoming more important and more expensive, students and taxpayers can no longer afford to pay for time and little or no evidence of learning,” the report concludes.

More degrees for the dollar?

Productivity push could hurt community colleges in U.S. News, by me, looks at how the push to control college costs could affect community colleges, which are strong on affordability but weak on productivity or dollars-per-degree.

In National Journal’s college cost containment discussion, Lumina Foundation‘s Jamie Merisotis calls for “productivity improvement” to increase “the number of high-quality degrees and certificates produced, at lower costs per degree awarded, while improving access and equity for the least well-served populations.”

That will require rethinking the entire system of grants and loans, improving data analysis and changing from a seat-time system “to one based on learning,” Merisotis writes.


ACE protests seat-time credit rule

The Education Department’s definition of a credit hour — one hour in class and two hours studying — should be rescinded, charges the American Council on Education in a letter (pdf) to Secretary Arne Duncan signed by representatives of 72 organizations.

With this language, the Department of Education has federalized a basic academic concept and, at the same time, developed a complex, ambiguous and unworkable definition.

. . . with little evidence of a problem and no evidence that Congress wants the federal government to intervene in this area, the department intends to use accreditors to extend federal authority over academic decision-making on local campuses.

The federal definition measures “seat time,” ACE complains. In addition, colleges and universities are supposed to come up with ways to measure innovative learning models, such as online classes or service learning, but that’s where “ambiguous” and “unworkable” come in.

Complying with the new rule will be time-consuming and burdensome, ACE argues.

The Education Department hopes to prevent institutions from offering inflated credits to keep students eligible for federal loans.

Via Washington Monthly’s College Guide.

Measure or perish

Measure or Perish, writes Kevin Carey of Education Sector in The Chronicle of Higher Education.  Our higher-education system “refuses to consistently measure how much students learn,” Carey writes.

As a result, students have trouble transferring credits.

Credit devaluation, which wastes enormous amounts of time, money, and credentialed learning every year, is rooted in mistrust. Because colleges don’t know what students in other colleges learned, they’re reluctant to give foreign courses their imprimaturs.

It’s easy to exploit the federal financial-aid system for profit by inflating credits. In an attempt to stop this, the U.S. Education Department proposes to use classroom time to define the number of credits a class is worth.

Nearly a third of all college students took online courses last year. Why would anyone define credits in terms of seat time when, increasingly, there are no seats and no fixed learning time? Because they have no other basis for doing so.

Without a way to tell how much students are learning, higher education quality is defined by U.S. News & World Report, Carey writes.

Faculty cultures and incentive regimes that systematically devalue teaching in favor of research are allowed to persist because there is no basis for fixing them and no irrefutable evidence of how much students are being shortchanged.

Academics resist measuring learning, seeing possible assessments “as either gross violations of institutional autonomy or as so crude and imperfect that they require further refinement and study, lasting approximately forever,” Carey writes.

Meanwhile, accreditation has lost credibility. The U.S. Education Department’s “gainful employment” regulations for career colleges defines learning in “purely economic terms, comparing students’ postgraduate earnings with their debt.” How long before that spreads from vocational programs to the rest of higher education?

New psychometric instruments will puncture “the myth that everyone with a college degree actually learned something,” Carey predicts.

The real debate shouldn’t be about whether we need a measuring stick for higher education. We need a debate about who gets to design the stick, who owns it, and who decides how it will be used. If higher education has the courage to take responsibility for honestly assessing student learning and for publishing the results, the measuring stick will be a tool. If it doesn’t, the stick could easily become a weapon. The time for making that choice is drawing to a close.

I think online learning is going to change higher education dramatically. Brick-and-mortar colleges will serve a purpose for 18- to 22-year-old students who can afford the college experience. Many, many adults will want to take a test to prove what they’ve learned in online classes, in independent study or through life experience.  We’ll need very good tests to make that work.

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.”

It’s time to drop seat time

To save higher education, the “seat-time-based credit hour” has got to go, writes Community College Dean. It’s not sustainable.

In reaction to the large percentage of federal aid going to for-profits, Congress held hearings on accreditation and credits, the dean writes. Democrats defended the traditional credit hour, defined as 50 or 55 minutes sitting in class for about 15 weeks.

But online education has made seat time meaningless. Students can go at their own pace. Traditional classes that have migrated online tend to offer the same credits as the in-class version. But “as we start developing new courses online, and even entire courses of study,” that expedient isn’t always available.”

Some for-profits inflate credits to get more financial aid.

For reasons I won’t pretend to understand, the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association gave its blessing to the institution that inflated its hours. Now some members of Congress are pushing for a federally mandated definition of a credit hour, to take it out of the hands of promiscuous accreditors and to prevent the squandering of taxpayer money on bogus courses.

That ensures that new ways of teaching won’t improve productivity.

If you declare that no matter what you do, you can’t award credit unless you’ve consumed the same amount of time as last year and the year before that, then you’ve guaranteed zero productivity gain. Worse, you’ve actually penalized any attempt to improve productivity.

Higher education’s failure to improve productivity has driven up costs for years now. It won’t be possible to “break the cost spiral” without breaking the credit hour, the dean writes. “Writing it into law is precisely wrong.”

If you want to break the growth of the for-profits, don’t do it by chaining everyone to dead weight. Improve the publics, and make us more appealing as alternatives; students will vote with their feet. Move money away from student-based aid and into institution-based aid; reverse the cost-shifting trend. That will strengthen the publics and make for-profit skimming much harder. But for the sake of all that is holy and good, don’t mandate that we must never move beyond the productivity level we had in 1950. That’s not helping.

We need better ways to ensure quality virtual learning, writes Bill Tucker on The Quick and the Ed, who suggests paying education providers based on results rather than enrollment. To assess whether students are earning their credits, he advocates end-of-course exams and looking at how students do in the next course in the sequence. If that’s not possible, he suggests requiring online providers to save students’ work so an outside evaluator can see if the credits granted were justified. Providers that grant credit for remedial courses would be responsible for the students’ future work.