Time enough for love … of learning: more on credit (hours)

Matt Reed has responded twice to my observations last month about competencies and credit hours. First, he directly responded to my proposal that we just strike the word “hour” from the phrase “credit hour:”

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.

Reed argues that competencies have some tangibility in terms of external accountability. I am skeptical: the institution that would make hash of contact-hour requirements would do the same with competencies, unless you want some standardized assessments for every piece of the curriculum, every competency. Working in a college where we have to document benchmarks on state-defined competencies, I can assure you that would be a horrific prospect for understaffed institutions like community colleges.

But beyond that issue, there is the question of where competencies are tangible (can you evaluate a differential of a trigonomic function?) and where student learning is less tangible. Yeah, yeah, I know, some readers of mine are advocates of behavioral-only objectives for learning: everything good in a formal education must be measurable by some threshold of performance? Mmmm… not so fast, as another reader of Reed’s pointed out (as quoted by Reed):

Music schools accept students where they are, coaching them through years of progress in the direction they want to go. One freshman might outperform seniors, while another might be just starting to read music. If a music degree is a list of competencies, and if a freshman can already play (or sing) 75% of the requirements, the school might say “you graduate in one year.” In some fields, this might look like a solution to Baumol’s cost disease. In my field, the student would be robbed of three years of faculty guidance refining her craft. Other students would lose the educational experience of playing in ensembles with high-performing peers.

Reed acknowledged the validity of the observation, noted that it played out in other contexts (specifically, which courses can be taught in very-short-session forms), and then suggested that if we want to stick entirely to time-defined measures of schooling, “we’ll have to resign ourselves to an upward cost spiral.” I think that evades the challenge to some extent, but largely because it is a reflection of the mixed nature of the goals of formal education. Those goals include easily measurable skills and also much fuzzier concepts of development and experience, let alone the social life of students or the structure of seeing a teacher two or three times a week to keep your mind on tasks, including on yoga. The combination of academic and social uses of time is why hundreds of thousands of students accumulate college credits through AP courses and dual enrollment and then still spend four years in college, though they could finish in three.

The world of elite liberal-arts colleges knows how to play with that boundary between skill and time in ways to enhance the reputation of the sector. In the quarter-century since my graduation, my alma mater decided at some point to require that every student complete a thesis. To some extent, some sort of major project has often been a requirement: my own major (history) required at least one course with a 30-page paper. The thesis has expanded these older requirements into something more substantial, probably more anxiety-provoking, and more sellable to parents as part of its reputation for rigor. It has also expanded the amount of time devoted to a single project; according to some current students I know, humanities majors commonly start work on their theses in their junior year, and science majors spend even more oodles of hours in labs. A thesis (or a doctoral dissertation or IB extended essay) is both a product and a time-extensive requirement. The requirement is structured in a way that pushes students to develop both skills and knowledge and is also almost impossible to meet in less than four years of college. Even if my alma mater switched entirely to a competency-based measure of when students were done, students would still spend four years there.

How do we apply these concepts to the broader world of higher ed? In some ways, I think we would find it easier to address this in the context of stackable credentials — what sounds like a horrible cross between The Container Store and your local regional public university. The notion of “stackable credentials” is the idea that students who stop out from formal schooling can accumulate shorter stretches of credits in packaged forms (certificates) that they can accumulate like Green Stamps to get a degree. To some higher-ed administrators unmoored from academics, this sounds like a great idea. To faculty, this smacks of consumerism run rampant. One workable solution: combine competencies with time. That is, an institution can tell swirling students, you can accumulate stackable credentials, and to finish a degree you need to focus on something that requires time and intensity. My institution has “exit requirements” in the general-education curriculum: these are a small number of courses that allows us to say that transfer students come out with a USF degree, a degree that has some imprint of the institution in a pedagogical sense (rather than in the sense of the smell of older buildings). All graduates must fulfill the exit requirement, which currently consists of one writing-intensive course and one so-called capstone course. That exit requirement plus the residency requirement is the bureaucratic way of imposing a minimum time requirement.

Pedagogically, I would prefer to replace that seat-time requirement with a more substantive, intellectual sweat-equity requirement. How to do that when you have more than 30,000 undergraduate students is tough, but you could carve out a substitute for both residency and exit-requirement credit counting: a major project or thesis. That would make visible the pedagogical value of time in a university education. In a large institutions like ours, I would hesitate to make that a requirement, but for some students who might come to us with 90 or more credits (the classic candidate for a degree-completion program), that might be a highly-valued way of satisfying both the institution’s need to say, “Yep, you did something here beyond its being your last stop” and the need to combine concrete skills a student has already demonstrated elsewhere with time I think students need for intellectual and personal development.

Doing so would also make a clear distinction between the need for transferable currency in higher ed (my preference for “credit” as the appropriate term there, Reed’s for “competency”), on the one hand, and moving us away from the concept of acquiring the bachelor’s degree as a transaction.

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