Playing Carnegie (The Unit, Not the Hall!)

For a concert, the standard is Carnegie Hall! But in Higher Education, the standard is the Carnegie Hour Unit!

The credit hour has been the most important administrative measurement in the administration of Higher Education for over a century. Embraced by educational institutions around the world, the Carnegie Unit (or Hour) has provided a guideline for determining and supporting much of the academic enterprise, including the awarding of degrees, schedules, student (and therefore faculty) workloads and financial aid. Although a relative new concept for me, I can easily see the noble promise and utility of such a system. Considering that it was never intended to be such a widespread measure and standard and that the underlying logic has long been discredited, it enjoys remarkable staying power.

The Carnegie Foundation developed this unit as a way to provide a standard for determining faculty members’ eligibility to receive a pension. The current patterns of usage were never intended nor foreseen. But it fills a vital purpose in higher education: it provides a metric that is simple and can be universally understood. So it has been applied to most every higher education institution, regardless of how its classes are structured, which modality is applied, what political environment exists and how rigorous the course content may be.

So every institution must consider the system in developing its curriculum. Since it’s inception in 1906 it is generally defined as one hour of faculty-student contact per hour and two hours of outside work over a 15 – week semester. It is so broadly used that we hardly give it a thought. But the clouds are starting to gather in the distance. Last December the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching announced a grant to study the Carnegie Unit. The virtual gold standard of administrative strategy may be outliving its usefulness.

There is certainly a considered debate on what an appropriate standard should be. But why, you may ask? If it’s not broke, why fix it?

Well, there is certainly a great deal of evidence that it is broken. The system is no longer able to embrace and allow management of more modern educational approaches in an effective way. Consider the following:

  • Technology has made significant improvements and is able to allow students to learn at their own pace
  • Improved measurement methods
  • New insights into how students learn
  • Student learning varies greatly among individuals who teach the same material.
  • Increasing role of distance learning and telecommunication.
  • Focus on “seat time” limits progress on promising new approaches like online (self-paced and competency-based)

I am certainly not participating in any research concerning the validity and effectiveness of the Hour System, but after 40 years of teaching in Higher Education I have some considered anecdotal opinions about the system. I have taught in

  • traditional schools, large and small,
  • proprietary schools, large and small,
  • on-line, ground and balanced (a combination of the two) modalities,
  • in the Northeast, Southeast, MidSouth and Southwest regions

In no school did I encounter any course where the Carnegie Hour System consistently provided accurate comparisons between courses. There are just too many variables that must be considered in determining standards:  academic rigor, difficulty in teaching the class, number and difficulty of quizzes, assignments, length and number of classroom meetings and ancillary activities. An assignment by a Learning Team might be worth one amount of credit hours in one school, but a different amount in another. Some labs were intensive, others were hardly demanding. There is a built in arbitrariness in the process of determining what must be included in the course for those 45 hours you need to satisfy scheduling for the registrar.

Now as Higher Education attempts to embrace a rapidly changing methodology with the onslaught of technology (See my post of February 26  , 2013 called “Is Higher Education Redefining Itself?“), the Carnegie Hour is facing its most difficult challenge. In this period of rapid change, many critics question the arbitrary use of time as the basis for measuring educational attainment. And I certainly agree – student learning varies greatly among instructors who are teaching the same material. And think about this – the variability is amplified by variations among faculty members, topics, schools and universities. Throw in distance learning and telecommunication and you have a great deal of frustration. What about the new Internet based MOOC that carries such a buzz right now?

The most likely approach to replacing the Carnegie Hour is a standard measure of competency rather than time in class. The Carnegie Foundation has begun a large scale study among educational professionals to determine what form a new unit might take. How can a system deal with technology allowing students to move at their own pace? Many working adults bring a great deal of life and work experience to the classroom – should that be included in determining academic success? Testing will certainly have to play a major role in the system as a controlled way to control the measurement process. Of course, there has to be a way to standardize the measure to avoid it becoming watered down by schools that may have much to gain by doing so.

Several colleges are awarding credits based upon demonstrated competency at present and more are lining up to do so. The Department of Education has said it supports competency-based education. Federal Financial Aid standards have been developed to pride students in such programs to access financial loans.

There are many critics of competency based measurement as well. In a Huffington Post article, Jason Boyers argues that competency-based education omits the social and relationship-based aspects of a college education, which are often as beneficial to a student’s career as classroom knowledge. And I cannot help but doubt whether students getting credits based upon experience have truly gained the same level of subject matter knowledge as more conventionally educated students.

So where does this leave us? It is certainly mostly conjecture, but I am confident that we will soon be moving toward competency based measurement, first in small ways but eventually a system of broad based testing. As MOOCS and new electronic means of delivering educational content available at reasonable costs, there will be demands for verification of educational attainment beyond the private control on traditional campuses. The demands for more reasonable tuition charges and ways to cater to working adults must be met and I believe that competency based systems offer the most promise. I am not sure we can continue to adapt our current grading system to this new world. I believe our current system will continue in a smaller number of schools who can maintain the current system because of their wealth, prestige or untouchable academic pinnacle. But many traditional universities that are suffering today will be downsized both physically and personnel wise. Competency based measurement will have to serve a significant role in these institutions. But the competition level will be intense, and many will not survive the coming revolution.

Roots and Wings

Roots and Wings. It was almost 40 years ago when I first noted these words on a small sign in a gift shop in Memphis. The sign was one of those inspirational messages that tugs at your emotions, but this one struck particularly hard as my wife and I contemplated becoming parents for the first time. The advice it offered was simple, but effective: “There are two things you give your children, the first is roots, the other is wings.” That sign became our first baby purchase and still resides on the bookshelf beside our bed. It became a recurring reminder of how we approach parenting and child rearing, and served us well.


This morning I was struggling to overcome the loss of an hour’s sleep for Daylight Savings Time when I noticed the trusty little sign still sitting on the shelf, broadcasting its message across the bedroom. And it occurred to me that these simple words communicated the essence of why I teach and what motivates me to reach out to my students and to do my best to help them understand how to achieve success. I lead and I support them as they work to build a new life. And whether I am teaching Corporate Finance or Business Law or College Algebra, my task is the same- roots and wings!

Now I admit that the “roots” part is easier and certainly more evident. In my mind, the concept of roots includes nourishment and support as well as stability and staying power. Solid roots imply that the tools are there to weather the storms. After all, the curriculum, the syllabus, the text and my lectures are all directed to one end- the students’ mastery of the basic fundamentals of the course. I will use lectures, exercises, discussion, role-playing, media presentations and even guest speakers to reinforce the material. I want them to master the content, to wrap themselves around the central concepts and ideas they are grappling. I want them to think critically, to grasp subtleties and nuances, to master the content and its application to the world in which it resides. While doing so I want them to develop skills of communication, collaboration, leadership and intuition. My goal is to expand their minds, to broaden their perspective, to improve their skills, to deepen their knowledge. These are the intellectual “roots” that will provide the foundation, and more importantly, the confidence, to succeed in life. It will also be critically important in helping them deal with the “storms” of life.

It is when I contemplate the “wings” of the saying that I feel much more challenged as a teacher. The advantage of having wings is that one is no longer bound to the limits of the ground. There is suddenly a new way to look at the world, a different perspective on the existing nature of one’s life. Your view is much broader and much longer; it encompasses a greater diversity of thought and action and more ways of responding to the routine challenges of life.

The “roots” are really from the mind, the intellect, and the knowledge base of the student. But when I engage the student in going beyond the expected, in learning about themselves and their dreams, their values and their wishes, their heartaches and their joys, it is much more of a challenge. It is a challenge for me first because it necessitates that I have been able to accomplish the same thing myself. Do I know myself, really know myself? Have I lost touch of my dreams, my passions, my values? Do I understand what my students are feeling when I encourage them to put aside their fears and embrace their own dreams?

Secondly, my challenge is to encourage and motivate my students in “affairs of the heart”. This means that the second part of my challenge will rely on my “Emotional Intelligence” (to use a current management concept) to go beyond the subject matter of the course and touch the student’s emotions and feelings and their relationship to their own lives and future. It is here that I feel less prepared but where I see the greatest need. How can I get my students to consider “what can be” rather than “what is”? My success in every class includes my ability to do so.

A favorite tool of mine in this regard is the telling of stories – my story as well as that of their peers and even their faculty. To some it may seem to be a fairy tale, but most universities are filled with the stories of students who reached out in new direction to follow their own dreams. Another tool is the linkage between knowledge and careers – not the trade school mentality that is running rampant today but the value of written and verbal communication, of exploring the broader questions of mankind through the liberal arts, of the power of quantitative reasoning and scientific problem solving. A third tool is to freely express my passion for lifelong learning, of the permanent journey for self-improvement as well as self knowledge. My passion and commitment can demonstrate the overused “joy of learning”. I can demonstrate this important best by living it.

In some respects I know I am asking a great deal of myself and my students. Especially in working with students with difficult histories and current hardships, it is a significant leap for them to fully embrace the concepts of “roots and wings”. So I know it is a process, a journey that will take time and nourishment. But it is often evident to me that some of my students are having those “aha” moments, those insights into the intellectual demands of the course as well as the impact on their career and also their dreams and aspirations. So it is a question of steps, but the well-being of seeing progress is one of the great rewards I receive for teaching. So I keep on hauling out the fertilizer and water cans, but directing my students to the top branches and courage of flight.