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.