In his post “Rise of Customized Learning,” Paul Fain discusses competency-based education and its focus on “performance and results” rather than seat time.  The post runs through how several institutions have continued to expand their competency-based offerings and the problems that revolve around these offerings relative to the credit hour, “higher education’s gold standard,” when the online degree programs are typically self-paced and emphasize the testing of competency rather than faculty-student contact time.  Some of the institutions that Fain discusses include Western Governors University, Southern New Hampshire University, and Bellevue University.  Mary Hawkins, Bellevue’s president, says that now is the time to experiment with customized learning, predicting that competency-based offerings “will be a big innovation in higher education and where online learning has its biggest strength.”  For more information on competency-based approaches click here.

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In his post “Hour by Hour,” Fain discusses the origins of the college credit hour, explaining that it was never intended to be used to measure student learning, yet it has become a measure and a proxy for what students are supposedly learning.  Fain writes, “An over-reliance on the credit hour, which links the awarding of academic credit to hours of contact between professors and students, has led to many of higher education’s problems.”  Some of the concerns with the credit-hour model include the issue of the rejection of transfer credits (wasting students’ money and time, in part because schools don’t trust what constitutes a credit hour at another institution) and the obstruction of innovation (as it is difficult to apply the “seat-time” standard to online classes).  As Fain points out, competency-based education, in which students learn at their own pace, is a particularly bad fit with the credit hour.

According to a new report from the New America Foundation and Education Sector, the credit hour standard falls short because it does not measure learning, identifying problems with grade inflation and the inflexibility for students to learn at different speeds. As a result, the credit hour stands “at the intersection of three of higher education’s thorniest issues: cost, time and academic quality.”

Fain proceeds to points out that “blowing up” the credit hour won’t be easy because in addition to it being so convenient, “opening the floodgates to federal aid without some standard for measuring learning could encourage diploma mills and a wave of unearned credits for cash.”  According to the New America Foundation and Education Sector’s report, “Abusive interpretation of the credit hour could lead to fraud on a huge scale. But the credit hour is also archaic, a nonsensical basis for regulating online programs in which the whole notion of time in the classroom has no meaning…Define the credit hour too tightly, and innovation would be stifled. Define it too loosely, and taxpayers would get taken for a ride.”  Despite the difficulty in redefining the credit hour, Fain concludes that there seems to be a real desire to move away from seat time.

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