The radical restructuring of higher education is poised to take another lurch forward with the announcement by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching that it is to “rethink” the credit hour as the basis for measuring learning in higher education. As the creator of the credit system, Carnegie’s move is significant.  It could mean more steam for efforts to move away from the credit system’s “seat time” approach and to a greater emphasis on competency-based measurements. That’s important because it would open up another front in the effort to shake up the moribund and expensive traditional structure of higher education.

Online education has of course been the driving force behind the disruptive innovation overtaking an “industry” that has remained essentially unchanged in its basic business model for centuries. MOOCs and other developments have begun to alter the delivery and economics of high-quality instruction as dramatically as Steve Jobs changed the music industry.

But to achieve the full structural change that’s possible, with sharply lower costs and an education delivery system catering to the needs of the customer rather than faculty graybeards, other things have to happen.

One is effective tools to bring transparency and consumer information to would-be students, so that they can accurately gauge whether a college delivers real value for money.  That’s now well under way with a range of continually improving standards of measurement available to students and their parents. Added to that is increasing pressure on colleges and universities to reveal more and better information on such things as how much teaching each faculty member actually undertakes.

Another is that real entrepreneurs need to enter the industry, applying quite different business models. That’s also been happening for several years and is accelerating.  It’s not just the rise years ago of for-profit sector institutions such as the University of Phoenix.  Actually more exciting are the newer models, including such institutions as Western Governors University, a private online institution created by 19 state governors, and the University of South Carolina’s Palmetto College – a blended learning approach to enable SC students who dropped out to complete their degrees.

But another critical step is breaking open the increasingly bogus quality and student-learning standards associated with accreditation and the credit hour.  As Lindsey Burke and I recently pointed out, the fact that an institution is accredited tells you little or nothing about the quality of a particular course.  And under the credit hour system, students in the back row can punch their attendance card while catching up with their friends on Facebook.  Moving to a system of credentialing specific courses – whether they are taught after hours in a high school gym or at Harvard – provides employers and students alike with a real quality measure. And moving toward demonstrated competency rather than seat time opens up the possibility of radical innovations in the manner in which higher education is delivered, with potentially dramatic reductions in cost and increased customization of teaching.

That’s why the Carnegie Foundation’s announcement, while no guarantee of needed change, is a very welcome development that has triggered alarm bells in faculty lounges.

Posted by: Stuart Butler

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