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Edupunks and Credit Hours: Fumbling Towards a Theory
August 25, 2009 - 8:51pm

An alert reader sent me (last week) the link to this article about how the open-content movement will explode higher education as we know it. Apparently, newly empowered 'edupunks' will cobble together their own educations, thumbing their noses at The Man while reaping the lucrative rewards of globalization.

The article has more than a whiff of the self-congratulatory vanguard about it, but look past that.

The part of it that has stuck in my craw for the last week -- in the way that ideas with kernels of unpleasant truth tend to do -- is the distinction between course credit and demonstrated competence.

It's certainly true that people can learn important things outside of credit-bearing classes. And in some parts of the curriculum, even the stodgier colleges have long had provisions for students to "test out" of individual courses. The idea there is there's little point in marching you through a course when you've already mastered its key content.

While that model isn't new, it has historically been confined to the margins. An AP course here, a CLEP there, but you still have to take enough credits to graduate. (Many colleges have 'residency' requirements that even limit the number of credits you can transfer in.) This article suggests that it's becoming easier to build your own modular degree through a program of sustained self-teaching and exams.

A few years ago I did a thought piece envisioning the rise of Efficient Degree Organizations that would act as something between aggregators and sherpas, helping students put together degree programs on their own terms. The idea there was that with online courses breaking the tyranny of geography, it made a certain amount of sense for students to start acting like internet shoppers.

Now I'm wondering if the 'credit hour' might be the line of attack.

Credit hours are bureaucratic constructs that have little to do with teaching. They're ways of breaking curricula into component parts, the better to allow for transfer, substitution, and the like. (In most states, they've also become tied to various funding formulae. We measure our enrollment both in terms of headcount -- that is, people -- and FTE's, which are denominated in credit hours.) They make inevitable a cost spiral that far outplaces inflation, since you can't increase productivity when your units are measured in time. (As the rest of the economy becomes more productive per hour and teaching doesn't, teaching becomes relatively more expensive.)

Awarding some sort of recognition for task completion or demonstrated competence independent of the time it took to achieve that offers one potential way to break the upward spiral. If you manage to blast through calculus in eight weeks instead of fifteen, more power to you.

That said, though, I could easily envision the abandonment of the credit hour as relatively beneficial to those already on top -- in four years at my SLAC, I never heard the phrase 'credit hour' -- and devastating to the rest.

For students who don't already have considerable cultural capital when they walk in the door, the 'set' curriculum with semesters and credits offers a clear path. It makes the route to achievement legible, even if daunting. It defines a normative amount of time for a course of study (the "two-year degree"). And it allows faculty to push students into courses they might not choose for themselves, based on a sense of educational good. (If I had a nickel for every student at Proprietary U who asked "why do I have to take this?" I'd be a wealthy man.) Yes, business majors need to take English, and yes, many of them would avoid it given the choice.

To the extent that we move from "here's what you need to do" to "what do you want?," we both enable high achievers to cut loose -- a clear good -- and allow the less savvy to wander aimlessly, which is a real problem.

The "edupunk," as near as I can tell, is the nifty-sounding update of the autodidact. And as with the autodidact, the edupunk is susceptible to some predictable shortfalls: uncorrected blind spots, lack of broader perspective, too-early path dependence.

If colleges are going to continue to earn their keep, they'll need to address the very real economic issue of the credit hour, without forfeiting the real value created by making courses of study -- as opposed to individual courses -- legible. That means not giving up on 'general education,' no matter how much some students bitch about it. It also means getting out in front of a competence-driven currency, lest it leave us behind. It probably means making convincing arguments to the effect that an education is more than the sum of its parts. (Hint: the social and extracurricular aspects are not to be discounted.)

As disconcerting as some of that is, I'd hate to see colleges go the way of newspapers. When the mode of production changes, typically, the leading producers change, too. The mode of production of education has to change, and now, can. We'll need to come to grips with that in some sort of serious way, or others will, edupunks or not.

 

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