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The Department of Education on Monday proposed to eliminate or substantially alter the existing federal definition of a credit hour, following several rounds of criticism for previous similar proposals.

According to federal rules established during the Obama administration, one credit hour amounts to one hour of in-class instruction and two hours of additional student work per week. The definition helps the department determine whether an academic program qualifies for federal financial aid.

In January, at the start of a months-long process reviewing federal regulations around accreditation and innovation, the department proposed to eliminate that definition, instead giving accreditors and institutions more freedom to evaluate student progress.

That proposal was widely criticized, prompting department officials to assure observers that the credit-hour standard will stand, if modified.

But yesterday, the department resurfaced its proposal to eliminate from the definition any mention of hours in or out of class. Instead, the department would allow institutions and their accreditors to define “a reasonable approximation of an amount of student work.” Decision makers would be required to “take into account alternative delivery methods, measurements of student work, academic calendars, disciplines and degree levels,” according to page five of the newly proposed regulations.

The proposal came during a meeting of online learning experts aiming to make recommendations on a wide range of federal rule changes. Most members of that group rejected the department’s new language.

“I think we’re stripping away a tool that has given accreditation some teeth to question the type of academic work that’s going into the credit hour,” said Leah Matthews, executive director of the Distance Education Accrediting Commission -- one of the organizations that, under proposed rules, would be tasked with litigating credit-hour definitions.

Later in yesterday’s meeting, department officials returned with a compromise proposal from agency leaders: remove the requirement for out-of-class instruction, but retain the requirement for one hour of in-class instruction, as well as language offering more flexibility to institutions and accreditors.

“The two hours of out-of-class work is rather intangible. It’s rather impossible to categorize whether or not that’s taking place,” said Gregory Martin, the department official who led Monday’s meeting. “The one hour [of in-class time] we’re OK with, given the fact that that’s generally how classes are set up at most institutions.”

The response from distance education subcommittee members, once again, was largely negative. Department officials agreed to forward their concerns to the main rule-making committee, which meets later this month.