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The Credit Hour

settings on a clock radioBack in the day, when classes were conducted nearly exclusively face to face, students spent a specific number of hours a week in class (mostly listening to lectures) and then were expected to do a certain number of homework hours.  This “time on task” was calculated to what we refer to as “credit hours”.  The “credit hours” were almost always the amount of time spent in class each week, so 3 hours of class time equated to 3 credit hours.

As courses went online, instructors put their one hour lectures online in either written or video form, the assignments were added, and so were discussion forums.  The “new” looked very much like the old, though the interaction of the students with the content, and the time it took, changed.  The credit hours remained the same.  Over time, however, calculating credit hours became less precise, and even somewhat arbitrarily assigned.  Now a six week online course can earn the same 3 credits as a 16 week course offered at the same institution, and the question becomes: can a student really do 16 weeks of work in 6?  Perhaps the credit hour should become obsolete.  Maybe it never actually meant anything to begin with.  Does a credit hour really mean anything in regards to actual learning?  But, that’s a discussion better left for another post.

If we keep the same formula for calculating credit hours, then technically credit hours (or work hours) need to be measured by the average time needed to completed the work (review the course materials and complete assignments).  After all, credit hours were intended to measure time and only time.  When we build a course, we should begin with the course objectives (unfortunately that’s not always true).  Then course materials, whether they are reading or lectures or videos, etc, should be specifically chosen to provide students with the materials they need to reach the objectives.  Finally, there should be specific assessments meant to measure how well students reach the objectives.  (This is, of course, a simplified description of the whole process, but makes it easy for us to discuss credit hours.)

Perhaps what is needed is a table with a measure of the time associated with each of those tasks, so that the average time it takes to complete all of these is equal to the amount of time 3 or 4 credits equates to.   For example: how long does it take to participate in a discussion forum in an online environment? And then add in any additional technologies students need to learn: how long does it take to learn voicethreads or a new wiki or some other new web 2.0 tool the faculty favors?  What extra time is involved in navigating the online classroom (as opposed to walking into a typical classroom and finding your seat)? Or maybe the weight of a course needs to be measure by something other than a credit hour.

The first thing we need to face is that online courses need to be a different sort of course than one that takes place face-to-face.  And even so, there is now a much greater emphasis on social constructivism in all types of classrooms–whether they are face-to-face, blended, or online, and seat-time has little meaning.  What should be more important in measuring credit is the course outcomes and the activities.  A research paper should have a particular value associated with it, as should a practicum, etc.  The amount of activities and the weight of those would indeed indicate the amount of work expected for a certain course.  The course objectives would provide a greater reflection of what was learned.  These two measures would make the transfer of credit more exact, and the credit hour more meaningful.

I don’t expect this to change any time soon, at least not in traditional education, but it is something to think about…



While parts of higher education struggle with a new push for the implementation of Learning Analytics, Evidence of Impact, and older but stronger implementations of outcomes assessment, other parts of higher education are entering the brave new world of assessments for prior learning, and credentialing of open education.  The recent announcement of the Badges for Lifelong Learning Competition, has raised the level of enthusiasm and energy towards credentialing learning in new ways–that is outside of a formal degree process. “Badges are a new assessment tool that will help identify skills mastered in formal and informal settings, virtually and in physical spaces, and in schools, workplaces and communities.” Both of these diverse focuses point to an struggle within Higher Education: the struggle to define its future, perhaps to even insure its own existence.

Along with the Badges for Learning program, there are a number of other initiatives that warrant our attention and particularly that of the OERu.  OER University is an outgrowth of the Open Educational Resource Foundation.  The aims of OERu are the following:

  • Will design and implement a parallel learning universe to provide free learning opportunities for all students worldwide with pathways to earn credible post-secondary credentials.
  • Offer courses and programs based solely on OER and open textbooks.
  • Design and implement scalable pedagogies appropriate for the OER university concept.
  • Will implement scalable systems of volunteer student support through community service learning approaches.
  • Coordinate assessment and credentialising services on a cost recovery basis for participating education institutions to ensure credible qualifications and corresponding course articulation among anchor partners.

Coming on the heels of the growth in Open Access, Open CourseWare, and OERs, this is a significant undertaking and one that will have an impact on educational practices worldwide.  I would not claim it will eradicate the institution as we know it, only that it will impact it.

One way it may have a significant impact is on the employ-ability of individuals who’ve received credentials through OERu. Could it be the employers may be just as attracted to these individuals as those who tout a more traditional degree?  My thoughts are that they would be foolish not to.  A piece of paper and a string of letters after a person’s name, does not guarantee that they will make a good employee.  It does not guarantee their ability to think outside the box, to be self-directed, to be innovative, or even to be intelligent in an effective way.

The anchor institutions will spend two days in November considering how to develop their model.  They will look at ways that effectively and accurately assess student learning, and the whole process will be transparent (another hallmark of openness).  Even non-members can participate and help guide the future: http://wikieducator.org/OER_university/2011.11_OERu_virtual_meeting_participants