Challenges and Opportunities in the Currency of Higher Education

Challenges and Opportunities in the Currency of Higher Education

Deborah Everhart (Georgetown University, USA & Learning Objects Inc., USA) and Deborah M. Seymour (American Council on Education, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-0932-5.ch003


In 2013, the American Council on Education and Blackboard began joint research on competency-based education (CBE) to identify challenges and potential solutions for higher education CBE stakeholders. A key premise is that while credit-hour processes are likely to remain deeply embedded in post-secondary systems for some time, there is ample opportunity for innovation with competencies as a parallel and complementary currency. Credit hours provide a basis for current models of exchange in higher education, including credits for degree attainment, financial aid, and other critical functions. Competencies provide representations of learning outcomes that are more flexible and transparent and can be applied in multiple contexts within and outside educational institutions. This chapter provides scenarios that illustrate how competencies provide broad value in educational processes, not only as a means of documenting student achievement, but also to create meaningful connections between jobseekers and employment, for faculty and staff development, and for economic development.
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For over a century, the credit hour has been a unit of measure in United States postsecondary education, a recognized “currency” for educational achievement and completion of credentials. Processes built around credit hours are based on Industrial Age, highly structured, time-based educational models, presenting challenges in adapting these processes in a knowledge economy that relies on greater flexibility and the ability to apply learning in rapidly changing circumstances. Recent innovations in competency-based education address 21st-century needs by focusing on mastery of competencies regardless of “seat time,” providing opportunities to reconsider how educational systems can be structured around learning outcomes. Competency-based education programs revolve around the notion that achievement or mastery of a set of competencies, sometimes termed learning outcomes, represents the value provided by the particular educational program; and not the number of hours that a student has spent in a classroom or with a textbook in their hands.

This shift in focus can generate new currency based on the value of competencies among stakeholders in educational ecosystems. This chapter investigates the social, practical, and policy implications of competency-based education and how credits and competencies both reflect important structures of value for diverse stakeholders: government agencies, educational leaders and administrators, faculty, assessors, students, and employers. See below for explanations of different types of stakeholders.

The “Carnegie unit” was originally defined in the late 19th century as a way of standardizing students’ high school work to facilitate college admissions (Shedd, 2003). It was broadly adopted in United States postsecondary education as an eligibility requirement for the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching faculty pension system (Laitinen, 2012). Soon the Carnegie unit was adapted to define time-based “credit hour” units for determining faculty teaching load, as part of the standardization of educational processes and degrees in an industrial era. The credit hour was never intended to measure student learning, but over the years it accrued value as a proxy for student outcomes and as a well-understood, common unit of course and credential time-based processes.

As early as 1906, the Carnegie Foundation explicitly stated the distinction between time spent in a learning process and the learning results attained (Harris, 2002). Ernest Boyer, then president of the Foundation, reiterated this point in 1993 and went on to state that “for far too long education in this country has been based on seat time, not on learning… the time has come to bury once and for all the old Carnegie Unit” (Boyer, 1993). Nonetheless, so many educational processes rely on the fixed, standardized unit of the Carnegie credit hour that a massive retooling would be necessary to use different methods of measurement.

The entrenched nature of the credit hour does not mean that educational systems focused on competencies or learning outcomes are not possible and desirable. In fact, critics of the credit hour argue that alternative models for recognizing student learning are essential to address the shortcomings of the opaque and unreliable representations provided by grades and academic transcripts. Several other illustrations of these same issues include:

Key Terms in this Chapter

Competency: A specific skill, knowledge, or ability that is both observable and measurable.

Stackable Credentials: “Part of a sequence of credentials that can be accumulated over time to build up an individual’s qualifications and help them to move along a career pathway or up a career ladder to different and potentially higher-paying jobs.” The phrase “leveling up” is often used in the context of stackable credentials to mean starting with one credential achievement and working up to higher level credential achievements by building skills ( United States Department of Labor, 2010 ).

Occupational Skills: The knowledge, abilities, and skills required to perform a job.

Competency-Based Learning (CBL): Learning processes focused on acquiring specific skills and developing specific abilities. Competency-based learning can happen in any context, whether or not it is part of an educational program or happens in a classroom or formal educational setting. In competency-based learning, as distinct from competency-based education, the focus is on learners and their experiences in learning environments.

Student Learning Outcomes: Observable and measurable statements of what a student knows, thinks, or is able to do as a result of an educational experience. Sets of learning outcomes can be defined at the level of the institution, programs, courses, learning modules, or in other types of groupings. Learning outcomes are generally at the same level of granularity as competencies, and sometimes the terms are used interchangeably.

Credentials: An umbrella term that includes degrees, diplomas, certificates, badges, professional/industry certifications, apprenticeships, and licenses. Credentials vary in the awarding organization, the standards on which the award is based, and the rigor and type of assessment and validation processes used to attest to the skills, knowledge, and abilities people possess.

Credit Hour: Federally defined as “an amount of work represented in intended learning outcomes and verified by evidence of student achievement that is an institutionally established equivalency that reasonably approximates not less than—(1) One hour of classroom or direct faculty instruction and a minimum of two hours of out of class student work each week for approximately fifteen weeks for one semester or trimester hour of credit, or ten to twelve weeks for one quarter hour of credit, or the equivalent amount of work over a different amount of time; or (2) At least an equivalent amount of work as required in (1) of this definition for other academic activities as established by the institution including laboratory work, internships, practica, studio work, and other academic work.” The implications of the credit hour in CBE relate to federal language allowing institutions to receive financial aid for their students. Problems may arise in the conflict between this specifically time-based definition and flexibly-paced CBE processes ( United States Department of Education, 2010 ).

Competency-Based Education (CBE): An alternative or supplement to the credit hour- AU62: Need copyediting on use of hyphen based system of credentialing. Student progress is based on demonstration of proficiency and/or mastery as measured through assessments and/or through application of credit for prior learning. In competency-based education programs, time is the variable and student competency mastery is the focus, rather than a fixed-time model where students achieve varying results. In competency-based education, as distinct from competency-based learning, the focus is on academic programs, practices, and policies.

Badges: A form of credential signifying a person's achievement at some level of competency. Badges are issued by organizations to individuals who then use their badges as representations of accomplishment or achievement.

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