In the early 1970s, the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education published a collection of commissioned papers that proposed new ways in which technology would change the conventional model of higher education.
Describing flying learning centers, electronic delivery systems and other creative instructional arrangements, the collection reasoned that technology, inevitably, would lead to more variety and more opportunity for independent learning.
Now, 40 years later, we see countless examples of technology offering more flexible delivery options, personalized instruction and customized degree programs. Remote delivery and online platforms all enable faster, more informed and more flexible pathways to a degree. Yet some critics claim there’s a roadblock standing in the way of all of this progress: the Carnegie Unit, better known to most of us in higher education as the credit hour. A measure of hours spent in direct contact with an instructor, this instructional time standard was established more than a century ago by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching as a way to determine institutional eligibility for its newly created faculty pension plan. Institutions were eligible if they admitted and graduated students who acquired at least 14 units, each valued at 120 hours of instruction.
Today’s critics argue that the unit’s standardizing effect — whereby all students must spend the same amount of “seat time” to earn credit — restricts the development of more flexible and personalized forms of student learning.
What’s Next for Higher Ed?
Codified in state and institutional policies, and tethered to federal student financial aid, the standard time metric has an enormous impact on higher education. It was designed for consistency, not change. Fixed and uniform, the Carnegie Unit pushes back on technology’s promise to transform education into a more individualized and customized experience. Its adherence to traditional academic calendars, for example, discourages self-paced courses where a student might go faster or slower than a semester. By defining instructional time as direct contact between student and faculty, the credit hour questions the utility of open resources and online delivery formats.
But the credit hour is far from hindering technology, which will continue to support new models of learning within and outside of our formal higher education system.
The unit should be viewed as a complement to technological advances rather than a hindrance, helping to ensure that the goals of “anywhere, anytime” instruction remain grounded in universal access and the broader public purpose of education.
It is also important to observe how technology’s evolution can inform the evolution of the time-based credit hour. As we continue to find new uses for technology to serve higher education, we must also look to develop new ways to use time as a tool to support the improvement of teaching and learning.
Today’s asynchronous models of learning, for example, were just ideas when the Carnegie Commission published its 1970s collection and totally unimaginable to the trustees who established the unit at the turn of the 20th century. Only now can we conceive of an asynchronous type of unit, where the volume of instructional time still matters, but the linear sequencing of time may not.
We may continue to require students to engage for a minimum amount of time with content — although that time might vary by subject, based on the average amount of time it takes a typical student to master material. Those hours could be distributed very differently, condensed to weekends or spread over multiple semesters.
Likewise, technology can help us discover and support new kinds of engagement. Direct contact with faculty, for example, would remain central to the mastery of subject material, but contact that counts toward credit could be distributed more easily throughout the academic community, including online communities, drawing boards and peer networks.
Like technology, time is a tool that plays an essential supporting role in improving student learning in higher education.