At the prompting of the Badges research call reading club, I’ve finally got around to digging into “Cracking the Credit Hour,” a report from Amy Laitinen and the New America Foundation on how the time-based conception of college credit has no real connection to learning or skills and causes huge problems for nontraditional students (most students).
Cracking the Credit Hour
From the inception of the credit hour as a standard unit of eduction, those who instigated it resisted equating credits with achievement: “in the counting the fundamental criterion was the amount of time spent on a subject, not the results attained” (1906 Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching annual report).
But the credit hour, designed to qualify educators for pensions, stuck around and became the go-to measure of student achievement, especially in the question of whether or not a student has earned a degree. One credit hour supposedly corresponds to one hour of instructor contact, plus two hours of independent work per week over a 15 week course.
Of course, as many employers have realized now that the bachelor’s degree is a near-universal requirement for work in many fields, a college degree is a poor measure of actual learning and a poor differentiator between students. Yet, they are what we have, because time based credits are easy; truly valid assessments are hard. A hundred years after the introduction of the credit hour, assessments are still hard.
In 2006, when the Department of Education stepped in to make new conditions for defining credits, they allowed consideration of “the equivalent amount of work” to traditional time-based measures of credit: “work turned out to be the Department’s middle ground between time, an easily measured but poor proxy for quality, and learning, a difficult-to-measure but real indicator of quality.”
In contrast, what employers would really value would be credentials based on outcomes. From the report: “It’s easy to criticize the Department of Education’s mixed messages. But its inability to create a clean regulatory framework based on student learning outcomes is rooted in a simple fact: No consensus definition exists of what those outcomes are or should be.”
Even at the level of one class, say introduction to calculus, “there is often no easy and reliable way for institutions to determine what students with credits from another institution’s calculus class know and can do.” Often, this results in schools rejecting transfer credits when students move from one institution’s system to another.
Laitinen emphasizes, “Through its everyday actions (by rejecting credit transfer), the higher education system itself routinely rejects the idea that credit hours are a reliable measure of how much students have learned.” Yet, despite the lack of connection to reliable claims about what students know, credits remain the method colleges and universities use to answer the question of whether or not to grant degrees.
Making claims about learning
In our work on the badges Design Principles Documentation Project, Dan Hickey introduced me to the idea that open badges are credentials that make a claim about learning and back up that claim with evidence. What does a student’s credit for an introductory calculus class claim about that student? Maybe, “this student served 4 credits worth of time in calculus, and passed to the standards of this institution.” In the case of universities rejecting calculus transfer credit because they can’t be sure of those credits’ value, we could say those credits are making a poor claim about the student learning. Other universities don’t know enough to be able to accept the transfer credit, and it would be too much work to gather enough further information about the source university’s curriculum and assessments to discern or evaluate its claims.
An open badge has the opportunity, at least, to be more specific about the learning outcomes it claims were demonstrated and to share them more easily, because those criteria are connected to the badge. And it has the opportunity to embed evidence about the student’s achievement in its assertion. Evaluating specific claims about a student’s calculus learning outcomes when you have easy access to helpful evidence would still be a time-consuming process, but it would be considerably less onerous than without this information. Calculus is a tough example, because it tends to be very test-centric, but perhaps a badge could connect transfer credit evaluators to a student’s one essay or project-based learning assignment of the term. Evaluators would have to compare the source university’s claimed calculus learning outcomes with their own and essentially reassess the artifact in question, but it could be done.
For programs that have defined learning outcomes, they may have a leg up on the system as a whole, if they are able to package these as readily understood claims about learning, the type of claims that could be embedded in a badge.
“Cracking the Credit Hour” proposes “externally validated learning outcomes” as one approach necessary to moving beyond the credit hour. Badges might ease such a process, because they could collect documentation about claimed outcomes the associated evidence. For transfer students seeking a degree, paying someone trusted by their new institution to examine transfer badges and validate the assessment made by their old school would be quicker and cheaper than retaking courses. Also, Laitinen recommends “transparent learning outcomes and assessments,” which echoes the capabilities of open badges, when executed well.
Transfer colleges represent one audience for outcomes-based learning claims. Employers are another. Students who cobble together a degree’s worth of courses, represented by suitable badges, could have all the learning claims examined by a trusted third party, which could then assert that the outcomes demonstrated are equivalent to a degree.
The shape of a degree
Here’s what the degree looks like in today’s credits, detached from learning outcomes. You could go into more detail and imagine that the collection of courses required includes some specific requirements and some general requirements. If we want to think of credits as a functioning currency, students should not be required to collect all 120 credits from a single institution though. Credits from many sources could make up this image.
There’s an appeal to the progress-bar nature of building one’s education up to degree level. Filling up all the requirements, checking the degree audit to see what credits remain.
Many people who see the potential open badges holds to break the credit hour’s grip on the American education currency market, imagine complete ecosystems of badges, being issued, shared and compared. But replacing parts of the ecosystem around credit hours with badged upgrades is something that can’t happen all at once.
Badges as a credit add-on
To build a complete system with roles played by so many institutions is to build it in small pieces. The problem with building a system in small pieces is that each player who may enjoy the value gained by a fully functioning system will have trouble justifying expending resources to build something incomplete. How can you find the value each player might gain from the beginning in having their little piece up and running?
Benefits for a university willing to issue open badges to help their students transfer credits outward include the tuition money from students who aren’t going for a full degree, for whom a badge may be enough credential to meet a short-term need, and those who plan to transfer out from the beginning. Community colleges could latch onto anything that makes the value of their credits easier to demonstrate as a selling point to their “traditional student” market of 18 year olds hoping to get 4-year degrees.
Benefits for institutions willing to put the effort into evaluating learning claims shared in transfer credit badges include higher graduation rates among transfer students, because better credit portability puts those students closer to the finish line. Better graduation rates are among the metrics rewarded by President Obama’s proposal to publish college rankings on performance and to encourage states to use rankings in doling out financial aid.
Benefits for students who earn badges and put in effort to make the most of them could include better transfer rates, quicker graduation, and less student loans. It takes a lot of portfolio-building to put together an argument about the validity of a student’s credits for transfer, so given the cost of retaking classes, students may even opt to pay for help.
Consequently, there are possibilities for third parties to spring up to help in an improved credit negotiation process as well. I mentioned organizations who might want to assist by reassessing badge claims and attached evidence. They could package their findings for any of the three parties above (students, and incoming and outgoing credit granting institutions), to assist with their parts of the ecosystem. Data mining to measure performance of students with different transfer credits could be another niche (in the DPD Project, we classify this type of research that uses evidence in digital badges as “research WITH badges”).
Cracking the credit hour with badges? What disruption?
I talked a lot about how the learning claims embedded in badges could be valuable within the existing credit-based degree system. But what happens if higher education institutions don’t act to mitigate the weaknesses of credits?
The disruption that is likely farther away is the replacement of the college degree by another similarly “shaped” credential, made up partly of traditional credits, and partly of badges and non-badged MOOC certificates. If students or an external service they hire could package claims about learning outcomes (or time and “work” based claims like traditional credits) and show how those students fill all the classic degree progress bars, I would expect some employers would take that amalgam as seriously as a traditional college degree.
In these early days of badges, wouldn’t a candidate presenting a curated credential stack that was verified to fill the categories desired by university degree programs look just as interesting as a student with one of those traditional degrees? Suppose it documented how that student was familiar with a broad range of related fields and had deeply explored and developed expertise in one area, like the traditionally desired “T-shaped student”? I think employers would find such a transcript interesting. It might not make the first cut among recruiters sorting thousands of resumes, but in a pool of 20 I think it would stand out. High level portfolio development is hard. Building a degree-level portfolio like this would not be easier than a traditional college degree, hence the possibility for services paid to help students collect it, but it would be more flexible in terms of recognizing prior learning and a variety of “inputs,” and it might be cheaper.
I talk a lot about how badges help people tell stories about their accomplishments. A degree does the same thing, though in a less personalized way. If universities don’t fix their problems interacting with each other around the credit hour, the pressure and opportunity for a complementary competing system rises.
Carla Casilli recently posted on building patterns of experience, how “the earner may experience badge systems in chaotic, simultaneous, and nonlinear ways where accumulations of “low-value” badges can begin to indicate patterns of activity or interest.” This echoes what I was thinking above about the “shape” of a degree. From the perspective of the sheepskin-bound paper degree, each credit is low value, and accumulations in specific fields indicate specialization, majors and minors. Carla says, “there is no easy answer to the interpretation of badge meaning.”
While there are no easy answers, there are great rewards for those who succeed in giving the badges they issue or earn “socially communicative value.” Using badges to tell a story about your accomplishments. Embedding them in a display that shows the “shape” of the collection and relative value of its components, even if it’s just from a student’s own perspective, communicates value. We’ll see what type of impact these forces have when people take on the challenge of building collections as big as traditional degrees.