Blumenstyck, G. (2010) Beyond the Credit Hour: Old Standards Don’t Fit New Models Chronicle of Higher Education, January 3

Blumenstyck writes:

In the era of distance education and a growing movement toward the “unbundling” of higher education to allow for study outside traditional classroom formats, has the “credit hour” become a relic?

The credit hour “is the coin of the realm, but it’s badly in need of an update,” argues Robert W. Mendenhall, president of Western Governors University, the 10-year-old nonprofit institution known for its competency-based system for awarding degrees. “It’s time we measured learning rather than time.”

This article is in response partly to the criticism of a U.S. accrediting agency for giving accreditation to a distance program based on accelerated five-week, nine-credit courses. In the U.K. on the other hand, the government is proposing some two year, ‘accelerated’ bachelor’s degrees.

The issue of ‘credit hours’ for distance courses was tackled as long ago as 1971 by the British Open University, which came up with a total hours of study per course model, which turned out to be similar, if not higher, than the average study time per full-time face-to-face student, but spread out over a longer period.

However, the issue has changed somewhat with the move to competency-based learning.  I interviewed an instructor in electronics at a Canadian two-year college who had moved much of his course online. He found that 75% of the students completed a 13 week face-to-face course in six weeks to the same standard. He was then told he had to add extra classes for the rest of the semester!

For me, the issue is not trying to match distance courses to credit hours, but changing the classroom model so that learning is measured, not study time as expressed in lecture hours. As the article says, this is probably the biggest systemic issue around improving teaching. Certainly, the notion of a standard number of lecture hours as the measure for funding and accreditation is preventing real innovation in technology-based learning.

Furthermore, if we could replace the credit hour with measures of learning, then we could abolish the semester system, and allow students to work at their own pace, with some students taking less than the standard 13 weeks, and others taking longer. Technology can enable the flexibility in the organization of teaching that this requires, by creating digital learning materials that are available 24/7.


  1. The credit hour was a relic when I was taking classes 25 years ago. As everyone knew, some classes could be completed very quickly, and others were time-sinks. The ‘hour’ in credit hour was never a unit of time (outside some registrar’s imagination).


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