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Does the Academic Calendar Still Work?

In a recent discussion on health care shortages among western state higher education planners, I heard the suggestion to use more distance education for training of specially skilled nurses. However, as one healthcare professional noted, people moving through a career in nursing who need additional education cannot always fit their lives into the schedules our traditional institutions use. They cannot always start the programs they need in the fall. They have families and careers that create demands on their time, which are usually more important than the class schedules made available to them. Yet we need more highly trained nurses.

The Center for Academic Transformation, under the Pew Learning and Technology Program ( and headed by Carol Twigg, has funded several projects that underscore these challenges to the traditional academic calendar. Some of the technology-mediated learning projects allow students to progress through their academic materials at their own pace. If a student completes her course in 10 weeks instead of the 15 weeks that the semester lasts, she has to wait almost two months before she can begin the follow-up course. Another student may need 19 weeks to master the material.

Here’s the dilemma: How can our higher education system simultaneously recognize students’ learning-pace variability and still measure progress toward the completion of a degree or certificate in credit-hours that are based on standardized term lengths? Since I believe that student learning is more important than our legacy accounting-for-learning system, it seems we need to modify the latter. What could take the place of credit hours? For public colleges and universities, credit hours are the building blocks on which their state reimbursements are determined. Academic recognition of the highest achievers in the form of grade point averages is also based on credit hours. We do seem to have a great need to measure and recognize really good students versus those that are just mediocre.

Obviously, we need a system to account for student progress and excellence, but perhaps it d'es not have to be based in lock-stepped time increments. Perhaps we could still use a time dependent system that allows individuals to continue their progress at different rates. If we were to move to a system of measuring student progress based on the demonstrated mastery of material in a “course,” we could then differentiate among students based how long it took them to reach that mastery.

My colleagues Peter Ewell and Karen Paulson at the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems (NCHEMS) and I have written a monograph to be published this fall by the American Council of Education and Educause that explores this idea in much greater depth. One thing we did not talk about was whether higher education is ready to jettison the “credit hour,” at least as a universally recognized term.

I saw a magazine advertisement the other day that may offer a solution. A particular car was described as having some high number of “horsepower”. While that term had a concrete meaning at one time, it seems fairly arbitrary at this point. How many modern drivers have the actual experience of riding a horse to enable them compare it with a car? Maybe we can adopt the strategy of keeping the term “credit hour” but with a new meaning, one not tied to any particular chronological period.

About the Author

Sally Johnstone is founding director of the Western Cooperative for Educational Telecommunications (WCET) and serves on advisory groups for state, national, and international organizations to help plan and evaluate eLearning projects.

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