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Feds Debate Mods to Credit Hour Definition

How long is a credit hour? That's the question at the heart of a discussion going on in a committee of distance learning influencers who are part of a negotiated rulemaking process that has met for the last three months to set out a proposal for federal regulation on accreditation for the U.S. Department of Education.

Earlier this week, according to reporting on Inside Higher Ed, the subcommittee on Distance Learning and Educational Innovation heard from agency representatives a proposal that the existing definition be eliminated. Currently, a credit hour equates to an hour of in-class instruction with two additional hours of student work each week during a 15-week semester. That definition has become a de facto standard used by accrediting and state agencies in assessing institutions that accept federal financial aid.

The Department of Ed proposed early in the rulemaking process that the standing definition be discarded to allow accreditors and institutions themselves the freedom to determine what a credit hour should consist of. At issue is enabling universities and colleges to experiment or innovate with programs, such as competency-based education, which replaces time in the credit equation with mastery of a learning outcome. The question is how to put alternatives in place without bad players exploiting loose rules.

According to Inside Higher Ed, Leah Matthews, executive director of the Distance Education Accrediting Commission, said that accepting the proposed language would result in "stripping away a tool that has given accreditation some teeth to question the type of academic work that's going into the credit hour."

Agency officials suggested a counter-proposal that would remove the out-of-class component but retain the in-class requirement while also adding language with more flexibility for schools and accreditors.

Reporter Mark Lieberman said the response from the subcommittee was "largely negative." The issue will be taken up later this month by the larger rule-making committee, when it meets for the third and final time between March 25 and 28.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal and Campus Technology. She can be reached at dian@dischaffhauser.com or on Twitter @schaffhauser.

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