From Quantity to Quality to Value

Where did the credit hour unit of measurement in higher education come from? It came from Morris Llewellyn Cooke, in a report he wrote in 1910 titled: “Academic and Industrial Efficiency: A Report to the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching,” Cooke was a close colleague of Frederick Winslow Taylor, and a key contributor in the creation of Scientific Management System (application of the scientific method to management, which today we call “Lean management”).

Cooke was assigned the task of examining the efficiency of selected institutions of higher education in the U.S. and Canada. Upon investigation, this turned out to be a very difficult thing to do because there was no metric in place for which to measure efficiency. So Cooke invented the student hour, later known as the credit hour. Cooke defined the student-hour as (page 19):

“By a student-hour is meant one hour of lectures, of laboratory work, or recitation-room work, for a single pupil. Thus, a section of thirty students on a three hours’ laboratory period would mean ninety student-hours.”

Cook then goes on to explain the many ways in which the student-hour can be used to gauge academic and operating efficiency.

The student-hour is, of course, a quantity-based measure, something for which Cook was very familiar with in his practice of Scientific Management industry – in particular, manufacturing. Cook’s student-hour was a reasonable metric to start with at the time. Yet, it has failed to evolve over time. Today, the Code of Federal Regulation defines the credit hour in a similar manner:

“Credit hour: Except as provided in 34 CFR 668.8(k) and (l), a credit hour is an amount of work represented in intended learning outcomes and verified by evidence of student achievement that is an institutionally established equivalency that reasonably approximates not less than—

(1) One hour of classroom or direct faculty instruction and a minimum of two hours of out of class student work each week for approximately fifteen weeks for one semester or trimester hour of credit, or ten to twelve weeks for one quarter hour of credit, or the equivalent amount of work over a different amount of time; or

(2) At least an equivalent amount of work as required in paragraph (1) of this definition for other academic activities as established by the institution including laboratory work, internships, practica, studio work, and other academic work leading to the award of credit hours.”

Fundamentally, the credit hour remains a quantity based measure, with a tie to outcomes (a thin proxy for quality) via the words “…intended learning outcomes and verified by evidence of student achievement…” So, a professor who meets the quantity definition and who states the learning outcomes and then evaluates students’ work relative to those outcomes satisfies the definition.

Over time, the quantity measure should have been accompanied by a sensible quality measure. Standardized test scores is not a sensible quality measure. Total Quality Management (TQM) found its way into higher education in the early 1990s and articulated the “what to do,” but it was mostly a failure because TQM did not provide the “how to do it.” Further, people did not comprehend quality in teaching nor in the administration of shared-governance institutions. As a result, people spent more time in meetings talking about TQM or writing plans and reports rather than making actual improvements.  

Failure, however, means to understand the root cause, identify and implement practical countermeasures, and try again. It does not mean to give up, as most colleges and universities have done. 

For teaching, we can define quality in a simple way, as the absence of teaching errors (as described in Lean Teaching), and work forward from there to improve both definition and practice. In addition to this, we must improve all academic and administrative processes to improve value as perceived by students and payers (as described in Lean University). This helps move us beyond the quantity measure of credit hour.

Unlike TQM, Lean management offers both the “what to do” and “how to do it” elements necessary to make actual improvements quickly, and which people recognize as beneficial to all. And, it helps define, measure, keep track of, and improve quantity, quality, and value over time. Alternative approaches to improving higher education may have merit, but they are fundamentally zero-sum (win-lose) in nature and lack any focus on process improvement. While appearing to be improvements, alternative approaches to delivering higher education will suffer due to the existence of bad processes – just as bad processes are pervasive in the way higher education is delivered today.

Lean simultaneously delivers both innovation – practical new ways of doing things – and process improvement that is focused on the needs of students and payers. This is what makes Lean such a powerful management practice. The scientific method applied to management is far more helpful to all stakeholders than a potpourri of prescriptions for improvement that are good for some stakeholders and bad for others. The Lean management principle, “Respect for People” (win-win outcomes for all stakeholders), is the difference-maker when it comes to continuous improvement.

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