If you're a teacher, you've probably seen this meme pop up a few times in your social media feeds:
It reminded me of something my former professor Tom McCambridge once said, which was an idea to the effect that the only way education could really work would be to have kids meet with teachers individually, just the way doctors and lawyers meet with their clients individually. Or the way tutors used to teach the wealthy (individually or in small sibling groups) before everyone went to secondary school. But now everyone would have such a tutor.
I always liked that idea, though you can't idealize the schedules of doctors and lawyers. My primary care physician told me she has to treat one or two patients every fifteen minutes. That sounds pretty harrowing.
But I also thought about one of my graduate school instructors, who had been educated in the U.K. For his Masters degree in English, he never attended "class," he told us. Instead, he had met individually each week with his advisor.
All these things kept coming to mind recently because I teach online now and lots of people are using the Carnegie unit formula to make all sorts of analogies for what we should do in our online classes. "In the classroom three hours a week for a three-unit class? Great. Be on those discussion boards three hours a week for your online class!" But my class is not a class in discussion; it's a class in composition. How many times have I been frustrated in my face-to-face class because so much time is wasted doing only the things I can do with twenty-five people (group work, whole-class discussion) rather than individual reading and writing consultations? Finally, the online environment doesn't chain us to the three hours of lecture plus six hours of homework formula that's been the law and the model since so long ago.
It's not that I think my students shouldn't interact with each other. I love discussing literature with them and hearing them discuss it with each other. I loved being in English classes as a student and participating in discussions. Everyone knows that good writers must read a lot and talk about their reading.
But the hard truth is that, to write an essay, a person must sit and be thoughtful and write alone. And the teacher must sit, also thoughtful and also alone, and read it. I can only read one person's essay at a time. I can discuss that essay with that person. Or maybe, at most, we could have three people and all have read each other's essays and be having a conversation. Large groups and the long hours in class prevent teachers from being able to give enough feedback on writing. I like being a college teacher more than a high school teacher because the college schedule gives me more time alone, both to provide meaningful commentary upon my students' writing and to prepare meaningful lessons for the time that we are together in large numbers in class.
Lecturing to large groups of passive receptacles has long gone out of favor. So, why are we still using the Carnegie unit, which is based on that model of teaching? The Carnegie unit assumes a group of homogeneous, traditional students motivated enough to actively listen to that lecture. (It also assumes that one mode of delivery is best for all subjects.) We no longer assume that the lecture part will still work; why do we continue to assume that the three hours together will still work?
In online classes students and teacher are not all effectively locked into a classroom together for a set amount of time. With this freedom, writing professors could spend more time providing better feedback on their students' essays and giving them more individualized attention than they can in their face-to-face classes.
The Carnegie unit is an outmoded concept that should not be constraining the ways we imagine our online classes. Or our on-ground classes anymore.
And who knows? It may not. As grades have become untrustworthy and students are now to be measured on student or course learning outcomes, will anyone care ultimately HOW a student achieves the outcome, as long as he/she does? The idea that everyone needs the exact same amount of time in class to achieve any particular outcome seems impossible to defend in this day and age.