Bending the Educational Cost Curve

Technology will be one of the essential factors if we hope to bend the educational cost curve. Like health care, but unlike other consumer goods and services, tuition in the past two-decades has risen much faster than either real wages or inflation.

July 11, 2010

Technology will be one of the essential factors if we hope to bend the educational cost curve. Like health care, but unlike other consumer goods and services, tuition in the past two-decades has risen much faster than either real wages or inflation. Where in real dollars the costs of products such as computers, cars, durable goods and food have decreased while quality has improved, education costs have risen between 4 and 6 percent each year. The cost of paying for education is increasingly shifted from public to private payers, as states reduce support for public institutions, forcing students to borrow more to pay the tuition bills.

How can technology help bend the higher ed cost curve?

--Hybrid Classes: We are at the point in the evolution of learning technology platforms that we can create technology enabled courses that both increase class quality while reducing the number of "in-classroom" hours that need to occur. Moving one hour out of every three to an online asynchronous environment using a learning management system (LMS) can dramatically free up classroom space. These free classrooms can accommodate more courses, therefore increasing enrollments. Creating more output (students educated) with equal or less inputs (classroom buildings), while maintaining or improving quality is the definition of an increase in productivity. Learning technology platforms are much less expensive and can be scaled faster and more efficiently than new buildings. The argument that quality suffers with hybrid courses is no longer tenable given the twin developments in pedagogy and technology that define the last decade in higher education.

--Non-Traditional Online Courses: By non-traditional, I mean using online courses to serve the existing student population more efficiently. I've long thought that too much time is wasted in a traditional 4 year degree, and that educational technology platforms and online learning could reduce time-to-graduation (and increase retentionl). We could offer online courses to students during the long breaks that they would otherwise not be on campus, such as summers or over long-holiday breaks. Why do we stick with the traditional 3 credit course, when we could design mini 1-credit courses that students could string together to get closer to meet graduation requirements? Can we get some course work done online during high school, so that students arrive on campus maybe knowing some of our professors and understanding what college level work is all about. What about adding a few extra online courses in each year so that students can receive a bachelor and masters degree in five years?

--Bigger Classes: I know the idea of increasing class size, so that schools can admit more students and therefore increase overall tuition while reducing costs for individuals, will seem unwise. We all like small classes. Nor would I recommend this methodology for every institution, as hybrid classes and the creative use of online courses may be more appropriate for increasing productivity in some settings. But the fact is that we know how to make big classes feel and act like small classes if we can invest the proper inputs into each course. These inputs include a partnership with the faculty member to build in active, authentic and personalized learning opportunities facilitated by both technology and advanced learning design methods. This is a case where investing up-front dollars in courses yields downstream results of improved quality and higher productivity. I am not saying anything new here, as NCAT has demonstrated time and time again that their methodologies for large-scale course redesign can increase quality while reducing costs.

One of the main points that Kamenetz brought home to me in DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education is that tuition trends will not moderate (or decrease) until higher ed becomes more productive. This means educating more students without spending more money. We need our institutions to become less selective, to admit more applicants, while at the same time increasing the quality and relevance of the education that is received. The leadership within our institutions, the presidents and provosts and deans and chairs etc., should be asking the CIOs and the academic technology directors about how we can increase productivity. And people in educational technology leadership positions should be making this our number one priority. We all need to participate and succeed in the bending the educational cost curve.

Do you have any success stories you can share of projects you were involved with to utilize technology to increase enrollments while both holding costs steady and increasing quality? If your president or provost came to you tomorrow, what specific steps would you recommend?


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