The mudslinging in the debate over the use of digital courseware has reached Hatfield-and-McCoy levels of feuding. I have heard at least one higher education leader say, “The only faculty that are afraid of being replaced by digital courseware are those who deserve to be replaced by digital courseware.” Also heard are descriptors such as: rigid, skeptical, curmudgeon, Luddite, etc. On the other side, there are the “reformers” and “disruptive innovators” who are criticized for seeing technology as a panacea.
The enthusiastic debate about digital courseware’s adoption and its impact on student outcomes is caused in part by mounting pressure on faculty to change and, especially, to use more technology in their teaching. Too often, though, faculty are considered as a monolithic group, facing the same challenges across many different types of institutions and student populations. Our research shows that this oversimplifies the perspectives of faculty and the challenges that institutions and instructors face as they grapple with elevated outcome expectations and capacity constraints.
There is more texture to the debate than the view that it’s about brash proponents of using digital courseware squaring off with change-resistant opponents. And this oversimplification sprouts problems beyond mischaracterizations of faculty. The common belief that faculty members are blockers to digital curriculum adoption pushes those who are attempting to advance technology use on campus to adopt strategies that circumvent faculty members instead of directly engaging them. This creates a harmful cycle in which the concerns of faculty members are not addressed, new platforms are created or adopted with incomplete information, and administrators and faculty members on both sides of the technology-adoption debate remain frustrated.
So, what’s really behind faculty members’ resistance? Fundamentally, most faculty are open to using digital courseware, but are so dissatisfied with the prevailing user experience that they are unlikely to recommend their current digital curriculum to a colleague. In surveying 2,700 faculty and administrators in the summer of 2014, our research identified four unique faculty groups on campuses across the United States. Common attributes, behaviors and mind-sets among faculty in these groups help to uncover the layers underneath faculty members’ perspectives on digital curricula. Below is a chart that will help you identify which group you or your faculty fit into, and a snapshot of our findings on each group.
Off-the-Shelfers: This group is moderately open to the use of courseware. They represent 21 percent of faculty. Off-the-Shelfers are more heavily concentrated in public two-year institutions and career-focused disciplines. These individuals value ease of use and implementation and are less inclined to develop their own curricula than their peers. Additionally, analysis links their cost sensitivity to this institutional and discipline concentration.
Unconvinced Do-It-Yourselfers: This group is open to the use of courseware but is still looking for proven improved outcomes. They represent 25 percent of faculty. Unconvinced DIYers want control over curriculum decisions and are open to how courseware might enable this, however, they are not yet convinced that the cost of using courseware is worth the potential benefits.
Enthusiastic Do-It-Yourselfers: At 13 percent of the population, Enthusiastic DIYers look very similar to Unconvinced DIYers in their perceptions and preferences, but they report higher satisfaction with digital courseware than their peers. Generally, Enthusiastic DIYers have not earned tenure or are not on a tenure track and have been teaching for fewer than 10 years.
Lecturing Skeptics: Representing 31 percent of all faculty, Lecturing Skeptics are the faculty most likely to deliver instruction through a lecture format, the least likely to instruct online. They are most likely to prefer proven teaching methods. These are the more traditional drivers of the teaching and learning process, to whom digital courseware has yet to prove itself. Lecturing Skeptics are more likely to teach in arts and social science disciplines than members of other segments.
When faculty survey respondents were asked whether they would recommend their courseware product to a friend or colleague at their own or another institution, only one of the four segments, Enthusiastic DIYers, exhibited a positive net promoter score (NPS), meaning that a greater portion of the group would be promoters of courseware than would be detractors. The negative NPS from three of the four groups of faculty reflects the overall level of dissatisfaction with courseware that faculty members feel.
What does this all mean? Ultimately, we found that each faculty group reveals insights that can be used to engage with those who are unconvinced and skeptical. For courseware developers, these findings are a loud call to rethink their approach to user input in their design process. The truth is that faculty are decision makers and key stakeholders. They have influence to redefine the courseware category and to improve the experience for students and faculty. More than anything, internal and external stakeholders and decision makers need to understand these faculty groups and what is driving their behavior. Ongoing failure to listen and respond to faculty needs will only reinforce resistance.
Digital curricula in the hands of supported and equipped instructors have significant potential to personalize learning and to lead to the delivery of high-quality education that meets the needs of today’s postsecondary students. But that impact will only be realized if technology solutions are able to successfully scale. New offerings with greater capacity to adapt to faculty needs are unlikely to transition from pilot to scale unless more than just the early adopters or “tech-savvy” faculty are engaged from the beginning.
The legendary 1870s feud between West Virginia families the Hatfields and the McCoys -- from disputes over land, prized pigs, interfamily romances and no fewer than 10 revenge killings -- wasn’t a simple one, either. (But the families did reunite in 1979 for a more palatable version on the game show Family Feud -- no joke!) Only by moving the conversation from oversimplified mischaracterizations to engagement of all faculty in the process to address needs and the barriers to adoption will we be able to redefine the digital courseware experience and achieve personalized learning for all students.
Gates Bryant is a partner with Tyton Partners, the former Education Growth Advisors, which provides investment banking and strategy consulting services to companies, organizations and investors.
For today’s enrollment manager, it’s nearly impossible to go a week without someone forwarding an article about another college trying a new way to describe the difference between its listed sticker price, the actual cost of attendance and the institution’s discount rate. The current funding model for higher education is broken and we can only blame ourselves for creating a norm of bargain basement pricing for those families in the know, opaque business models and unexplained annual increases based more on competitors’ current price tag rather than our actual campus needs. We continue to play a game of chicken as we wait for a so-called peer to do what we need to do.
On my own campus, we’ve been discussing this issue for several years and have yet to figure out what, if any, changes we should make, but we do know that honesty is a safe bet.
Gimmicks like so-called tuition resets and freezes, as well as “inflation +” models, are our industry’s desperate attempts to respond to critics and to try to appease the price police, when perhaps we should be discussing why we cost so much instead. These efforts are often undertaken in response to the chorus of calls for affordability, but they seldom illustrate for whom the experience will be more affordable.
Neither these efforts nor simply sticking with the status quo are acceptable over the long term -- families deserve additional information before they pay tuition or incur debt to cover campus costs. But any change has a substantial impact and cannot create spiraling financial scenarios for our campuses, either.
There are significant risks involved in changing how we discuss pricing, cost and value. Private colleges, as tuition-dependent institutions, are hesitant to try something new, especially if all of our peers stick with the currently murky language and approaches to cost and price.
As an industry, we need to work at getting it right for our students, which includes lowering actual costs for students and maintaining sufficient revenue to deliver on our mission. Meanwhile, we are muddling through how we describe our costs, often with too many apologies, and witnessing the shuttering of campuses across the country that didn’t find the right programmatic offerings, words or approaches to make themselves institutions of choice for students.
As best I can tell, there are no clear or easy solutions, but there are a few key elements we need to stress in future rhetoric and approaches:
A clear rationale for a new model. Families would benefit from an honest conversation with college leaders about why unfunded tuition discounting cannot continue at the current rate and why discounting has a negative impact on a college’s short- and long-term finances and bond rating. Further, colleges need to clearly describe their business model to their campus constituents, students and parents of current students and delineate how the annual operation is funded. Finally, leaders need to acknowledge that percentage increases in tuition costs cannot continue in perpetuity. At some point we will price ourselves out of the market and into bankruptcy.
Genuine reductions in cost to students. In too many cases, a clear illustration of exactly what has changed and how much less a student will pay is missing entirely from the launch of a new plan. Some institutions reference averages or scenarios for the financially neediest students while ignoring the middle class. Seldom is there a clear statement that all students will pay at least $XXXX less to attend the next year. I realize this is pretty tricky -- saying that the education offered is less expensive than the previous year -- but this is exactly what’s missing and why many of the efforts so far seem to miss the mark. Without a clear explanation to students and families of the financial benefits of a new model, colleges remain vulnerable to criticism that a new model really doesn’t change the cost of attendance to the student (a criticism that is fair in many cases). Colleges need to clearly articulate whether or not students will benefit.
Substantive changes to the business model and how we operate as institutions. One of the reasons many newly introduced models for calculating costs and how they are applied are viewed as gimmicky is because there is no clear explanation of what (if anything) has changed. Will changes in pricing result in a reduction of departments or student services? Is the college dependent on increasing the size of the student body to make up for lost revenue? Has the college become more efficient? Will the college open a new line of business to generate more revenue? How things will change is the key unanswered question, and our public is smart enough to want to know what changes -- and theoretically reductions -- will occur before they commit.
Sufficient marketing of any new model. While I’ve seen some clever YouTube videos and good press releases, strong marketing of a new model seems pretty limited. Some colleges don’t want to be seen “wasting money” on marketing when trying to prove to the world that they care about reducing costs to students. Additionally, many colleges view new models as highly risky, and they don’t want the hangover of a marketing rollout if it doesn’t work. However, the lack of a confident marketing plan results in most of these efforts being viewed as isolated, gimmicky or done with an ulterior motive, like lowering the price to attract more students because there is excess capacity to educate and house them on campus. An aggressive and comprehensive public relations and marketing campaign would have great benefit to a college if it really does want to transform the model and be a market leader.
Clear connection between price and return. Although there have been recent efforts to describe the return on investment of a college degree, historically speaking, connecting price with results and service has been inadequate at best and incredibly opaque at worst. There are so many questions to consider: What goes into a “comprehensive fee”? How does what a student pays for, and gets, differ from year to year in order to justify an increase or not? Are the services students receive as first-year students more comprehensive than as seniors? Should having a full-time faculty member as an adviser add value and cost? Colleges must do a better job connecting the price of attendance with what a student receives from year to year.
Even if a college committed to addressing these missing pieces, could it transform how we calculate cost of attendance for the student and the institution? I don’t know for certain. But a college that starts out willing to change the business model, reduce the actual price (and cost) for students, clearly describe what a student gets for what he or she pays, and aggressively market a new cost/price model -- that college would get attention. And that would be one of those articles forwarded to me that I would be interested to read.
W. Kent Barnds is executive vice president and vice president of enrollment, communication and planning at Augustana College, in Rock Island, Ill.