Improving Learning and Cutting Costs

Carol A. Twigg writes that colleges can use course redesign to accomplish several key goals at the same time.

November 2, 2005

The continued rising cost of a college education threatens to put a high quality education out of reach for many Americans. It is incumbent upon America’s higher education system to figure out a way to resolve the seemingly intractable conflict between cost and quality. This is not news.

What is news is that there is now proof that colleges and universities can improve student learning while reducing instructional costs.

Thirty diverse institutions have been able to increase student success while simultaneously lowering the cost of doing so. How have they done it? Like most industries in the United States, these colleges and universities are taking advantage of the capabilities of information technology to improve quality and increase
productivity by letting go of an outdated, labor-intensive instructional model. They are proving, conclusively that, by redesigning the way in which we provide collegiate instruction, we can provide a better education at a lower cost. 

The name of this effort, which involved 55,000 students annually, is the Program in Course Redesign, led by the National Center for Academic Transformation. The center has been able to show how technology can be used to achieve quality enhancements and cost savings. In a recent review of the program presented to Lumina Foundation for Education, researchers showed improved student learning in 25 of the 30 projects, with the remaining 5 showing learning equivalent to traditional formats. All 30 institutions reduced their costs for the courses involved by 37 percent percent on average (ranging from 15 percent to 77 percent) and produced a collective annual savings of $3 million. Of the 24 that measured retention, 18 showed noticeable increases.

Additional analysis of the data shows that course redesign increases the achievement of all students, including traditionally underserved ones (students of color, low-income students and adults), thus dispelling the myth that technology and underserved students do not mix.

The redesign projects focus on large-enrollment, introductory courses, which have the potential of helping significant student numbers and generating substantial cost savings. Undergraduate enrollments in the United States are concentrated heavily in only a few academic areas. Just 25 courses generate about 50 percent of student enrollment at the community college level and about 35 percent of enrollment at the baccalaureate level. Successful completion of these courses is critical for student progress toward a degree. But typical failure rates in many of these courses -- 15 percent at research universities, 30 to 40 percent at comprehensive universities, and 50 to 60 percent at community colleges -- contribute heavily to drop-out rates between the first and second year.

In order to have a significant impact on large numbers of students, institutions should concentrate on redesigning the 25 courses in which most students are enrolled instead of putting a lot of energy into improving quality or cutting costs in disparate small-enrollment courses.

The redesign projects are moving students from a passive “note-taking” role to an emphasis on reading, exploring, and problem-solving.

Demonstrable gains in student learning have been produced through: continuous assessment and diagnostic feedback; increased collaboration among students; computer lab hours in which faculty and or/peer tutors provide one-on-one assistance; and online tutorials. These instructional techniques are hardly revolutionary. What has changed dramatically is our capacity to incorporate good pedagogical practice into courses with very large numbers of students -- a task that would have been impossible without technology.

At the same time, the instructional redesign is helping institutions save money.

At many community colleges, it takes students an average of about two-and-a-half times to pass introductory math courses. Enabling students to pass key courses in fewer attempts generates considerable savings in institutional resources and in student time and tuition.

The major cost item in instruction is personnel, so reducing the time that faculty members and other personnel invest in a course and transferring some of these tasks to technology-assisted activities are key strategies to freeing up resources to be used elsewhere.

Among the most effective cost reduction techniques are: on-line course management systems, automated assessment of homework, quizzes, and tests, online tutorials, shared resources for course development, utilizing undergraduate learning assistants instead of graduate students, and using the Web to reduce classroom space requirements.

For example, Rio Salado College redesigned four online pre-calculus mathematics courses taught previously by four instructors. By taking advantage of instructional software by Plato Learning and a non-academic course assistant who monitored student progress and addressed all non-math-related e-mails (an astounding 90 percent of all interactions), one instructor is now able to teach 100 students concurrently enrolled in any of the four courses and provide more individualized help. Three instructors have been freed up to increase enrollment in these courses or to offer additional upper division courses. Most important, student retention in those courses increased from 59 percent to 65 percent.

Perhaps the biggest stumbling block that prevents institutions from embarking on a redesign program is the immediate response that most academics have when they hear the words "reducing costs." And, as you might guess, that response is rarely positive. Most academics (and most people in general) associate "loss of jobs" or "heavier workloads" with cost reduction. That's really not surprising since that's how costs have been controlled in higher education for at least the past two decades.

What's different about this approach to cost reduction is that rather than taking resources away from institutions, course redesign frees instructional resources to be used for other purposes such as developing new programs, serving more students or responding to areas of pressing need. What the institutions involved have in common is that insufficient resources have prevented them from doing all of the things they want to do. Course redesign lets you do what you want to do if you had more resources -- it lets you achieve what's on your wish list.

We need to change the national conversation about what is possible. Once we break the higher-quality-more-money nexus, we can unleash the creative energies of hundreds -- indeed thousands -- of faculty members, professional staff and administrators to work on redesigning courses.

The solution is not to throw money at the problem. The solution is to work together to re-think the ways we teach and the ways students learn. By building on these course redesign principles, we can create a 21st century higher education system that will serve our nation well.


Carol A. Twigg is president of the National Center for Academic Transformation, which serves as a resource for colleges on how effective use of information technology can improve student learning while reducing instructional costs. This article is based on a paper Twigg wrote for the Lumina Foundation for Education, which is sponsoring a meeting in Washington today to explore college cost issues.


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top