Can Education Be "Productive"?

By Carol A. Twigg
Educom Review, Vol. 28, No. 6, November/December 1993

For the past several years, an ever increasing number and variety of articles, speeches, editorials, and conference discussions have appeared concerning the burgeoning cost of higher education. The litany of criticism has become familiar: costs that increase faster than the rate of inflation, loss of public confidence in higher education's ability to deliver what it promises, concern about how faculty spend their time and effort, worry that administrators have somehow lost control of the process, and, perhaps most importantly, a sense that there are few substantive proposals on the table to address these problems. Like the weather, everyone talks about the need to deal with the cost issue, but no one seems to do anything about it. It is time to begin a national discussion that focuses on solutions rather than on the problem.

It seems clear to me that, at this point, we cannot "solve" the problem of increased cost in higher education; we can only point the way to its solution. And while there is no one right way to deal with the problem, we need to focus the discussion and encourage debate on why certain directions, certain actions make more sense than others. We need to identify what strategic actions will yield the greatest results and benefits. In an effort to stimulate this discussion, I would like to describe some of the components of the solution that, I believe, are fundamental.


As we consider possible ways of controlling the cost of higher education, it is useful to begin with a set of basic assumptions about the future. First, we know that the demand for higher education will continue to increase. To remain competitive in a global economy, American citizens will need more education, better education, education that continues throughout their working lives. Second, if higher education continues to rely on the traditional classroom-based, faculty-centered, labor-intensive mode of instruction—what Bob Heterick has called the credit-for-contact model—our costs will continue to increase as personnel costs inexorably rise. Third, while personnel costs continue to go up, the cost of information technology will continue to decline. When considered in relation to one another, these three factors point to solutions that utilize information technology to increase access to learning for students while diminishing the amount of faculty direct intervention in the process.


A number of proposals to solve the cost problem ignore the potential role of information technology. These generally fall into two categories: those emanating from outside higher education and those emanating from within. The external solutions are typically, to use an old labor term, a call for "speed up." Increased class size, increased contact hours, greater time spent on teaching rather than research fall within this category. Of course, these solutions are imposed by default each time institutional budgets are cut and no alternative strategies are offered. The difficulty with this approach is obvious: overcrowded classes and overworked faculty shortchange students and compromise quality. While some short-term gains may be realized by institutional belt-tightening, these measures are insufficient to mitigate the problem in the long run.

There are a number of inventive but, I believe, ultimately unrealizable proposals coming from within higher education. These proposals, typified by the call for a three-year baccalaureate, tend to focus on curricular reform of one kind of another. The extensive work of Robert Zempsky and William Massy on reversing the "academic ratchet" falls into this category. In a recent issue of Change Magazine, Zemsky and Massy propose the simplification of curricula--i.e., the reduction of course offerings—as a way to control costs. Their assumption seems to be that the traditional method of faculty instructional delivery cannot be changed; therefore, to control costs, what they offer must be reduced. While correctly identifying the problem, their proposals move in the direction of limiting options for students at a time when more options are needed.


If we anticipate a future where more students need more learning, there is only one way to meet this need without diminishing the quality of their learning experiences: we must change the way we deliver education. Any strategy for increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of higher education without diminishing student access will need to include these key elements:

-- a reduction in the labor intensive quality of instruction

Approximately 80% of the costs of colleges and universities are personnel costs; consequently, controlling costs means reducing the direct, personal intervention of faculty where possible in the teaching and learning process. Faculty will need to learn to "teach" in different ways, to be enablers and managers of student learning, an approach already familiar to and favored by many of our best. Such an approach is decidedly pro-faculty; without it, their numbers will inevitably decline and their workload will increase, given the compelling cost problems our institutions face.

-- the creation of alternative instructional delivery formats that focus on independent learning and self-study

Much of the software currently available consists of small pieces of courses that illustrate particular concepts or that supplement the traditional classroom experience. As such, they tend to be add-ons that can increase rather than decrease faculty workload—i.e., they represent additional materials that must be mastered by the faculty member and incorporated into existing instructional practice. While much of this software undoubtedly increases the quality of student learning experience, the increases in time faculty must spend to use it often contributes to the well-recognized resistance of the majority of college faculty to adopt instructional software. Without the creation of an instructional delivery system that enables students to satisfy their own learning needs largely independently, the faculty task will continue to be labor intensive.

-- proof that IT can help colleges become more cost effective

A convincing case capable of persuading presidents, provosts, and other higher education decision makers that IT can help colleges become more cost effective must be made. Such a case has, of necessity, two components: the evaluation of learning outcomes (proving quality) and an economic analysis of cost savings (proving efficiency)

Our community has had greater success in proving the former than the latter. There is a lot of indication that academic software can improve the quality of student learning, but there is very little evidence that it can improve its efficiency, largely because such evidence has not been sought. To make the case, we need to create compelling examples that scale—i.e., that will affect large numbers of college students. In order to overcome the substantial and justifiable skepticism of non-technologists who have heard the plausible promises of the technology-based instructional revolution with each new wave of technology, we need to demonstrate that linking IT with alternative delivery methodologies can indeed reduce costs while improving the quality of student learning.


Our accumulated body of practice in the field of technology-mediated instruction tells us that there are a number of problems that must be solved in order to make progress. A successful strategy that employs IT to reduce costs in higher education must deal with the following four areas:

-- the need for standards

In a recent T.H.E. Journal Guest Editorial, Fred Hofstettar summarizes the problems associated with the lack of standardization: "Instead of uniting the nation's best minds toward creating a compatible cross-platform system for delivering multimedia instruction, the computer industry is hard at work creating multiple standards and competing products. . . . Computer industry leaders fail to recognize how self-defeating this lack of standardization is." Using the establishment of the MIDI standard in the music industry as an example, Hofstettar points out how through standardization the market can grow exponentially to the mutual benefit of vendors and consumers. Without the establishment of standards, Hofstettar notes, as much as two-thirds of development time is spent dealing with changes in operating systems and incompatibilities between platforms, severely retarding the development and adoption of multimedia-based educational products.

-- the integration of instruction and assessment

In order to reduce the labor intensity of using technology-mediated learning materials, assessment of student learning must be an integral part of the materials. If evaluation is not built into the materials, individual faculty members are obliged to learn the materials in great detail, create individual tests and grade the results. Faculty and institutions need to be confident that broadly recognized assessment instruments are a part of the instructional design.

-- the importance of flexible, modularized design

Individual institutions, departments and professors have different expectations for instructional materials in part because they serve different markets. The collective student body of American higher education is exceedingly diverse. Whether they move on to college directly from high school or return after years of experience in the workforce, students consistently bring different skill levels to the same learning experience. Made increasingly possible and practical by the power of information technology, modularized design in both instructional materials and assessment instruments is essential.

-- a consistent method of product development and quality control

The development of educational software has largely been the product of individual faculty effort, sometimes sponsored by agencies of the federal government, rather than the result of private sector investment. The difficulties of sustaining ongoing development and consistent quality control under these circumstances are virtually insurmountable. The perennial, plaintive pleas to change the tenure and promotion reward structure to recognize software creation have as their source the notion that this would somehow solve this problem. In contrast, the educational arena is permeated by a potent example of how this issue might be addressed in that of the textbook industry. We need to involve those whose business is the development, production, distribution and marketing of educational products in solving this problem and allow the marketplace to assess and reward software creators.


The history of change in American higher education tells us that lasting change is usually stimulated not from within but from without. Once the change has been initiated, however, American colleges and universities have again and again shown their ability to respond creatively and effectively. Discussions of efficiency are both unfamiliar and uncomfortable to the academic world. Have you noticed that when the issue of efficiency is raised in a group of educators, the conversation immediately turns to discussions of quality as if the two were inextricably opposed to one another? We tend to assume that increasing academic productivity is good for taxpayers and for others who foot the bills, but perhaps not so good for students and faculty. I believe that both students and faculty will benefit from the changes that will result as we solve this crucial problem. Our challenge lies in bringing the collective wisdom of our community to bear on how we do so in the most creative and effective ways we can imagine.

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