Effects of technology adoption on quality and cost


This final post in my series related to educational technology ends on a positive note. The first post I listed some recent facts about changes in the global education system, especially related to China, and the importance of the implications for U.S. universities. In the second post for the first time I propose that the way to provide a great education at a lower cost is highly related to the concept of community:

Yes, I believe costs should go down.

Students have to feel they are part of a supportive and available educational community — as both givers and receivers of that support — as they strive toward personally relevant goals.

I also briefly described my belief in the importance of both project-based learning and involving students as both learners and teachers. The third post I analyzed in some detail the effects of using educational technologies on the time and effort spent by professors on tasks related to teaching.

In this post I make the case that using educational technology at a university should enable teaching quality to increase while associated costs decrease, possibly dramatically. Even though I am quite a big user of technology, I do not believe that simply adding technology automatically makes the education process better, or the students happier, or the professors more productive. Tom Vander Ark, in “How digital learning is boosting achievement”, lists lots of examples and studies that provide support for the following points:

  • Blended schools achieve high performance
  • Hundreds of studies of online and blended learning show efficiency
  • Technology-enabled math products have boosted achievement
  • Digital learning offers the only path to boosting achievement in this “decade of deficits”

Just as with every other industry that technology has had an effect on, it is the disruptive innovation, whatever it may be, that we have to be on the lookout for. I believe that organizations like P2PU and Coursera are only the first, tentative stabs at disruption. The big changes are yet to come.

In any case, in the meantime we need to gain experience with technology because it will be central to the educational industry whether we like it or not. The question becomes how to achieve the increases in quality and decreases in costs as we move forward. I believe it is not a question as to whether there is a place for technology in the education process — it is how to use it in ways that radically improve learning. I believe at either the personal level or the organizational level that if we wait until it is clear what needs to be done, then it will be too late. So, ready, fire, aim is the order of the day.

The following describes how I envision being able to achieve take the first steps toward achieving this end in my classes.

Increase quality

I am a firm believer in the importance of individual attention given to a student, engagement of a student in the learning process, personal relevance of educational activities, and disciplined (or rigorous) and clear communication by a student. I believe that increasing any one of these (and hopefully all of them) would mean an increase in the quality of education.

Individual attention

Yes, I believe costs should go down.

Several dimensions of the move to increased use of technology should increase the individual attention that a student receives. For many professors teaching many of his/her classes, the professor should use video to deliver lectures that explain important course concepts. An easy way to make this move is to go ahead and record the lectures the professor currently gives, and then edit them and post them in appropriate pieces. This will minimize the amount of work necessary to begin this process. The next step would be to make movies outside of a classroom setting to optimize, or at least improve, the delivery of some of that material.

No matter how it is done, delivery of basic material outside of class time makes the time during class available for either explaining more complex material or working with students individually on their problems. This would seem to be a no-brainer.

As an example, consider the class I taught 2 years ago. It was about finding Web-based information resources. At the beginning of each class I would spend about 15-20 minutes lecturing and demonstrating tools. We would then spend the next hour or so working through exercises. Students were encouraged to work together to solve their problems and to call me when they had a problem they could not solve. This generally worked fairly well; however, I believe I can make it work better in a blended format, and possibly in a purely online environment.

I believe the next step for this class is pretty obvious. Make a library of the videos explaining concepts and demonstrating systems, and then load them onto YouTube. This frees up time in class, but also drops the requirement that students attend class in order to hear my lecture. Students can ask questions over twitter (using a standard hashtag or twitter account), with other students and teaching assistants having the ability to answer questions or chime in with hints. Also, I now can make additional time per week to meet with students about their projects or help them with any other problems they might be having.

Yes, I believe costs should go down.

Student engagement

If there is one single thing that I target my efforts for, it is student engagement. Most of my efforts, thinking, theorizing, and planning are directed at ways in which I can increase it. I think the changes here are subtle, but will feel more real to those involved with the class. (Going out on a limb here, actually, simply based on some limited experience.)

One feature of the real world is that communication between two people (i.e., a conversation) is, or at least can be, private. On the other hand, it is difficult to allow hundreds (or millions) of people to eavesdrop on that conversation. This feature makes it hard for future students to take advantage of exchanges made by previous students (either one hour or one week in the past). Suppose we move all (short) student and teacher interactions to twitter. (We could also use twitter to announce longer answers that are at some particular Web address.) This would allow other students to hear, and respond to and learn from, conversations by the teacher and some other student. Do this enough and, before you know it, the student will have learned something, gotten drawn into a conversation, or will have answered another student’s question.

I think the devil is in the details here. It will take constant nudging, hints, and probably a few class points to get students moving in the right direction. However, I think the payoff is possibly huge. First, students can have more opportunities to be involved as a teacher because of the openness of the communication lines. Second, as discussed in some detail above, students can become more involved as a learner on specific problems that other students bring up. They might also find the somewhat impersonal nature of the communication to ease their fears about participating (i.e., asking and answering questions). Thus, though there is no particular big breakthrough here, I believe more opportunities for raising student engagement are always a good thing.

Relevance of activities

Though I think engagement is the most important facet, sometimes I’m not sure whether relevance isn’t more important. If not, then it’s at least a real big determinant of resulting engagement. Since I’m at least somewhat rational, this has led me to focus quite a bit on increasing the relevance of student activities.

I’m moving to a much more project-based experience for a class. Much of the benefit of moving to a project comes from allowing the student to choose the topic for the project. I strongly believe that choosing a topic leads to commitment to the project which leads to more persistent effort which leads to more learning. Pretty much every time. How could I not be interested in choosing a classroom strategy that gets more students to work harder on my class by their own personal motivation?

An ancillary benefit, but one which really helps with classroom management, is that every student having their own project topic removes many, if not most, restraints on students helping other students. It makes it much easier for me to tell the students that they can answer any question from another student — the only thing that I ask is that each student end up doing his/her own work. But if one student can help another student learn something, to teach them something that I wasn’t able to teach them, then who I am to step in the way?

Disciplined and clear communication by a student

I really hope that students think a lot about my classes.

I am a big believer in the importance of speaking and writing. I also believe that the only way to improve as a speaker or writer is to speak or write more. I also believe that different channels (face-to-face, email, twitter) require different types of communication, and have different standards and practices. The only way to get better at a specific type of communication is to engage in that type of communication. Further, the only way ultimately to be a good communicator is to have clear thinking underlying it. I just don’t believe that good communicating can happen without clear thinking. It certainly is possible to have bad communication happen even with clear thinking — that is why we have to practice and improve our communication — but having clear thoughts about a topic makes bad communication much less likely.

Having said all that, I like frequent communication from students. Moving this communication online changes the channel, so students are practicing a different type of communication. It will be much more difficult for students to get better at face-to-face communication when online, but they will be able to get better at email, twitter, blog posts, and wiki construction. I believe that these forms of communication are important now and will continue to become more important for students.

Students can only get better if they receive helpful feedback. Again, having communications occur in public, out in the open for others to see, should make it easier for others (teaching assistants and students) to give feedback. It also provides more “examinable & gradable objects” during the duration of a class. I plan on assigning blogs to write, twitter feeds to submit, comparative or analytical essays to write, and explanatory chapters to contribute. Each of these have different standards, and inviting students into the grading process should increase their understanding of what level of achievement is acceptable and of how to improve the work that has been produced.

Yes, I believe costs should go down.

Decrease costs

I addressed much of this in previous post, but the basic points to focus on are that educational technologies (1) allow a professor to substitute fixed investments for time investments that vary with the number of students and/or sections, (2) expand the influence of a professor, and (3) allow the substitution of cheaper labor for more expensive. I expand on these points below.

Substitute fixed costs for variable costs

The task of delivering a lecture now is a fixed expenditure of time and effort, independent of the number of students who are taking the class. If one professor of a six section core course is particularly expert at delivering a lecture on a specific topic, then that one lecture (given at one point in time) can be re-used for all six sections of the course, freeing up not only the professor from giving it multiple times to his/her sections but freeing also freeing up the other professor from having to give it at all while also providing the students with a better learning experience.

Expand influence of professor

The professor should now have an expanded influence; that is, he should be able to reach more students both through video lectures and other electronic communication channels. This follows pretty clearly from all the discussion above. It is also the case that easier problems can now be handled much more frequently and easily by students or teaching assistants. Why? Because the existence of the problems will be known and obvious since they are taking place in an open communication channel (e.g., twitter). If the professor has to spend less time on simple problems (a known and extensive time sink), then the professor should be able to handle more students. How many more? The only way to answer this is to experiment with larger classes and see how it works.

Substitute cheaper labor for more expensive

Finally, as classes get larger, professors and students would probably benefit from the creation of a new division of labor — a professional teaching assistant (not a student aide, but a real professional) for a particular class (e.g., a multi-section core class would be a good place to start). I actually had one of these for the project class that I taught a couple of school years ago. She handled lots of the simpler paperwork and organizational activities, freeing me up to focus on the students and their projects. Having experienced this first-hand, I can quite reliably say that she provided lots of benefits; and having had her work on the class for multiple semesters, it became clear to both of us that she was able to handle lots of tasks that freed me up in many more ways in the second year (compared with the first).

I can really see this applying in many more situations with larger classes enabled by technology. Compared to the cost of adding another professor to handle more students, the cost of hiring her to handle tasks that she could handle, and then freeing me up to work with the additional students, ended up costing the school a lot less.


So, that’s it — that’s my case (with some handwaving, to be sure) that using educational technology should enable teaching quality to increase while associated costs decrease. One of my underlying assumptions is that enrollments can be increased or faculty appointments can be decreased. If neither of these can happen, then the cost benefit will not be realized. However, the quality benefit should be unaffected so it seems like it would be a reasonable strategy to pursue, even in the short run.

Let me know your thoughts about my argument. Are you persuaded? What did I miss? Anything else that I should add to strengthen the argument? Let me know!

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