How to provide a great, lower-cost education

In this article I begin to provide answers to how I think faculty can deliver a great education to students at a lower cost than has previously been possible. What I focus on here is mainly the question of how to educational process should be structured. In my next post I will address why I think this is the right way to go, and why it would result in a great education for more students at a lower cost.

Key questions

What is your concept of education? What do you think it means to educate someone? What does it mean for students to understand a concept that you have taught them? How do you know they understand it?

Pen en papier / Pen and paper

These are the kind of questions that professors don’t think about too much. Generally, we answer them implicitly with the way that we structure courses, from class time activities to assignments to grading to tests to participation. However, it is getting harder to ignore these questions and, more precisely, it is harder to justify giving certain answers to those questions. Faculty should feel uncomfortable saying that education means lecturing for 50 minutes, taking very few questions (whether on purpose or not), and then giving a multiple choice test in which they are regurgitating “facts” mentioned in the lecture or in a book. Actually, faculty should feel very uncomfortable if this is the general answer that they give since would be very easy to replicate over distance (using technology). The problem is that lots of faculty give this answer.

The proposal

I have previously discussed how some organizations have sprung up to provide low cost learning opportunities. Yesterday, I detailed the many and varied implications to U.S.-based universities of China’s growing university system. I believe that the greatest opportunity for those of us in top U.S. universities is in figuring out how to provide a great education to more students at a lower cost. Not a good education. Not a low cost education. But a great education at a lower cost than we currently require. Now, this cost might be half of what we currently charge, and we might have to attract 3x as many students as we did previously — but that’s the move that we have to make. Further, we are definitely going to have to increase the quality of the education that we provide. Why? Because if competitors are offering a value proposition of value/cost (with cost=0), then our value has to be pretty darn good if we want our V/C ratio to be in the same ballpark.

Then the question becomes how to provide such an education at such a cost. I believe that the answer has its origins in the concept of community:

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 will have much more to say about this in future posts, but for now I will limit myself to three observations.

Project-based learning is one tool

First, at Edutopia, Mariko Nobori recently wrote an article “What makes project-based learning a success?” about a Texas high school that is “devoted to teaching every subject to every student through project-based learning.” 98% of their seniors graduate and all of their graduates are accepted to college. At least in these measures, the school can be said to be a success.

What does your personal network look like?

Principal Steven Zipkes, who seems to be rather key to the school’s success, emphasizes that teachers in the school focus on building relationships first, then incorporate relevance into the classroom, and finally rigor — what they refer to as the three R’s. Their concept of rigor is “a schoolwide, unwavering commitment to the design and implementation of a [project-based learning] model that includes evidence-based strategies and drives students to actively pursue knowledge.”

Students are able to work on problems that are personally relevant to them, thereby increasing their motivation. They also have to understand the concepts of the class well enough that they can apply it to an actual problem. This process of applying can bring up learning opportunities, allowing the student to gain a more nuanced and deeper understanding of the concepts being explored.

Students as both learners and teachers

The traditional model that puts students only into the role of learner and assumes that all knowledge and right answers have to come from the professor is outmoded but, more importantly, it underestimates the abilities of the students. Some students will learn some concepts more quickly than others, and it won’t always be the same students who do so. (Many times, but not always.) Take advantage of those capabilities and have students teach other students. The only way that we are going to be able to provide personalized guidance to many times more students than we currently do is to figure out how to empower students to help other students. As faculty we will have to design activities and lectures and pre-tests that teach and then embolden students to help other students, to give them the confidence to take the role, however temporarily, of teacher.

Two underlying keys

Finally, two key assumptions underlie my proposal:

  • The student must have some motivation for learning and participating. If this isn’t there at some level, then this proposal isn’t going to be some magic panacea. Professors can provide an environment where a student’s motivation can flower, but I believe the student has to bring something to the table.
  • One of a a professor’s key areas to focus on, especially during the first phases of a semester, should be toward building connections with the students and among the students. The importance of community, and the associated amount of trust that must be present for students to willingly and actively to take on the role of learning and teacher, means that these connections cannot be left up to chance. This connections would be harder to build remotely; a flipped classroom or even a blended learning environment would probably aid in their creation.


At this point you should have a relatively clear picture in your mind of the general structure of classes that I think are appropriate. Remaining questions have to do with the quality of the resulting education and the relative cost of that education. These will have to wait for my following post.

For now, what do you think? Agree? Disagree? Have you had any success (or failure) with this type of class? Share your experiences with us.

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