In the Chronicle yesterday a report from the EDUCAUSE conference, "Technology Is Underutilized in Higher Education." Robert Mendenhall, the president of the Western Governors University and member of the Commission on the Future of Higher Education, offered the following response to the question of whether technology reduced costs or drove up tuition:
“I think technology has created the greatest productivity
improvement in history over the past 20 years across every segment of
our society — except in education… The
way technology improved productivity in every other industry is that we
changed the way we did things — we changed the business process, he
said. “We still do education the way we did it 500 years ago,” he said.
“Where technology has the potential, it’s not being realized today.” He
said that technology should be used more often to deliver information
to students, freeing instructors to lead discussions, answer questions,
and interact closely with students.
Obviously, by far, the largest area of expense at any college is faculty salaries. That’s not because we get paid so much. It just means that teaching and learning are the fundamental activities of a college. So when you start talking about technology reducing costs, those cost reductions, if they are to be significant must be coming from faculty, and if not faculty then staff (though it seems to me that technology increases often require more support staff, at least in the area of technical support). So faculty sometimes end up eying computers the way that weavers eyed the mechanical loom.
Not surprisingly, I don’t quite see it that way…
The problem is that we are dealing with multiple forces here. We aren’t doing education the way we did in 1507 or 1907 for that matter. Maybe, technologically speaking, most classes are still lectures, chalkboards, and textbooks. However, we are now talking about providing a college education to an increasingly larger and less prepared student body. Unfortunately, this larger, under-prepared student body is also more limited by financial constraints. They require greater support–both in term of faculty and staff–but are less able to pay for that support.
We talk about these students as "digital natives," but that is largely a class-based identity. The students that have the economic resources to be digital natives are also generally better-prepared for college and are more likely to succeed in whatever kinds of classes you offer them, traditional or technological. This new demographic of underprepared students are also less likely to be computer literate. Of course that literacy is just another challenge in their education, one they certainly need to meet, but offering technologically-intensive courses is not doing them any favors.
I do see many valuable things in technology: offering lectures for download instead of taking up class time with them, extending class discussion online, broadening the variety of media students can compose, drawing on a larger community of learners, and so on. However, I don’t really see cost reduction in any valuable way. I’m sure you could turn a class into a series of automated lectures and activities, followed by a standardized test. And that might be cheaper. But I don’t think anyone would mistake that for an education, and it is certainly NOT the kind of education and support this increasingly large body of students will require.
The reason technology hasn’t "improved productivity" in the education "industry" is that learning isn’t about efficiency. We could probably reduce administrative and bureaucratic costs related to higher education, particularly if we reduced the incessant oversight of education. But as long as education comes down to teachers developing personal relationships with students, it’s going to be an expensive process. I think technology can improve, enhance, and expand those relationships. But I don’t think it can replace them or even really make them cheaper.