The “Cost Disease” and the “Online Fix” in Higher Education

Online learning will become a revolutionary mainstay of higher education if you believe the hype surrounding Coursera, edX, and Ivy League-sponsored massive open online courses (MOOCs).

William G. Bowen, president emeritus of Princeton University and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, is a recent convert–he publicly snubbed online education in 2000 during an Oxford lecture–and, as such, puts forth new ideas that will revitalize the debate on the merits of online learning and instructive technology. Bowen’s decision to join the growing crescendo of voices advocating for online educational models is bound to make an impact based on name recognition alone. Last June, President Obama presented him with the National Humanities Medal for his legendary institutional leadership and his commitment to expanding higher education for over half a century. The unrelenting 79-year old has authored twenty books, most notably,The Shape of the River: Long-term Consequences of Considering Race in College and University Admission, which he co-authored with former Harvard President Derek Bok. (The New York Times has called him an “incurable workaholic.”) Many of his works have shaped public opinion, not to mention policy, on controversial issues such as sports, affirmative action, and graduation rates.

Bowen’s most recent book, Higher Education in the Digital Age, is a revised version of his Tanner Lectures on Human Values at Stanford University in 2012 and 2013. It also includes additional commentary by scholars and entrepreneurs invested in this hot button issue, ranging from a Professor of Cognition and Education to the co-founder of a technology company that handles MOOCs. During the first lecture, Bowen asks the audience to indulge him and imagine “just for a moment, how the intelligent harnessing of information technology through the medium of online learning might alter aspects of university life as we know it.” An ideal scenario would save professors significant chucks of time that they could channel into providing individualized feedback and promoting active and adaptive learning. This environment would also “bring the perspectives of a more diverse student body through its capacity to engage students from around the world.” And to top it all off, these improvements would occur without a significant rise in tuition costs.

Bowen’s lecture series reflect on the issues of cost and productivity in higher education. He explains that higher education cannot increase productivity without spending a vast amount of money, because, unlike in car manufacturing, teaching a student requires the intensive labor of professors. Bowen christens this phenomena the “cost disease.” Simply put, universities cannot educate more students, or improve educational outcomes for the students they already have without increasing institutional and tuition costs.

Of course, there are other cost related trends that drive up the institutional cost per student, such as the decision to build expensive amenities on campus, funnel limited resources into sports teams, and keep up with the Ivies in regard to research facilities and student-faculty ratios. When it comes to teaching, however, Bowen argues that technology in the digital age can make a significant dent in rising costs without sacrificing educational outcomes. Even more radical is his claim that online teaching has the revolutionary potential to surpass the effectiveness of traditional face-to-face instruction.

These radical changes might be within reach, though it could take decades to implement such a system-wide overhaul, if universities are willing to experiment with various manifestations of online learning, assess their results adequately, and improve their online pedagogy. Here, he makes an important distinction that advocates and detractors fail to make as they duke it out on forums, in newspapers, and on television. He clarifies that online learning is “far from one thing–and that online learning is anything but static.” There are multiple manifestations, many yet to be discovered, that could change the face of higher education. Recently, fights have centered on MOOCs even though there are other educational models universities and colleges could adopt, such as a blended model of face-to-face and online instruction.

One of the major challenges to implementing this “online fix” is the lack of research on the subject. Bowen explains, “Very few of the studies are relevant to the teaching of undergraduates, and the few that are relevant almost always suffer from serious methodological deficiencies.” He adds that the most pernicious problems are their “small sample size; inability to control for ubiquitous selection effects; and, on the cost side, the lack of good estimates of likely cost savings in a steady state.” The question remains: how are faculty suppose to assess the educational outcomes of these new experiments if few scholars have tackled learning at the undergraduate level, much less online learning? Bowen suggests that a new crop of researchers must figure out an appropriate methodology that hones in on the strengths and weaknesses on that particular approach so faculty can design future classes accordingly. Thus, he endorses online learning and MOOCs, but does not do so unconditionally. Educators must carefully develop and rigorously test customized online learning tools in all their manifestations.

Bowen highlights that embracing online learning would raise the public perception of universities, which studies and editorials have long maligned for their exorbitant cost, lackluster pedagogy, and high attrition rates. Experimenting with different approaches can shift national conversations on the “crises” of higher education. Bowen states, “The anger and resentment expressed toward college leaders appear to be growing, despite the limited ability of those leaders to make college cheaper quickly without lowering quality in ways that will disappoint the same people who decry higher prices.” He continues, “No part of higher education is immune from the consequences of ignoring this rising tide of anger and resentment.”

Bowen’s measured endorsement of online learning in higher education has throughly convinced me on the subject. And to think that I shook my head while reading Justin Martin’s “Ma, There’s a MOOC Under My Bed” two weeks ago!

His book has also forced me to reflect on a recent experience in an entirely new way. Yesterday afternoon, a student in the class I TA for informed me that online learning was “dumb.” She had ten minutes to find a quiet space in the middle of a buzzing campus to log into her biology lab session. Even though the clock was ticking, she asked me if I had ever found myself in her predicament. She seemed surprised to learn that I had never had a course with a virtual component. From her exasperated explanations, I pieced together that she was meeting up virtually with a TA and fellow classmates to engage in an interactive science lesson.

What if I had told her about my only undergraduate experience with online learning? Six years ago, I enrolled in an on-campus history class at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, which had only recently begun to experiment with long distance learning models. My professor, out of his own accord, uploaded a few makeup lectures on Blackboard for us to watch at our own convenience. They consisted of powerpoint slides with audio. I distinctly remember my professor’s digitally distorted voice bouncing off the walls of my dorm room. And yet, I was glad he had saved me the forty minute trek in the snow to physically attend class. The “dumb” session the student had to attend was certainly a far cry from the early days of online education only a few years ago.

Based on Bowen’s observations, it would be foolish for academia to sit back as the tide of online learning rises at an increasing pace. When the high tide breaks, faculty and administrators have to be on the right side of it, or face going the way of music industry executives who thought MP3s were a“fad.”

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