Disrupting Education

Everyone worries about another technology bubble but all the evidence points to healthcare and education as the two areas of the economy that are most bubble-like. In the case of education, there’s even a GSE, Sallie Mae, playing a big role in inflating the cost of a college education.

One obvious way to drastically reduce the cost of educating workers is to use technology. And though the quality of online education is still lacking, we’re only at the beginning of the process of creating meaningful educational experiences by using technology.

Today’s Wall Street Journal has this eye-popping op-ed from a college professor who concludes the cost of education could be drastically reduced by asking college professors to teach a little more.

In a study for the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, Christopher Matgouranis, Jonathan Robe and I concluded that tuition fees at the flagship campus of the University of Texas could be cut by as much as half simply by asking the 80% of faculty with the lowest teaching loads to teach about half as much as the 20% of faculty with the highest loads. The top 20% currently handle 57% of all teaching.

The real scary numbers come when they look at research.

[A]t UT Austin, a mere 20% of the faculty garner 99.8% of the external research funding. [M]uch research consists of obscure articles published in even more obscure journals on topics of trivial importance. Mark Bauerlein, a professor of English at Emory University, once estimated that 21,000 articles have been written on Shakespeare since 1980. Wouldn’t 5,000 have been enough? Canadian scholar Jeffrey Litwin, looking at 70 leading U.S. universities, concluded the typical cost of writing a journal article is about $72,000.

With digital distribution, it is far easier for a greater number of students not only to share in the research of that 20% of faculty but also potentially to be taught (in the form of viewing the best lectures online followed up by local teaching assistants or web-based interaction and testing) by them.

Why is this taking so long to come about? Besides the institutional disincentives, there’s also a major distribution issue: the limited availability of tablet computers which make the most sense as a platform for digital education. The New York Times has a complementary story that looks at why digital textbooks have been slow to take hold in the marketplace:

[A] new study by the nonprofit arm of the Pearson Foundation shows that while 55 percent of students still prefer print over digital textbooks, among the 7 percent of students who own tablets devices like iPads, 73 percent prefer digital textbooks. With 70 percent of college students interested in owning a tablet, and 15 percent saying they plan to buy one in the next six months, the survey suggests that there may be a coming rise in the e-textbook market.

Unfortunately for those 70% of students, Apple’s premium tablet remains the only viable device in the marketplace. And though $600 would have been considered a cheap computer a few years ago, that price point remains a barrier.

What’s interesting about the higher education market is that the vast majority of students are not educated at elite institutions with $40,000-a-year tuitions. The United States has a huge network of community colleges whichis one reason we’ve seen the growth of profit-making schools at that level. And, of course, those for-profit schools have become some of the biggest consumers of course materials and text books.

There’s no reason they shouldn’t also consume digitally presented courses from the best teachers at the best schools.


Digital Textbooks Slow to Catch On
June 8, 2011; New York Times

Time to Make Professors Teach
June 8, 2011; Wall Street Journal

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