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The Learning MarketSpace, November 1, 2001

Written monthly by Bob Heterick and Carol Twigg, The Learning MarketSpace provides leading-edge assessment of and future-oriented thinking about issues and developments concerning the nexus of higher education and information technology.


The occasion for this remark from Gaston Caperton, president of the College Board, was the announcement that tuition and fees had their largest increase in six years and outpaced, by more than twice, the growth in the Consumer Price Index. This makes nearly three decades in which the cost of tuition and fees has more than doubled the increase in the Consumer Price Index.

In more concrete terms, the average cost of tuition and fees at public institutions is over $9,000 and the average cost for room and board is in excess of $8,000. Comparable averages for private institutions are $23,500 and $22,500. The cost of tuition and fees rose more than 5.5 percent at two-year institutions. I guess "affordable" is in the eye of the beholder. $17,000 is about a third of the median income in most states and $46,000 exceeds the median income in many. In fact, $46,000 is about the median yearly after tax income of most of the nation’s faculty.

To be sure, it is estimated that there may be as much as $74 billion available for students in the form of grants and loans. However, that figure is increasingly skewed toward loans and away from grants, which themselves are increasingly based upon merit rather than need. The debt burden of recent college and university graduates is staggering.

The good news is that statistics suggest that a college education may still be worth the cost. But just barely. Career income levels for college graduates, while not as lucrative as pushing dope on the street corner (nor as risky) are a lot better than frying burgers at the local fast food restaurant. The information economy is raising the educational ante for everyone and a college education, or minimally, significant post-high school education, is increasingly necessary for nearly any job in the new economy. If you can’t afford a post-secondary education, pushing dope or frying burgers may be the best you can do. Unfortunately, an ever larger segment of our population is faced with just such choices as the door to a higher education is closed by economic realities.

These kind of prices for attending a college or university might have been acceptable 100 years ago when only a small minority of citizens chose or needed a higher education. Beginning with the GI Bill over a half a century ago, and exacerbated by the Internet revolution ten years ago, it has become evident that a successful and rewarding work career requires as a prerequisite, some post-secondary education. As our nation’s politicians talk of opening the door to higher education for everyone, that door is closing on an ever larger segment of our population.

While it is understandable that college and university spokespersons put the best possible spin on a bad situation, it grows old hearing how the situation is really not so bad because "our prices are less than . . . fill in the name of some other institution." The cost of post-secondary education is simply out of control.

The problem is not that institutions have not gone to some effort to control costs. They have. As the costs of higher education are largely in personal services, many institutions have moved to larger class sizes and the substitution of teaching assistants and adjuncts for senior faculty. Ironically, they are berated for these moves because they raise the student-faculty ratio or substitute less experienced teachers for full professors.

Now, with the Internet, there appears to be another strategy for reducing costs. Asynchronous learning opportunities, whether on campus or at a distance, display great potential for reducing the cost of learning with a quality that can be greater than that of a typical classroom experience.

So how is this new opportunity viewed by university administrators? Many institutions are using the potential of the Internet to offer new, more comprehensive and frequently collaborative learning venues for their students. But, almost always these new offerings cost more than the courses they replace or augment. I recently heard a couple of college presidents express the view that there was little likelihood that new, technology mediated learning environments would reduce costs. Quite the contrary, they felt that these new opportunities would be more expensive but would be justified by the improvement in the quality of the course offerings.

It would be an interesting world if every auto dealership decided that the Rolls Royce was a superior automobile to their current offering and decided to sell only Rolls, or if Timex and Citizen decided that as the Rolex was of greater quality, that they should upgrade the quality of their watches (and their prices) to that level.

Today's personal computer is incredibly better and much less expensive than the computer of a decade ago. Long distance telephony is, today, both cheaper and better than a decade ago. What can we say about higher education? It is about the same in quality and more than twice as expensive as it was a decade ago. Caperton went on to say, "There are options for everyone." It appears that one of the options not available is the one of reasonable cost.

Higher education simply must find a way to utilize the power of technology to not just hold the line on costs, but to reduce costs. It is clear that simply bolting on technology to the current paradigm, while it may make some improvement in quality, will continue to escalate costs at a rate greater than the rise in the Consumer Price Index. The consequence will be more and more people denied access to post- secondary education because of prohibitive cost.



To most folks in higher education, thinking about using information technology to improve the quality of student learning while reducing the cost of doing so seems contradictory. For those in the business world, the opposite seems to be true. E-business advocates talk about redefining business models using the Internet in order to reduce costs and increase profits while also increasing flexibility and service levels to customers.

The field of supply chain management provides a pertinent analogy. According to David Simchi-Levi, professor of engineering systems at MIT supply chain management is defined as the efficient integration of suppliers, factories, warehouses and stores, so that merchandise is produced in the right quantities and distributed to the right location at the right time, so as to minimize total system cost while satisfying service requirements.

E-business suggests a shift from the traditional "push" supply chain strategy to a new supply chain model called a "pull" strategy. In a traditional push system, production and distribution are based on forecasts. The problem is that forecasts are often wrong. You can be close but never precisely on the mark. It is difficult to predict customer demand and therefore difficult to match supply and demand.

In a pull system, actual customer demand, rather than forecasting, drives production and distribution. In a pure pull system, the firm does not hold any inventory and only produces to order. When started, for example, its supply chain was a pure pull system—with no warehouses and no stock. Pull systems are intuitively very attractive since they allow the firm to eliminate inventory and increase service levels—in our terms, to reduce costs while improving quality.

Information technologists also talk about push vs. pull. Broadcast television, for example, is called a "push" technology. (Think of three national networks pushing programming at the American public, hoping to meet its demand.) In contrast, the Web is called a "pull" technology where individual users access the resources that they need in a highly personal way. As in the supply chain example, pull technologies are both less expensive and more effective than push technologies.

In recent issues of The Learning MarketSpace, we have described a new way of thinking about course design called the buffet model, one that increases quality while reducing costs. The key to being able to do both simultaneously is directly related to moving from a "push" strategy, which presents all material to all students in the same way and at the same time regardless of their particular needs, to a "pull" strategy where students access only the material and support they need and only when they need it.

Buffet-style courses have five key features:

1. An initial assessment of each student's knowledge/skill level and preferred learning style;
2. An array of high-quality, interactive learning materials and activities;
3. Individualized study plans;
4. Built-in, continuous assessment to provide instantaneous feedback; and,
5. Appropriate, varied kinds of human interaction when needed.

Traditional course structures engage all students in the same series of learning activities regardless of disparate abilities, preferences, goals and interests. Individualized learning environments supported by the buffet model offer students a broad array of learning materials and activities, allowing students to gravitate toward the kind of experience that best suits them. Students can move quickly through content they already know and spend more time on areas they find more challenging.

Creating an individualized learning environment begins with assessing each student's entering knowledge and/or skill level as well as his or her preferred learning style. In those environments that take full advantage of IT's capabilities, such assessments are incorporated directly into course software. The second step is to develop a buffet of learning materials and activities for students including such things as online access to digitally recorded presentations; reading materials developed by instructors or in the assigned textbook; examples and exercises in the student's field of interest; links to other online materials of interest; individual and group laboratory assignments; and self-assessment material to provide feedback on what is being learned.

In these new environments, each student has a customized learning plan with specific mastery components and milestones of achievement. Students engage in study at their preferred times rather than at pre-scheduled times. Students do not all have to do the same thing but rather learn at their own pace within a clear structure that certifies progress and achievement of learning goals. The goal is to maximize students' flexibility in learning the course material as best fits their learning preference and schedule while providing enough structure for them to make needed forward progress.

Shifting the traditional periodic assessment model (midterm and final examinations) toward continuous assessment is a fourth component. Periodic mastery testing (either graded or non-graded) throughout the semester helps students keep up with course activities and recognize holes in their understanding, and it improves overall understanding and retention of terminology and concepts. Assessing students' understanding of concepts is very effective in detecting areas they do not grasp, thereby enabling corrective actions to be taken in a timely manner, and in preparing students for higher-level activities.

Finally, a support system, available around the clock, enables students to receive help from a variety of different people: faculty members, other professionals, graduate teaching assistants and peer mentors. Helping students feel that they are a part of a learning community is critical to persistence, learning, and satisfaction. Such active mentorship can come from a variety of sources, allowing students to interact with the person who can provide the best help for the particular problem they have.

Although many believe that learning environments targeted to the individual learning needs of students are more expensive than traditional one-size-fits-all methodologies, new designs based on information technology can allow for more cost-effective ways of learning—cost- effective for both the institution and the student. What is striking is that the same five features that can improve the quality of student learning are also major contributors to cost reduction. A pull strategy is not only more effective in dealing with learning issues; it is also more economical in dealing with resource issues since students use only as much resource as they need.

Course redesigns that begin with student assessment and create individualized study plans based on the results enable students to concentrate their efforts on what they need to learn. Students do not need to spend time covering material they already know and can move on to other studies. By modularizing course content and allowing students to earn variable credit based on individual performance, institutions can tailor resources more directly to actual student need. To draw on our supply-chain analogy, instructional supply is more closely aligned with student demand rather than a forecast of what all students need.

Traditional course designs supply multiple instructors at fixed times and places. Buffet-style learning environments reduce (or eliminate) the number of lectures and/or class meetings, replacing presentations of content with a variety of activities supported by interactive software. Lectures are replaced with a variety of learning resources, all of which involve more-active forms of student learning or more-individualized assistance. Such a strategy is not only more effective in dealing with learning issues but also more economical.

Automated grading of homework (exercises, problems), low-stakes quizzes, and tests and exams for those subjects that have correct or easily assessed outcomes not only increases the level of student feedback but also offloads these rote activities from faculty and other instructional personnel. The result is either a reduction in the number of required instructors or the ability to increase the number of students in any given course.

Without the availability of information technology tools, creating and managing individualized study plans for students would be highly labor- intensive and hence costly. Sophisticated course-management software packages such as WebCT and Blackboard, however, enable faculty to monitor students' performance, track students' time on task and overall progress, and intervene when necessary on an individualized basis. Many types of communication can be automatically generated to provide needed information to students and encourage their participation. Regular weekly, computer-generated emails can inform students about their progress and, if necessary, suggest additional activities based on homework and quiz performance.

Finally, by constructing a support system of various kinds of instructional personnel, the right level of human intervention can be applied to the particular student problem. Highly trained, expert (and expensive) faculty are not required for all tasks associated with a course. Non- academic course assistants can answer by non-academic (logistical) questions, for example. Peer tutors can provide individualized assistance, direct students to appropriate resources when they encounter problems or lead group activities.

Pull versus push—the key to improving quality while reducing costs.



December 3, 2001, Orlando, Florida
February 25, 2002, Dallas, Texas

Co-sponsored by the Executive Forum in Information Technology at Virginia Tech

This seminar will present results from the second of three rounds of the Pew Grant Program in Course Redesign. Learn from faculty project leaders how to increase quality and reduce costs using information technology. Faculty from four institutions will talk about their models of course redesign, including their decisions regarding student learning objectives, course content, learning resources, course staffing and task analysis, and student and project evaluation. These models provide varied approaches that demonstrate multiple routes to success, tailored to the needs and context of each institution.

These seminars provide a unique opportunity for you to:

  • Learn firsthand how to increase quality and reduce costs using information technology from successful faculty project leaders.
  • Find out how to design learning environments for the future by tapping the expertise of those who have done it.
  • Talk with experienced faculty from multiple institutions about how and why they made their redesign decisions.
  • Move beyond "today" and learn where on-line learning is going . . . find a model that will work for your institution.


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Archives of The Learning MarketSpace, written by Bob Heterick and Carol Twigg and published from July 1999 – February 2003, are available here.

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Copyright 2001 by Bob Heterick and Carol Twigg.