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The Learning MarketSpace, October 1, 2002

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.


A major problem that continues to confront American higher education is that of rising costs. With few exceptions, those who support higher education--students, parents and state policy makers--are increasingly unwilling or unable to provide as much funding as most institutions think they need. This situation seems likely to continue.

The common wisdom in higher education is that dealing with financial problems is strictly an administrative matter. Most college administrators see raising more money--whether through increased legislative appropriations or private fund-raising--as the only way to deal with budget shortfalls, even when the possibility of achieving success through these strategies is waning.

One reason that administrators continue to look to external sources for additional funds (even when those funds are disappearing) is that internal solutions seem to be politically not viable. In order to find ways to reduce internal operating costs or reallocate current resources, administrators need to involve their faculties in both the discussion and the implementation. Most administrators will do anything possible to avoid this prospect.

Should college administrators engage their faculties in discussions about cost? The common wisdom says no. Discussing cost directly with faculty appears to be on the Top Ten List of what not to do as an administrator, especially if you are one who wants a future in college administration.

To be sure, faculty members themselves will almost always say that they are only concerned about academic quality and that dealing with cost is most assuredly not a faculty matter but rather an administrative problem.

I’d like you to consider the exact opposite point of view. In order to address higher education’s continuing financial dilemma, all members of the college community--and especially the faculty--need to be involved in inventing and implementing creative solutions that will control rising costs while benefiting our institutions.

Our experience in the Pew Grant Program in Course Redesign has shown that in order to be successful in improving quality while reducing costs, it is imperative to actively engage faculty members in discussions about cost.

You would not be surprised to hear that we have been told again and again that we should not address the cost issue with faculty head-on; instead we should focus on quality enhancements. Even when reporting the substantial successes achieved thus far by the program, we are still cautioned not to discuss cost but to sell the redesign concepts on the basis of improving quality alone.

The problem with not engaging faculty members in discussions about cost is that no solutions would be forthcoming. Faculty members--not administrators--are the ones who have invented the 30 redesigns that are achieving such magnificent outcomes. To be sure, they were given guidance and ways to think about the problem by Pew program staff i.e., they were actively engaged in discussing both the problem and potential solutions. The result of this process has been 30 unique solutions to a common problem faced by all institutions

Why would we want to exclude faculty members from discussions about cost? Why would we want to put them in a position where they cannot help solve the problem, especially since college faculty are, as a group, extremely bright and creative people? If faculty members understand that they, as well as their students and their institutions, will benefit from redesign efforts, we are certain that they will take part in the process enthusiastically.

The 30 Pew projects collectively will save their institutions about $3.6 million annually. Let’s take a look at what these institutions are planning to do with the savings as another way of illustrating how the cost savings achieved by these redesigns directly benefit faculty members.

Most institutions let the savings stay in the department that generated them. This makes sense since an important incentive for engaging in redesign is to reap the benefits of that effort. Savings are used for ongoing improvements to the redesigned course and/or for the redesign of others in the department. After redesigning its introductory biology course, for example, Fairfield University is now using the savings to redesign its biology major, transferring the techniques used in one course to the entire curriculum.

Other institutions are using the savings to provide a greater range of offerings at the upper division or graduate level, which was not possible when so many resources were devoted to the introductory course. Faculty are more able to teach subjects of greater interest to them. Some institutions are using the savings to reduce teaching loads that are comparatively high; others are providing more time for faculty research when that time has been limited by high teaching loads. Still others are using the savings to offer distance-learning options, again not possible before freeing resources as a result of the redesign. In each case, faculty as well as students benefit directly from their willingness to engage in redesign.

Our experience in course redesign is but one illustration of the benefits of involving college faculty in solving the financial problems faced by our institutions. Some institutions have taken advantage of information technology to re-invent themselves at the programmatic level. Several years ago, the University of Baltimore (UB) faced the problem of declining enrollments as the population shifted to the suburbs. UB made a strategic decision to move aggressively into the online market. The result: a substantial growth in online students and a new financial future. Could UB have accomplished such a significant change in its ways of operating without engaging its faculty in the process? Much of UB’s achievement was due to the very able leadership of UB provost Ron Legon, but he certainly couldn’t have done it alone. The UB faculty were and are engaged in the successful transformation of that institution.

My premise is that in order to deal with the financial pressures facing all institutions of higher education, we must engage college faculty in discussions of these pressures and we must engage them in developing creative solutions to the problems we face. By excluding faculty from participating in these discussions, administrators are, in essence, treating them like children, as if finance is something they can’t understand. Because faculty are usually not involved in financial discussions, administrative decisions often feel mysterious or arbitrary and frequently create resentment, anger or confusion on the part of faculty, making a difficult situation even worse.

The next time someone tells you not to talk about cost to the faculty, please think again. Go against the common wisdom and find ways to engage your smartest, most creative people in solving the problems that threaten our collective future.


We just got back from the EDUCAUSE conference in Atlanta where we learned once again that the more things change, the more they stay the same. We were horrified to learn that a number of IT folks who should know better are talking about writing their own course management systems. Bob wrote the following column in the December 1999 issue of The Learning MarketSpace. Unfortunately, it is still timely.


Yogi Berra, the master of malapropisms, is reputed to include among his language mangling utterances, "It's deja vu all over again." Whatever its damage to the English (or French) language, it seems most appropriate to describe our current quandary regarding how to deal with teaching/ learning and the online world.

It was just 20 years ago that most institutions began to break away from the propensity to develop and maintain local systems for library automation. A number of commercial efforts had begun to emerge that offered nearly all (sometimes more) the functionality of the local system. The advantages were mostly on the cost side—the outsourcing company spread the development and maintenance costs over a larger client base and was able to offer similar functionality at less cost. It took a surprisingly long time to break down the "not invented here" mentality, but ultimately the cost savings won out. There are less than the fingers-on-one-hand locally developed systems still in existence. And, most of those have been turned into commercial business ventures by the developing institution.

In the last 10 years similar question about local efforts to provide institutional administrative support systems began to arise. The question wasn't whether institutions could write and maintain such systems but rather whether or not it was cost effective to do so. Exacerbating the situation was a multi-year programming backlog and the emergence of the Net. After all, the question went, just how different are the financial systems at institution X from those at institution Y? Wouldn't it make sense to outsource the development and maintenance of such systems, leaving the local data processing staff to worry about a small number of local modifications? That way, development and maintenance costs could be defrayed over a large number of institutions, all using the same basic platform for financial reporting, or student registration, or human resources. This presented a tougher choice than the library example as institutional administrative systems were (and still are) considerably more idiosyncratic than the more mature, more standardized, library applications.

It seems safe to say that this issue has been decided as it was in the library example. Cost considerations have won out over concerns for local peculiarities. Somewhat different from the library example is that for many large institutions, the up-front cost of moving to outsource is in the tens of millions of dollars.

The locus of the argument has shifted from libraries, to administrative systems, and now to the core function of the institution—teaching and learning. The arguments are basically the same, cost vs. local idiosyncrasies. The cast of characters has, however, changed dramatically. Instead of a small community of librarians, or a still small, but somewhat larger, group of administrators, it now encompasses the entire faculty. For the greater institutional community it is no longer a back office issue, but one that strikes at the core functions of the institution.

There isn't anything like the MARC record to provide an underlying standard as there was in the library and the idiosyncrasies of teaching are personal rather than institutional. To make matters even more difficult, most of the outsourcing contenders have been in the business for barely a few years with products that are sometimes more promise than real.

We can expect to hear the same arguments proffered. The products in the market aren't able to handle this or that situation; to use them would require that we change (slightly or significantly) the way we do "business"; they can't possibly be as good as the "systems" we already have in place; we can develop whatever we need in-house cheaper, or better, or faster. Such points of view will cause the supply side to grow much faster than the demand side for several years. And, just as the administrative systems solutions were an order of magnitude more expensive than the library solutions, the teaching/learning solutions will ultimately be an order of magnitude more expensive again.

John Maynard Keynes once observed that "in the long run we are all dead." Lord Keynes notwithstanding, in the long run we will make the same choice that we did in the cases of libraries and administrative systems. Long-term cost savings to the institution (and the consequent saving to the tuition payer) will win out over local idiosyncrasies of the faculty. Just as with the case for administrative systems, teaching/learning systems with the capability of local personalization will carry the field. One advantage for the early adopter, as it was in both the library and administrative systems cases, will be that the new partner can be influenced in its design and development efforts.

It is déjà vu . . . all over again. Only in this case it will appear to happen in slow motion, driven primarily by the perception of dwindling market share and competitive disadvantage, not by the cost savings.



December 6, 2002, Atlanta, Georgia
February 24, 2003, Dallas, Texas

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

This seminar will present results from the third 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 2002 by Bob Heterick and Carol Twigg.