Discussions of technology and higher education tend to veer from “This. Changes.Everything” techno-triumphalism to assertions that using the Internet to educate people is clearly a plot to turn higher education into a cheap corporate commodity on par with bulk packages of frozen french fries. As is often the case, the most interesting work in the field right now sits close to the equipoise between the two, as Ben Miller documents in his new report, The Course of Innovation, which you should read.
The report focuses on the National Center for Academic Transformation (NCAT), which has spent the last decade working with scores of colleges and universities to transform mostly introductory college courses with technology. NCAT’s track record is impressive. To the extent that such things can be proven without elaborate randomized control trials, they’ve proven that thoughtful, faculty-driven course redesign can simultaneously improve student learning and reduce per-student costs. Not by a little, either: many colleges have cut costs by over 50% and improved learning in the bargain. NCAT’s suite of course transformation models have proved effective in a wide variety of subjects and settings, from rural community colleges to Research I universities, in courses ranging from math and foreign language to composition and women’s studies. (I’ve written previously about NCAT success stories here and here.)
Yet in many ways the most interesting part of the NCAT story isn’t the colleges that have adopted these proven methods. It’s the colleges that haven’t–i.e., most colleges. NCAT has built a better mousetrap, but the world hasn’t beaten a path to their door. This is despite the fact that the mousetrap in question improves student learning and cuts costs in a time when colleges are constantly being harangued by policymakers about learning and the economic environment has left many institutions desperately searching for ways to save money. Why?
It’s not because nobody knows NCAT exists. The New York Times featured them in an Education Life story all the way back in 2005. The blue-ribbon Spellings Commission gave them a strong, high-profile endorsement. The Chronicle of Higher Education has quoted NCAT founder Carol Twigg in numerous articles over the years. Higher education leaders often respond to calls for improvement by saying “more research is needed” (which is self-serving in a number of ways: it implies that failure is a result of insufficient information, not negligence; it kicks the can down the road to some unknown future contingent on meeting certain unspecified but sure-to-be-onerous standards of evidence; and colleges themselves are in the business of conducting research.) But in this case the evidence is publicly available and the reforms are well-known.
Most of the answers lie with incentives. The learning issue is more obvious: colleges aren’t racing to adopt learning-focused innovations because nobody holds anybody accountable for student learning in higher education, not at the institutional, departmental, or individual faculty levels. Whose career benefits if more freshmen pass Calculus? No one, really.
The financial side of the equation demands more explanation because a lot of colleges and universities really are suffering in the pocketbook. But they still have options that don’t involve upsetting long-held norms and ways of doing business. Overall enrollment remains at near-record levels due to demographics and counter-cyclical college-going, and most college prices are subsidized below the market rate. So institutions still have the option of charging students more, enrolling fewer students, or both. The peculiarities of the higher education labor market, meanwhile, let colleges impose faculty pay cuts with little fear of reprisal. Who’s going to quit an ever-more-scarce tenure track job over a diminished paycheck–sorry, “furlough”? No one, really.
As a result, colleges are mostly hunkering down and trying to ride out this particularly fierce financial storm with the goal of restarting business as usual once the winds and waters recede.
By any reasonable standard of comparison to other higher education reform efforts, NCAT has been a major success. They’re acutely aware of the need to scale up and they’re actively working with state and system leaders to do so. Major philanthropies are supporting their efforts, and the number of participating institutions is growing by the year.
But those efforts still amount to beating a path from the NCAT door back out into higher education. Many institutions have only participated after receiving grants to do so. What kind of organizations need to be paid to save money? Contrast this with the non-subsidized market for enrollment management consulting services. You can learn a lot about institutions by comparing the things they’re happy to pay for out of their own pocket with the things that require extra funding and convincing.
In other words, the relatively slow pace of change in using technology to improve learning and productivity in the core teaching activities of traditional higher education institutions isn’t a supply-side issue, ideas-wise. It’s a demand-side issue. The ideas are there; people and institutions just lack sufficient incentive to seek them out. Until that changes, organizations like NCAT will continue to work harder than they should have to in order to help colleges improve the quality of their courses and save money in the bargain. And if it doesn’t change fast enough, you can be sure that the rapidly growing for-profit sector will be waiting to pick up the slack.