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Panacea Technology

Panacea Technology

Current discussions of higher ed, including the UVa crisis, reflect both important realities and farfetched assumptions about the role of technology in education’s future. I am no expert, and we will be learning a lot more in coming months, including at the November conference I’ve discussed earlier. But I can’t refrain from some thoughts.

First, there are a lot of quite unrealistic assumptions about cost saving. Self-styled disrupters point to distance courses with up to 100,000 students. They have existed. But they have involved little or no assessment of quality and outcome, in many cases massive dropout rates (up to 89%), and the fact is that no one has yet devised a business plan that will successfully incorporate this kind of thing. I do NOT mean there’s nothing here to discuss, but the assumption that somehow there is a successful, much less established pattern that stick-in-the-mud universities and presidents are ignoring is just not true.

This said, we also know that there are distance ed offerings that are amazingly cheap, put forward mainly by for-profits. They are cheap because of scale, because of employing inexpensive faculty (an adjunct, no research requirement system run wild) and of course because of no building costs. Ignoring this model would be as foolish as claiming wild success for some of the wilder endeavors. We don’t yet know enough about results — many of the best experiments have focused on adult learners, not conventional age students. But we need to be ready to discuss.

It’s also quite clear that there remains a huge conventional market for college wares without a lot of innovation. We need to worry about costs and debt levels, but to ignore existing demand is also foolish and unnecessary. Crisis references tend to downplay this element.

The obvious overall point is balance, recognition of numerous possible pathways, and willingness to deal with frankly complex facts. And while we’re clearly being urged to pay new attention to costs and economies, which up to a point is fine, we don’t want to forget the last equally urgent fad, to deal with real learning outcomes, to assess seriously. That component must also be brought into the discussion. I think it’s fair for faculty to expect proof that massively cheaper offerings do not involve roughly commensurate deteriorations of quality. The proof may be there, but we need to see it and not assume it sight unseen.