Monday, June 27, 2011

Cost, quality, and freedom, or, can you crowdsource an education?

In Cognitive Surplus Clay Shirky argues that the invention of movable type had three impacts on intellectual culture: it reduced the cost of publication, increased people's freedom to publish, and initially, lowered the quality of the things that were published.  Over time, though, the increase in freedom brought about an increase in creativity, innovation, and learning.  The sum total of the quality of published things has never returned to the glory days of publishing--there is much more dreck for sale today than when monks carefully illuminated manuscripts.  But we are substantially better off as a culture, and people who want to publish are better off as well.

For educators concerned about the cost and quality of education, there is much to learn in Shirky's brief account. Two things come immediately to mind.  The first is that colleges and universities cannot make meaningful progress on cost and quality without asking serious questions about freedom--Who will shape the curriculum? Under which rules? Who will decide what is good?

The second is that the key voices in this discussion need to be the potential producers of learning. By this I do not mean that students ought to choose.  Nor do I mean that faculty or administrators ought to be the source of innovation in learning.  Instead I mean that regardless of role, people who see themselves as creators of learning should be the ones who create it.

Shirky makes this point too, as he notes that technology makes it possible for people who were once only consumers to become collaborators.  Online this means bloggers and coders and social entrepreneurs and all the other people who band together to jointly solve problems or have fun.  In education I suspect this means crowdsourcers--people who can call together experts in many fields--both content and delivery--to create custom educations.  You might imagine a day when colleges and universities collaborate with their students to pull together courses and learning experiences from around the world, leading to an education that is cost-effective, high-quality, and, in the political sense, free.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Priceline model for choosing a college

I met today with a group of enrollment managers at the NACU conference at North Central College. One told the story of a father who came to the financial aid office on his campus and said "I have $xx,xxx dollars to spend on higher education for my son each year.  Make me a deal." This scenario was quickly called "the priceline model" of higher education.

This story is enlightening for what it tells us about debt, decision-making, and the place of higher education in the economy.  The people in the room agreed that this scenario would become more common in the near future, in part because of the cost of private higher education, in part because of the New Frugality, and in part because higher ed is no different from the rest of the economy where consumers are seeking more customized, personalized pricing and experiences.

How would a priceline model influence higher education?  It would do three things, I think.  First, it would shake the prestige nonsense out of higher education selection.  If a consumer of higher ed were to select parameters (location, field of study, NSSE scores, etc.) and then offer a price, students would end up in one of the thousands of good institutions in the US, but almost certainly not in the ones that use price as a proxy for prestige.

Second, it would encourage innovation on the margins of higher education.  New higher ed providers might "compile" an educational experience for students, putting together a set of classes from disparate institutions, united by advising, or an internship, or something else. The result would be a college degree that met the consumer"s demands by building an institution from scratch. Or providers might go in seriously for differential pricing (a history degree would be cheaper than a business degree, for example) or disaggregated pricing, so that instead of paying tuition for classes, you pay instead for a certain amount of faculty time for each class, or you select having a mentor in one class but not for another.

Third, institutions would lose the relationships that often bring students to campus and keep them once they arrive.  Instead, the decision to choose a college would be made almost entirely on cost.

Would this make for a better learning education for students?  Would it improve or diminish the quality of colleges and universities?

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Blogs to love

Here are several blogs worth reading, all of which focus on education, community, and the search for a good (or at least viable) life:

Front Porch Republic: Its tagline says it all: Place. Limits. Liberty.  The conservatism of FPR's writers is bracing and clear-eyed--no promises that a set of tax cuts or free-trade agreements will solve the world's ills.  Instead, a willingness to examine ills, local or global, in the context of the limits of the earth, and the limits of human beings.

The School of Life:  A British gathering of academics and civic innovators, who've set up a location for learning that does some of what schools do, but does it in a particularly thoughtful way.  Take a look, for instance, at today's post about the creation of healthy minds.

The Politics of Well-Being: British journalist Jules Evans' regular examination of the search for well-being. He mixes a nose for trends just emerging (positive psychology, for example) with pithiness and neo-aristotelianism.

The Big Society Watch and InCommon from the Davenport Institute at Pepperdine University: The Big Society watch traces Great Britain's experiment with Tocquevillian social change in modern Europe;  InCommon looks at civil society in California.

Cato Unbound: Most blogs purport to show diversity of thought and real intellectual engagement.  This one actually does.  The exchanges on typical libertarian topics (the limits of government, for example) can get to be inside baseball quickly (unless you are deeply familiar with libertarian and conservative political thought), but the exchanges whose titles promise dullness, like this one on the impact of free parking are excellent.  My current favorite is the discussion of the political scientist James C. Scott's work.

The Becker-Posner Blog: Wherein two of the smartest economists in the world write consistently clear and challenging essays about big issues in American life.  Great stuff, especially for folks trying to understand the market from the perspective of people who understand the market and still admire it.

Buddhist Geeks: Regular podcasts from Buddhists who work in the high-tech world.  Full of insights about systems, change, the ways of organizations, personal transformation, and social change.

Taken together these blogs are evidence both of the rich learning and community that can emerge on the web, and of people who have gotten well past the superficiality of the current discussion of politics, government, and the good life.  All are worth following.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

How do we get there from here?

Yet another article, this time in The Atlantic, about the higher education on the verge of a major reconfiguration.  The outline is the same as usual--higher ed costs too much, is accessible to too few, and produces too little learning.  And technology is the answer.  The examples are the typical ones as well--MIT's open course initiative and the Khan Academy.

I agree with the author that higher ed needs to be reworked, and that the framing of the issue--how can we get better learning at lower cost in ways that respond to the needs and desires of students and society?--is the right one.

But that is the easy part.  It is simple to diagnose the disease, much harder to fix it.  Here is why: "free' alternatives like OpenCourse Ware or Khan Academy aren't free--they are either subsidized or make no money. For-profit options are expensive too--they charge students a premium for convenience.  Private non-profit institutions have budgets based on expensive tuition (though the level of tuition discounting means that budgets are not nearly as high as one would think).  Any move to offer a less expensive education runs up against the fact that the institution runs on a small margin at very high tuition.  And inexpensive public institutions are  subsidized, at capacity, and too poor to devote resources to vastly improving student learning. In short, most colleges and universities, public and private, are resource poor.  They don't have money to experiment, nor do they have R&D operations.

So how do we get to high quality, low cost education from where we are now, in the real world?  Are there incentives that exist for the leadership and faculty of private institutions that will encourage them to cut costs and maintain quality?  What are those incentives?  Are there different incentives for low-cost providers who are operating at capacity?

My view (which will be no surprise to readers of this blog) is that existing institutions will not be the leaders here.  It will be new colleges and universities who will figure out the cost/quality formula first. (Take a look at this proposal for a new university in England.  High quality, but high cost also.)  Reformers need to work to lower the barriers for new entrants.  They key barrier?  Access to federal financial aid. The students who will desire low-cost education are those with little money to invest in their educations.  But start-up colleges and universities lack the accreditation that gives them and their students access to financial aid.  No financial aid, no students, no new institutions.

Public schools are dead, long live public education?

Keeping a charter school running means constantly responding to change without the infrastructure, finances, and administrative depth of district schools. Lose an English teacher in a district high school, and there are others who can step in.  Lose one in a charter school and you have no such backup.  Enrollment drops by a few students in a high school of 3,000 and it is barely noticeable.  Lose a few students in a school of 250 and you are in budget difficulty.

So when the Utah legislature passed a law last session requiring all public schools to allow students to enroll in online courses offered by preferred providers, and stipulated that portions of the weighted pupil unit (the per-student state funding) go to those providers, there was little outcry.  But for a charter school like City Academy, the prospect of a few thousand dollars leaving our budget every time a student chooses an online course is troubling, because it makes it more difficult for us to pay for the teachers, building, and resources needed to support the student when he or she is in class.

I will leave it to others to determine whether this law is good or bad.  I expect that it is morally neutral, and may provide opportunities for innovation in public education.  But the thing that has gone unremarked is this: that this move, more than anything that has happened in the past ten years, is likely to weaken public schools even while it may strengthen public education.

Here is what I mean: allowing state funding to follow student class selection creates a revenue stream for providers of classes, not diplomas.  Thus a future is possible where a student takes a math class from one provider, a history class from another, and a science class from a third.  The experience of school disappears; all that remains is taxpayer supported coursework, made whole, if at all, by parents, advisors, and students themselves.

 Public schools may be on the way out; we will have to decide whether the public education that replaces it is what we desire.