Teaching and Learning in a Net-Centric World

Where is Higher Education’s Digital Dividend?

One doesn’t need to devour political or economic analysis, listen to experts or even chat with one’s friends to realize that the Internet has changed the way we produce and consume information and the myriad ways in which we communicate. Blogs, wikis and Facebook walls have granted to each of us –a multimedia printing press with global delivery capacity – at VERY low cost. Similarly we can engage in audio, video or text conversations with politicians, relatives, co-workers or “followers” at VERY low cost.

Given that education works by nurturing interactions and communication among and between teachers, students and content, it would seem logical that the costs of education, like its component interactions would also have drastically reduced in cost. However, this is not the case. Despite the possibility of a digital dividend students, in every country, are being met with heavy increases in the cost of education.

Talking the familiar text book as an example,  American researcher David Wiley compares the cost of renting 75,000 movies  ($9.00 a month  from NetFlicks) or renting  any of 20 million songs from Spotify  ($9.99/month) with the cost of renting a college text book . A single biology text book rents for $12.99 a month from BookRenter.  This cost imbalance is especially vexing in that consumers choose to rent movies or songs, while professors (often in collusion with publisher representatives) choose the textbooks that others (the students) pay for.

Tuition fees are also high and rising. A 2013 report from  the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives shows that since 1990, average tuition and compulsory fees for undergraduates in Canada have risen by 6.2 per cent annually which is three times the rate of inflation. The result of these increases has been graduating classes of students facing many years of student debt repayment. This is money that could and should be spent on building new vocations, families and homes. Obviously there has been no digital dividend paid to students.

Forbes Magazine notes that the causes of these increases are complex but major drivers include increasing demand, ever expanding costs of college marketing and college administration coupled with decreases in government aid.   The entry of for-profit universities –at least in the United States, has certainly increased opportunity, but has done nothing to reduce costs. Rather, many of these colleges have been accused of predatory exploitation of students willing to incur large student loans with little likelihood of graduation.

Thus, the time is right for a “market correction” that exploits the affordances of the Net to create drastically lower cost of quality higher education experience.  The arrival of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) was heralded by the press and many pundits as a game changer, that would revolutionize education. As usual, such forecasts in education almost never meet inflated expectations, however the MOOC did cause educators and governments to seriously look at their education development and delivery models. Most are searching for ways to embrace MOOCs while retaining exclusivity of brand and the credentials they offer to their graduates.  MOOCs with no apparent revenue model, will likely prove to be no more than lost leaders enticing current students and useful for developing brand and exploring new markets for higher education services.

However, they have set the stage for a serious examination of the way that education is delivered, tested and accredited.  In an era where learning is available in multiple formats, from a myriad of potential sources, it makes sense to credential knowledge attained from any source or activity.  It has been easy and convenient for colleges to measure learning by study hours, seat time or numbers of months of study using proscribed methods provided in-house – but this type of knowledge measurement is now out of date and fails to acknowledge, celebrate and exploit any potential digital dividend. Let’s hope both existing and new education providers will emerge that finally allow us to meet our universal right to education at affordable prices for all citizens of this world.

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1 Comment

  1. Mitch Mitch
    April 15, 2014    

    Just remember that David Wiley is also starting a business to work with HE institutions to use OER for courses and course content. He’s not just a researcher.

    That said, he’s also correct, the cost of higher ed is not sustainable if it is to remain a mass market.

    Saylor Organization is another group that is working on curating and organizing OER to reduce the cost of HE. Both Wiley and I have been involved in different ways with Saylor.

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