Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Breaking Higher Education's Iron Triangle: Access, Cost, and Quality

A followup to earlier thoughts on the Higher Education Revolution: Breaking Higher Education's Iron Triangle: Access, Cost, and Quality lays down a challenge that both developing nations and western nations need to address: "provide wide access to high-quality higher education at a low cost."

How to get there? "There is a growing realization that government provision of higher education in traditional modes alone cannot accomplish this task."

Why not? Traditional higher-education has been locked into an 'iron triangle' of high cost, limited access, and non-scalable educational models:
Much of today’s higher education remains a blend of student community and lecture bazaar, each of which contributes a particular notion of quality. In the community model, quality is largely a matter of the characteristics of the entering students. If the student community is difficult to get into, it must be a place where excellent education occurs. Quality is identified with exclusivity. The lecture bazaar model brings in another dimension of quality, namely expenditure per student: the more the better.

These models have no economies of scale because they are based on the concept that students need time of highly educated teachers in order to learn. Lack of cost controls are built on assumptions and institutional biases (through endowments and Government subsidies) that stymie innovations. They note:
The iron triangle—the assumption that quality, exclusivity, and expense necessarily go together—has been the bugbear of education.

What are the alternatives? "Open and distance learning (ODL) and eLearning are increasingly seen as key to providing access to the wider student population now seeking higher education, especially to working adults and those in remote rural areas."

What doors are opened up and need to be opened up? We need scalable economic models, and this is achievable on the side of information distribution with Open Educational Resources and other means of instructional material and course reuse. That means course developments that can be reused, technology that can be leveraged. Economies of scale can lower cost without harming quality.

We also need specialization, and one area the article notes that is essential is to de-link the learning process from the testing/certification. In doing so, we have a new models of education quality assurance through standardized forms of examinations to certify completion:
the key factor is the shift of emphasis from residence and lectures to outcomes and examinations. If the trend to delink testing from teaching continues, it will lead to more flexible and less expensive models of higher education, with the result that the aspiration of giving people access to high-quality higher education worldwide may not be an illusion. In terms of the access-quality-cost triangle, the examination system is a major breakthrough. Access is only limited by the availability of examiners, quality and standards can be set at the level required, and students are spared the costs of residence and instruction.

Consider it this way: Suppose instead of going to Harvard, you simply went to the Harvard examinations? You will need an educational and learning experience to get ready for those exams, but that process could and should be one that is tailored for the individual. There are examinations for College level courses like that - CLEP.
One myth is the myth of the need for Professorial contact:
Some important research by Robert Bernard and his colleagues at Concordia University, Montreal, explodes the myth about the importance of face-to-face support. They carried out a meta-analysis of hundreds of studies in which distance-education students were treated in different ways. They distinguished three types of interaction: student with content; student with student; and student with teacher. They then analyzed all the studies to find which type of interaction made the greatest difference to student performance when it was increased. The results showed clearly that increasing student-content interaction had much the greatest effect, with student-student interaction coming next and student-teacher interaction last.
See, when your freshman section was taught by a TA, you really didn't miss out on anything after all.

What they propose is a radically different way of conceiving of education. It's a form of education that is more personal, more effective, less costly, more flexible. It won't have those Ivy-covered Halls and exclusive clubs, but it will have a path for students to learn. The article summarizes their case this way:

The aims of wide access, high quality, and low cost are not achievable, even in principle, with traditional models of higher education based on classroom teaching in campus communities. A perception of quality based on exclusivity of access and high expenditure per student is the precise opposite of what is required. ... But perceptions of quality are changing, and the growing emphasis on outcomes and standards heralds the possibility of a model of higher education that could achieve the ministerial aims—one that centers on examinations and allows students to choose different ways of preparing for them. Although this type of system has a long history, contemporary technologies such as eLearning and open educational resources promise to make it even more cost-effective today.

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