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'Technology revolution' is the way for education to deliver through the cuts
by John Stone


Schools, colleges and universities are braced for the impact of the most severe cuts to central funding for many decades. Even if cuts to all the education and skills budgets are pegged towards the lower end of expectations, it seems likely that the sector will have to deal with something more far reaching than the cyclical trimming and slicing around the edges to which we have become accustomed. On the government side, we can expect a large-scale withdrawal from the administration of education. However, given that most funding goes to education providers —for 09/10, £31bn of the planned total schools expenditure of £39bn was going directly to schools— it is providers that will still have to bear significant cuts, at least in terms of unit costs, if not of the overall volumes of education and training on offer.

Some of the cost reductions required of schools and colleges will be found by cutting the least popular subjects and courses, since these have the greatest unit costs. However, unit costs in schools have risen by 40% in the last 7 years; a large proportion of this is due to increases in staff numbers (as opposed to running courses with low uptake). Inevitably an examination of the balance between traditional face-to-face teaching and other approaches is back on the agenda, and the application of technology needs to lie at the heart of this re-evaluation.

In other industries such as transport and manufacturing, the boundaries of technology are constantly advanced to improve products and services. Education has lagged behind in this regard however, making do with retro-engineered solutions, often comparatively clunky and uninspiring. However, the delivery of technology-enabled distance learning instead of, or alongside traditional face-to-face tuition  potentially brings many benefits, both educationally, and in terms of cost-efficiency. For the learner, it can foster development of a wide-range of skills, such as independent enquiry, self-management as well as technological awareness and media literacy. For the institution, it delivers well-reported cost-efficiencies.

There are already promising advances in some quarters of the sector, with the first world-leading research institute - University of California, Berkeley recently announcing its intention to offer fully-online undergraduate degrees with the same entry requirements as the campus-based courses. The Dean of Berkeley’s School of Law, Christopher Edley stated that "online undergraduate programmes in selective institutions will happen. The question is when, and led by whom" (Times Higher Education, 2010a). Unfortunately however, establishments like Berkeley are the exception rather than the rule, especially when it comes to our domestic academy, and even more so, the UK’s colleges, for whom technology could be extremely important in a world where they need to show real return on investment and value for money. Especially when considered in the context of the current need for greater contributions from employers and individuals.

The complex interplay between good teachers and their students and the importance of social interaction within the group are frequently cited as barriers to the more widespread use of technology in mainstream education. This is likely to remain a potent argument, but even here the development of social networking techniques is likely to open up new areas where the application of technology can prove both educationally and cost-effective.

Another of the central obstacles to implementing technology-based learning is current attitudes. Christopher Edley faced opprobrium from academics and lecturers who reckoned a “cyber degree” would not be consistent with Berkeley's prestigious undergraduate program. Others have suggested that these changes, although reducing costs, would also result in a drop in standards. Whilst few would deny that technology-enabled learning can drive down both overheads and unit costs, the evidence base does not support the claim that there is an associated reduction in achievement and quality. Indeed, recent research by the US Department of Education found that "students who took all or part of their class online performed better, on average, than those taking the same course through traditional face-to-face instruction" (US Department for Education, 2010).

While it will be difficult to convince some of the merits of undergraduate degrees with zero face-to-face teaching, Dame Lynne Brindley, chair of the Online Learning Task Force (OLTF) at the Higher Education Funding Council for England, is intent on reversing this attitude. In an interview with the Times Higher Education, Brindley said the OLTF is attempting to “dispel some of the myths that online learning is a second-rate alternative" and says a key goal for HE should be in making the UK a world leader in online provision.

Given that technology-enabled learning has the potential to significantly reduce costs, and in the right circumstance to improve the quality of outcomes, then what is stopping providers from making the necessary investments? Here we run into the familiar barriers of attitudes, resources and time. The difficulty of any institution to finance a potentially costly IT project, at a time when funding is being squeezed from every direction surely lies at the heart of this. However, central funding will only decrease between now and the end of this parliament, and since technology-enabled learning can deliver a reduction in costs over the medium to long-term, now is the time to take action. Investing now will reduce the impact of the cuts on any institution: waiting longer will only make it more difficult to make the first steps.

We at least have the advantage of knowing that difficult times may lie ahead. We have the option of sitting on our hands and reacting as best we can when the axe falls, by cutting provision or sleep-walking back to the 1990s and limiting our response to seeking ever more productivity solely from the efforts of hard-pressed staff. Alternatively we can fix the roof while the sun is still shining and make the upfront investments in solutions, systems and the associated training which will give both staff and learning the tools and capabilities they need to prosper in uncertain times.

John Stone,
LSN Chief Executive

References

Times Higher Education (2010). Online Tuition Options are not Second-rate, Times Higher Education, 29th July 2010. Available from http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?storycode=412768. Last accessed 20/10/10.

US Department for Education (2010). Evaluation of Evidence-based Practices in Online Education. Available from http://www2.ed.gov/rschstat/eval/tech/evidence-based-practices/finalreport.pdf. Last accessed 20/10/10.

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