After writing a review of Anya Kamenetz’s book on education reform, DIY U yesterday, in which I mentioned that I thought it was a larger issue than cost control, I woke up this morning to a BBC article specifically about reducing costs in higher ed. I don’t disagree when people say this is a huge issue, and I am sympathetic to arguments that the education “bubble” is on track to bursting [see also], much as the housing market did. Here are a couple follow up thoughts on cost control:
In the United States, education budgets largely fall under the states’ control, with federal assistance in loans and grants funneled to the students. State budgets are seriously crunched by falling tax revenue, and they have no way to print more in particularly needy times. (Here in Oregon, state lawmakers are struggling with a $577 million shortfall due to below-expected revenue). Around the world, governments are hard-pressed to come up with the funds to provide for their educational institutions just as banks are becoming less willing to loan to students, seeing them as riskier bets than in the last decade.
The cost of higher education, then, is a front burner issue. But I hoped schools would not focus solely on their budgets. That is because I believe the technological developments that Kamenetz celebrates in DIY U actually do provide the opportunity for learning that is far cheaper than the mechanisms currently employed for that purpose. What worries me about this possibility is that by focusing on the chances for cost-reduction, the chances the same technology allows for radically improving education may be ignored. And there are those who think moving to Internet courses for cost-reduction would hurt educational quality (see the ginandtacos quote from my previous review and my comment to it directly). It takes a conscious shift in pedagogy to use a student’s time in school for network- and knowledge-building.
I think the connectivist model of learning that Kamenetz mentions on pg 110 (From Stephen Downes and George Siemens) is a powerful model that is useful to students inside or outside of institutions. As a theory of learning, it applies whether or not a classroom is intentionally set up to recognize it. But an educational structure that focuses on helping students build a personal learning network and build knowledge together is especially powerful. You won’t get to this point if you’re just focusing on cutting costs, but it just so happens that a lot of free online tools, from microblogging (twitter) to wikis are especially suited to collaborative network-aware learning. These enable students to network with one another within a course and form connections with professionals outside the university. Add in the expertise of a well-read professor to curate content, and you can get a lot of learning done. Then you can follow Anya’s and others’ advice on cost reduction by streamlining, unbundling course content, liberally licensing and reusing content from many professors.
If there is a burst bubble in education, networked learning will still occur. There will be a lot of scrambling to find workable models outside institutions if they go bankrupt or price their product out of students’ hands. I think Stephen Downes, George Siemens and others in the open education movement are on a good track in this pursuit, and I will encourage students who want DIY learning to look into their model. Despite my worry for higher ed institutions, I believe in the model of a course, where important discussions in a field are curated up for a group of students to connect with and explore (as opposed to students browsing through search results and Wikipedia on their own). Someone will bring this model to tomorrow’s students without plunging them into unmanageable debt. It might be universities after all (see this hopeful example). I just worry that if they focus only on cutting costs (from their overall budget and those passed on to students), they will end up treading water in terms of educational quality instead of using the available tools to move ahead.