April 20, 2006

E–learning Research: tuition fees, market differentiation, and the role of e–learning

In response to an article in the Daily Telegraph which questions the value of arts degrees. I consider the effects of tuition fees, placing Warwick in a very different undergraduate market. I then consider the role of technology in developing a valuable, attractive and differentiated undergraduate offering.

It is unusual to see full-frontal nudity in the pages of the Daily Telegraph. Even more shocking that the model in view should be a dear old friend. Unfortunately, this Monday (17–04-06 – abbreviated online version available), there seemed good reason to laugh at the indelicately exposed flesh of that alleged emperor of the education world: the British Arts Degree. The claimed justification for this sudden revelation? They want to charge £3000 a year for the privilege. The ever to be trusted investigative methods of the Telegraph hacks are ringing the first of what will be many alarm bells. They are asking: £3000 for what? Six hours of lectures and seminars a week for someone studying History at York. Outrage. Eight hours a week and you get a psychology degree from Bristol. Even the old Freudster couldn’t have dreamt up that one.

The story was all too superficial, but let us put that aside for a moment and consider the implications of the article’s underlying perception for Warwick. Then it will be possible to consider what this may mean for e-learning.

Firstly, I am a new father, already contemplating university fees eighteen years from now (I am absurdly long sighted). The effects of tuition fees on my considerations are: for that kind of money my son could go anywhere. That is certainly not true, I imagine that a good American education is significantly more expensive. But I have the modern British attitude to debt: when I pay out sufficiently large sums of money I deliberately avoid thinking about the number of zeros on the end of the sum. I’m more inclined to dream about the magnificent product that I am buying. The consequence of this deliberate blindness to the level of my personal debt is that I do not notice whether I am spending £3000 or £10000. For evidence, consider my mortgage, a staggering and entirely unreasonable amount of money. Therefore, if I have to pay out lots of cash for my son’s education, I will go for the best available, or at least as much as my credit limit can handle. And if that also means he gets to go abroad, somewhere nice for me to visit, why not? Perhaps what will happen over the longer term is that the portion of an individual’s debt available for house-buying will decrease, whilst the portion to be spent on education will increase. A £20,000 decrease in money available for the mortgage is quite insignificant. Moving that £20,000 into the education debt would make a very big difference. Even so, America may still seem just too expensive, but then there are plenty of alternatives. Australia for example is a dream for many young people in Britain, and they do actually have some decent universities. Perhaps we should set up a campus in the Pacific? In any case, now that I am a consumer of higher education, with money (or rather debt) to spend, I feel more financially empowered than I was as an undergraduate in 1991 having my fees and rent paid for me. That empowerment makes me think: what cool things can I get for my money? Expect to see the appearance of a magazine title just for people like me: Which University?

The implication of tuition fees for Warwick? Undergraduate degrees are now placed into a complex and global market. After years of trying to stay ahead of the other First Division Russell Group universities, with a distant hope of promotion to the Premier League, the game will suddenly change altogether. At the very least the range of feasible and thinkable options available to the school leaver will grow (despite the current number of institutions, there are still very few genuinely different options for the aspiring middle class kid). Competition between the providers will increase. The need to differentiate the product will become pressing (already noticeable in the proposed new Warwick Learning and Teaching Strategy, which seeks to differentiate us as thoroughly “innovative”). The market (or at least its self-appointed guardians, including the Telegraph) will seek out variables of comparison between the products on offer. For example, it is possible to compare the amount of “contact time” (lectures, seminars etc) that a student gets for their £3000 at the various institutions. The Telegraph have done just that. Expect a league table of contact time to be published very soon.

Students and their parents have always had their own methods for comparing universities and making choices. At the first stage of consideration the decision is made for them: which of the various leagues are they in: Oxbridge? Red-brick? Polytechnic? A small minority of students will then base their choice on the specific details of the courses on offer. Students with minority interests (theology, anthropology) will have little choice. For the majority of students, the next most significant consideration is lifestyle. Campus or town based? By the sea? Big City? Near to home or far away? Lively Student’s Union? Nightclubs? Girl-to-boy ratio? The choice has always been taken lightly in academic terms but with huge significance in the social aspect. Perhaps this will remain the case. The current orthodoxy claims that the typical undergraduate wants a degree course that simply offers them the required sheet of paper bearing the figure “2.1” along with three years of fun and “personal development”. In this case the terms of the competition are simple: which university can guarantee the 2.1 whilst offering the best social experience? I contend that Warwick may well lose out to Sydney in the second of these variables. For now the guarantee of a safe degree result may override this. But as the members of this globally scoped market wake up to the new competition, they may well all start to focus their energies on the guarantee of reasonable academic success. In which case who wins? Sunny Sydney with its glorious beaches and bronzed bodies? Coventry? Expect to see the Which University? guide looking ever more like a holiday brochure.

Some will of course dissent from this trend. Perhaps in eighteen years time my son will realise that he is to be expelled from the family home and packed off like a convict to the land of Oz. I will seek at every opportunity to instil him with a sense of adventure, but should that fail, he may oppose my plans by opting to join the thousands of young people who simply choose not to go away to university (he can stay, but will have to live in the garage). The Open University is increasingly popular, as are the many smaller more local universities offering easier and more certain access. This is in many cases a rational choice, not just for economic reasons. Many students simply cannot cope, at 18, with leaving home. The OU may be the best thing for them (note, I came to Warwick at the age of 20). Expect the appearance of a league table of drop-out rates and mental health problems to be published very soon, as the consumers wise up to this being an important consideration.

The traditional market for universities like Warwick would then be significantly eroded in two directions, with some students globalising, whilst others become even more sedentary. In either case Warwick seems to lose its footing. We can attempt to combat this with glossy brochures and friendly open days, but as competition becomes more intense, and the market more discerning, the bottom-line story will come under closer scrutiny and really must hold up effectively. And all the time every other fish in the pond will offer a pretty picture of nice residences and a lively social life. Such things cease to be a differentiator and instead become commodified.

These trends will no doubt be the certain outcome if consumer attitudes remain as present. But the Telegraph article may indicate (or be leading) a significant shift. At least a large sub set of consumers will start to behave more intelligently, with a detailed appreciation of what makes the difference between institutions and their offerings. Expect, at least in the short term, a rise in the number of courses that combine the safety of a traditional UK institution with more exotic destinations abroad (these are already a big part of the Arts at Warwick). Also expect to see prospective students seeking clarification and verification of claims by British universities that they offer a special kind of educational experience, somehow resulting in superior graduates. What exactly is it about a degree at a certain institution that makes it worth the money more than any other? This is the real drive behind the Telegraph article.

The obvious claim is that limited contact hours equal poor quality education, and vice versa. This is countered with the notion that arts students benefit greatly from even a small quantity of high quality contact with top experts, whilst developing independent skills of their own: so called “research based learning”. This is in many cases the “exactly” of “what makes a specific degree better”. I have heard this argument at Warwick, and indeed have on occasion used it myself. Unfortunately as a differentiator and mark of quality, this concept has become dramatically devalued and will not stand up to the kind of scrutiny applied by the Telegraph. Professor Anthony King of Essex University knows this to be the case. He makes the obvious point that 18 year old students do not have the required skills to operate as independent researchers. Expect to see as a consequence universities differentiating themselves through well worked out, consistent and clearly branded undergraduate induction and skills programmes. Warwick MUST do this to keep competitive as an undergraduate provider. However, such curriculum developments are expensive. And the question of who bears the cost has to be settled. It may be born by agencies external to the subject specialist academics, by for example a central undergraduate skills programme separate from academic departments. However, we then risk the dilution of the degree programme away from subject specialism and academic expertise, precisely the things that we claim give its special value. At the other extreme, the cost of curriculum development would fall upon the subject specialist academic. This would be a difficult choice at a time at which increasing pressure is being placed upon such academics to produce high quality work to be evaluated by the Research Assessment Exercise. It may be that research academics simply cannot do the extra work of redeveloping the curriculum at this time.

The immediate quandary facing Warwick, given the changing market conditions, is then how can it differentiate its undergraduate offerings with some special characteristic, such that its claims:

  1. are significantly attractive to prospective students within a global market;
  2. represent value for money;
  3. can be understood by prospective undergraduates (and the media that tells them what matters) without too much effort;
  4. do not add an unbearable overhead to existing resources (academics);
  5. can be maintained as a distinct advantage over the competition for a significant length of time.

By definition, there is no simple solution. If points 1 to 4 were easily achievable, then every one of our competitors would achieve them right away, leaving us with no advantage: we would fail on point 5. As always, any solution to the problem of successful differentiation in competition requires a blend of strategies that:

  • meet the popular demands and expectations of the market;
  • do so in some uniquely special and un-commodifiable way;
  • reduce cost whilst bringing new value to all participating agents.

At this point the common reaction is to reach for a copy of the Oxford Dictionary of Techno Wizardry. Look under E for E-learning perhaps. But don’t get too excited. There are some possibilities, but we will not find a panacea. Technical solutions can only be part of the answer to the kind of problems that I have outlined. For example, we could create an online induction course that requires no input from academic staff. However, if it worked really well and delivered valuable education, it would not be delivering an education valuable in a way specific to Warwick and its academia. In fact it would soon become commodified, copied by every other university. Technical solutions always imply that we must keep innovating and improving, as they are easily copied by the opposition. The best solution is to pair the technical solution with something else that cannot be copied by another university. Something unique and situated in the culture and community of the place, which must itself develop to meet the new challenges alongside the introduction of new technologies.

At this point I should make clear exactly what I am not advocating, for e-learning already has a bad name from the wrong kind of coupling of technological and cultural change. Many within education and beyond have sought to force change through technological development. This however very rarely works, unless you have the power to force everyone to use the new technology. Unfortunately, this tactic is usually the last resort of institutions who do not have that kind of power. Paradoxically, they hope to attain this authority surreptitiously through the introduction of technology, which of course relies on having such a degree of power (the strategy thus collapses into circularity). For example, the rapidly fading generation of Virtual Learning Environments (Blackboard, WebCT, Learnwise) have been adopted by some institutions as a means of introducing quality assurance frameworks by stealth. The idea being that the VLE “encourages” lecturers to document their teaching activities and to record the work of their students in an online location easily accessible to university authorities. Administrators would then be able to drill-down into institutions to examine every detail of what is going on, without even leaving their desks. Of course no British university has either the power or the will to force academics to cooperate. Consequently there are a lot of very empty VLEs out there.

Instead, we require a different kind of technology strategy, one that takes the best aspects of the unique community and culture of the university, and supports, enhances and extends them to provide a significantly different and more valuable undergraduate experience. Importantly, this cannot be done in isolation from development in the practices of the people involved in teaching undergraduates, as they are the key source of value. So we could see the introduction of a superb new technical tool for supporting undergraduate learning, for example a blog system, but that must be connected to and validated by the involvement of the specialist academics that are Warwick’s special value. Currently the Warwick Blogs system does give us a small advantage over our competitors in the overall undergraduate provision, but it is not in any way rooted in the academic specialism and culture that makes Warwick unique. It is potentially comodifiable. Expect to see Oxford Blogs, Cambridge Blogs and so on at some point soon. The next difficult question, one that I do not yet have sufficient answers for, is how we develop our e-learning provisions so as to stimulate the required cultural development within the university. I have a strategy, but not yet the required tactics. Any suggestions?

- 4 comments by 2 or more people Not publicly viewable

  1. I would think that significantly increasing the ratio of seminars to lectures would greatly benefit and please most students.

    In fact, I would say I get virtually nothing out of lectures, a lot out of online notes, and variable amounts of learning out of seminars/essays/assignments. (It depends on size of class, responsibility of tutor and therefore supervision by professor.)

    I'm surprised that first years get so many lectures when loads of seminars taught by older students would seem more cost-efficient..

    As for your last bit on e-learning, what do you mean by having a strategy but no tactics?

    20 Apr 2006, 16:19

  2. Oliver

    On the any suggestions front, I'd say (and presuming I haven't completely missed the many many points) there are two strategies you want worked into action.

    1) A coherent approach to giving warwick students a generalised grounding in skills for university life – approaches to reading, research methods, keeping track of your study/life – an endless list if a bidding war starts between universities – ooo Bristol offers numeracy irrespective of your discipline… ahh warwick are offering chartered accountancy short-courses and if you apply now you get ten cats free… York are offering a course in petcare and ten cats for free, one's a Liger.

    2) "subject specific" tactics which could potentially build upon the former.

    It would seem that the University's PDP and Skills specialists (including the Senior Tutor's officce, Careers and the Library/Learning Grid) who seem to offer several courses / sessions which some people wouldn't do without are probably in a position to answer questions and contribute to the construction of a joined-up strategy. Have they/will they review their current status within the undergraduate community. A SWOT analysis or similar? Do undergraduates, on the whole feel that generic courses/certificates are valuable or are there too many other things going on? Is there a joined up message from the departments, faculties, administration about the needs for/ benefits of skills and PDP?

    It might turn out that there is no desire on the part of the wider UG body to partake in schemes that don't directly relate to their subjects. I'm sure (without wishing to bait in any particular way) some from the science community would consider their departments to be doing sterling work in delievering skills packages already.

    I've heard that the UG curriculum for Arts students is overlaiden with reading, preparing for seminars, writing, reflecting etc. and that any skills-stuff should be kept voluntary, extra-curricular, extra-mural if possible. This went as far as arguing against having the careers department in during a weekday when lectures were scheduled. This attitude doesn't hail from fear of extra work, but from a genuine belief that these soft-skill courses are unnecessary. Might need a strategy to work on ethos while you're at it – this could be the "Ethos Team". They will wear lycra and bungee into offices/lecture theatres where people are being negative!

    A wider consultation is necessary – the Student Satisfaction Survey, if I remember correctly, asks questions about whether UGs feel they have adequate provision on skills and the like. This made not a jot of sense to me as an undergraduate as I don't think anything of skills and the like day to day – maybe now I will.

    Sorry for conflating you e-learning specifics into something regarding skills and PDP as well, I hope that their definiton can be a much more broad than the narrow definiton that I've likely implied!

    20 Apr 2006, 22:16

  3. I have had a couple of interesting conversations recently with students who either dropped out of university or have decided not to go at all. Lifestyle, which includes debt, would be the top category. In addition, what was attractive to them was the 'reputation' of a university, and what they disliked most was a perceived snobbery and the impersonal, cold, distant relationships with staff and older students (which stood in contrast to the warm, community feel of their school and college).

    I am with you on the quality vs quantity debate about contact hours. This is not new, as you say, but is likely to be a pressing issue in the new market place of fee paying UK students. Yet, whilst looking at comodification, we also need to guard against popularism for its own sake. I think Warwick can afford to have its highlights, and should have a firm base of 'advantages' for its graduates, but it should retain the gravitas of its ethos, and balance that demand for research and good quality teaching.

    I agreed most of all with the remarks about balance, at a grass roots level, between seminars and lectures. I think I am gradually moving away from lectures back towards interactive teaching, and I am increasing the number of seminars too.

    Independent learners? Actually I think we are well served at Warwick. There are very few students I would describe as 'dependent': Warwick students are articulate, thoughtful, reflective and bright. Part of the future depends on being able to attract the best students and to make sure they are valued and promoted here. They are the best advert we have.

    And part of the Warwick Advantage is the excellent students union.

    I am convinced that we only need to tweat a few areas at Warwick to make a significant difference. These are my initial thougts on 'tactics'. PDP is one of them, but there are other areas of teaching and learning, and, above all, the creation of opportunities for students, we need to get right.

    24 Apr 2006, 09:56

  4. Robert O'Toole

    Rob J wrote: "I am gradually moving away from lectures back towards interactive teaching".

    Quality of academic contact could well prove to be more important than quantity of contact time. How could that quality be easily understood by the consumers? How can Warwick's answer to the question "how good is the academic contact?" be positively differentiated?

    Rob J makes a distinction between seminars and lectures, in that seminars are more interactive. Warwick has always had an emphasis on seminars, and that is something worth talking up much more (there are many advantages in seminar based teaching). And perhaps a better frameowrk in which seminars happen and are connected up with lectures, assessments and other activities? E-learning can definitely help with that.

    But lectures should not be demoted too far. We can do a lot to make them more valuable and interactive.

    24 Apr 2006, 15:34

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