I’m interested in the debate that’s been sparked by my new project. It sounds dumb but I honestly didn’t see it coming, that people who didn’t object when I published a commercial book using a certain word in the title would be so up in arms when I proposed to bring out a free, nonprofit-funded, follow-up ebook with the same word in the title. But I think it’s probably a good, necessary debate, and I’m going to let it go on without me for a bit while I carry on talking to learners and people who are making things happen in the future of higher education.
Here’s something I need to clarify, though. It’s a point I often make in presentations.

I don’t think there can be meaningful innovation in higher education or any other field if cost is not a factor in decision making. If you look at the original formulation of Moore’s Law, above, you can see plainly that “economics dictate” continuing to make computer chips smaller and faster. To put it another way, investments in technology, which can be substantial, in terms of equipment and more importantly training, have to be just that, investments with a meaningful return, or they will not be repeated. There’s a place for pure, blue-sky research but eventually you have to pick winners in order to move forward.

So, how can technology lower costs while maintaining or improving quality in higher education?

  • In teaching: I point you once again to the work of The National Center for Academic Transformation. “From 1999 to 2004, NCAT worked with 30 diverse two- and four-year colleges (50,000 students annually) to prove that it is possible to improve quality and reduce cost in higher education. Course redesign using information technology is key to achieving both outcomes.”
  • In administration: This is an IT no-brainer. From recruitment to retention to support services to campus energy use to supplies and logistics.
  • In physical plant: Online or blended programs can reduce the need for expanding and maintaining the physical campus.
  • In textbooks and course materials: Open licenses and digital distribution have the potential to radically cut costs, especially to the end user (the student), while also reducing inequity: students can have access to a wider range of higher quality material even if they are at institutions with proportionally fewer resources.

In the case of higher education, as in health care, there’s a moral reason to consider bringing down costs. The high cost of these services today severely affects our ability to provide them to those who need them, and the cost is swiftly rising. Simply dedicating more and more public and private money to these services, even if politically possible, is unsustainable. I don’t point this out because I want to impoverish, privatize, or dismantle public higher education. To the contrary, I believe the only coherent position for those who support broad access to affordable, quality public higher education in this country is to support bending the cost curve.

5 Responses to “Why Innovation Requires Cost Cutting”

  1. Dean Dad says:

    Your last sentence is perfect. I’m tired of “boutique” programs that show that we can improve outcomes just by tripling the per-student cost. That’s not sustainable, and it’s silly to pretend that it is. Change that will help the vast majority will have to be cost-effective to survive. And I absolutely agree that public higher ed needs to survive.

  2. wilbur says:


  3. Michael McCarthy says:

    I cannot help but think of those people who panicked over the obsolescence of horses when the automobile arrived on the scene. Certainly, books will take a similar back-seat to eMaterials. So what?

    Doesn’t obsolescence mean that books will soon gather the same nostalgia and respect that a horse now has in our collective memory? To quote C.W. Anderson:

    “Many people have sighed for the ‘good old days’ and regretted the ‘passing of the horse,’ but today, when only those who like horses own them, it is a far better time for horses.”

    As our beasts of burden, horses were treated as stinky, abused creatures. People built their carriage houses miles away, if they could afford to, in order to avoid their smell. Horses were whipped, beaten, and finally turned into glue. Today, our modern paper mills foul the air in places like Berlin, New Hampshire with a smell akin to rotten eggs, while our waste dumps pile high with the refuse from an over-reliance on the paper-printed word. Books, magazines and the like don’t get any respect. If we had to whip them, we would. We certainly do throw them away as though they count for nothing.

    These days, horses are seen as majestic and powerful animals. They represent privilege or nature, rather than burden and industry. In their marginalization, they have found a new, more respected place in our world. Imagine a day when the printed word will be cherished nostalgically over digital ink! A traditionally bound book, not as a commonplace necessity, but cherished as a respected and celebrated rarity. Imagine having your book printed with the attention and care of an illuminated manuscript. Quite the thought.

  4. Michael McCarthy says:

    [P.S.] I know what bavatuesday is railing against, and its not the eBook itself… but the observation is drivel anyways. The word EDUPUNK, like any other, has come of age. Unfortunately for the other suitors, she will either marry, or stay independent. Either way she will be marginalized or scorned. And there are suitors around, aging titans of industry who claim to offer both freedom and legitimacy. What is a good punk to do?

  5. D Pillow says:

    Publishers will have to take note on the world that is changing around them. When you have distinguished authors like Seth Godin coming out saying, “I will never publish another book the traditional way.”..and..”my next book will be just an e-book.” It should make the publishing world realize that they sit at a new negotiating table with authors like Anya and they have to leave the old mentality at the door. The world is truly changing.

Leave a Reply