Could blended learning fend off tuition increases?

graduationA recent Deseret News story reported that the Utah Board of Regents approved a statewide college tuition hike of four percent for the 2014-2015 school year, with increases up to 5.5 or 6 percent at the University of Utah, Utah State University, and Snow College. This was reported to be the “smallest tuition increase in more than a decade” and was celebrated by higher education officials, in large part because it represented larger increases in taxpayer funding for Utah’s colleges and universities than have typically occurred in recent years.

If you really want to, I guess you can spin as a good thing the fact that Utah college students will “only” be paying $378, $290, and $208 more per year to attend University of Utah, USU, and SUU, respectively. But in the end, they’re still paying more money for the same college education they could have gotten for less the year before, and I’m not sure that is something to tout.

Iis it really worth celebrating that we chose to increase the financial pain of paying for a college education for students, while simultaneously choosing to increase the financial pain on taxpayers more than normal? Especially when tuition and fees in Utah’s public four-year colleges and universities has gone up by 46 percent in less than 10 years (between 2004-05 and 2013-14) – after adjusting for inflation.

That sounds like pretty institutionalized, inside-the-box thinking – which perhaps we ought to expect from institutions of higher education. But it seems that a genuine accomplishment truly worthy of celebration would be figuring out to decrease tuition and lower the funding required from taxpayers for higher education, by using the ingenuity and innovative thinking that should typify higher learning.

Enter digital learning.

A recent study published by the National Bureau of Education Research randomly assigned (the “gold standard” method in social science research) 725 subjects to either a traditional introductory economics class, with two in-class lectures of 75 minutes each, or a “hybrid format,” with only one in-class lecture of 75 minutes. Importantly, the two college professors that taught the courses each taught a traditional and a hybrid section, with identical curriculum materials available to students across formats. In other words, as the researchers put it, “the fundamental difference in treatment between the traditional and hybrid formats is the amount of time spent in the classroom, with students in the hybrid having only half the amount of formal class time as those in the traditional sections.” Therefore, the researchers assert, “our study can therefore be viewed as a strong test of whether substantial differences in attendance matter to academic performance when online materials are also available.”

The results? The researchers reported that the differences in academic outcomes for students in different formats were “not large.” Students in the traditional format scored only a 2.5 percentage points higher on the combined mid-term and final test grade (using a scale of 1 to 100). Additionally, there were no significant differences in lecture attendance or hours spent in online curriculum materials, so there is little evidence to show that increased use of digital learning led to significant differences in student work effort.

In other words, in all measurable ways, the hybrid format created similar academic outcomes as the traditional format, with the added benefit of decreasing the amount of lecture time spent in a classroom required to achieve those outcomes.

Think of the possible implications of these results. We may be able to decrease two of the most significant required costs (building space and professors’ time) of providing higher education, while still producing similar outcomes for college students. What’s more, as likely as not, those outcomes will improve as colleges and universities gain more experience with digital learning methods and find ways to improve upon them. Who knows, with widespread adoption of digital learning in higher education, we may even reach a day where we are able to lower student tuition while requiring fewer taxpayer dollars for Utah’s colleges and universities.

Now all we have to do is convince Utah’s higher education establishment and tenured college professors to be innovative, with the goal in mind of decreasing the cost of higher learning for students and taxpayers. Now that would be an accomplishment worth celebrating.

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