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Invited Article

Periodically, IJITDL editors identify articles of special interest that deserve immediate widespread attention and discussion. This article envisions the importance of technology and distance learning to offset budget reductions and improve the quality of teaching and collaborative learning in higher education. Dr. Bates argues for radical change in the academy to increase cost-effectiveness of post-secondary education. He suggests concrete ways in which cost-effectiveness can be improved and identifies barriers that prevent
e-learning from being used to improve the cost-effectiveness of public systems of higher education.

Can or Should e-Learning Improve the Cost-Effectiveness of Higher Education?

Tony Bates, Tony Bates Associates Ltd

Is e-learning failing to meet expectations?

There is a growing feeling among some important commentators that e-learning is failing to meet expectations in higher education. David White, Director, EU Commission DG Education and Culture, Lifelong Learning, in his keynote presentation Innovative Learning for Europe at the 2008 EDEN conference in Lisbon, expressed his concern about the lack of return on investment. He pointed out that national governments and the European Commission have invested over a billion dollars in Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) for education, but have seen little change or improvement as a result.

The other related issue is the lack of innovation. The World Economic Forum’s Global Advisory Committee on Technology and Education at its meeting in Dubai (November, 2008) commented:

‘Education is in a state of transition from a traditional model to one where technology plays an integral role.  However, technology has not yet transformed education’.

In particular, although there are many innovative ‘projects’, often dependent on the work of inspired and hard-working individual instructors, and although many institutions have put in place learning technology and faculty development initiatives, there appears to be little systemic change (see Sangra, 2008). As the Canadian Council on Learning (CCL) puts it: ‘The growth of e-learning has not significantly altered the way in which Canada’s institutions organize or deliver learning.’ Nor is this peculiar to Canada.

The CCL report concluded that Canada is falling behind other countries and the adoption of e-learning is slower than predicted. Both statements were made without any conclusive evidence. However, perception is as important as reality in this business, especially when investment in technology is dependent on public funding and support. In any case, Terry Anderson, a Canadian research chair in e-learning, in response to the CCL report, commented in his blog that he was saddened by Canada’s ‘lost decade in e-learning‘.

Thus, while plenty of evidence (e.g. Allen and Seaman, 2008; Instructional Technology Council, 2008) can be provided to show that computers and the Internet are now widely used by a majority of faculty and students in post-secondary education, there is also at the same time widespread dissatisfaction with the results.

Expectations for e-learning

I think the first thing to examine is whether expectations about e-learning – defined here as the application of information and communications technologies (ICTs), and in particular computers and the Internet, for teaching and learning – are realistic.

First, it should be appreciated that there are many different stakeholders in post-secondary education: learners, instructors, educational support staff such as instructional and web designers, IT support staff, senior managers, government and employers. You can probably think of others, as well, e.g. parents of students.

Each set of stakeholders brings different expectations about the role and use of technology in teaching and learning, and these different stakeholders will have different values that will influence their evaluation of e-learning’s effectiveness. Nevertheless, it should be possible to collect the different rationales for e-learning, and examine the extent to which expectations have or have not been met.

Below are some of the more common rationales or expectations for e-learning that I have encountered, both in the literature and in discussion with different stakeholder groups.

Possible goals for e-learning

1.      Increase access to learning opportunities and increase flexibility for students.

2.      Develop skills and competencies needed in the 21st century to ensure that learners have the skills required for their discipline, profession or career.

3.      Meet the learning styles and needs of millennial students.

4.      Improve the cost-effectiveness of the post-secondary education system.

5.      Stay at the leading edge of educational technology developments to digitalise all learning and respond to the technological imperative.

6.      De-institutionalise learning to enable self-managed learning.

In my blog (http://tonybates.ca), I have discussed and ‘graded’ e-learning on each of these goals, but in this article, I want to focus particularly on goal 5: improving the cost-effectiveness of the post-secondary education system, because it could be argued that all the other goals could be subsumed under this one broad goal. Indeed, I will argue that this is the most important and valuable of all the goals for e-learning, but is the one that is furthest from being achieved.

Using e-learning to increase cost-effectiveness

To understand the rationale for this goal, it is necessary to look at the recent history of post-secondary education. It will be argued that universities and colleges have not changed their organizations and structures sufficiently to accommodate to the new realities facing higher education. Information and communications technologies provide opportunities and potential for both improving the effectiveness, in terms of better qualified graduates and higher completion rates, and also for reducing unit costs, i.e. the cost of each graduating student. However, this cannot be done without major changes to post-secondary educational institutions.

I will make the argument for radical change in the academy, in order to increase the cost-effectiveness of post-secondary education, I will suggest some concrete ways in which cost-effectiveness could be improved, and will look at the barriers that are preventing e-learning from being used to improve the cost-effectiveness of the system.

The problem

Why do universities need to change? I think there are several compelling reasons.

From elite to mass higher education

Up until the middle of the 20th century, entrance to university in many countries was limited by and large to a small, elite minority of upper class or rich middle class students. As late as 1969, less than 8 per cent of 18 years olds (children born in 1951) were admitted to university in Britain (Perry, 1976). As a result, teaching methods in particular were suited to what today would be considered small classes, even at the undergraduate level, with seminar classes of 20 or less and even small group tutorials of three or four students with a senior research professor for students in their last year of an undergraduate program. This remains today the ‘ideal’ paradigm of university teaching for many professors and instructors.

In the USA and Canada, the move to a mass system of higher education began earlier, following the Second World War, when returning servicemen were given scholarships to attend university. For the last half of the twentieth century, access to universities and colleges expanded rapidly. For a mix of social and economic reasons, from the 1960s onwards, governments in Europe also started again to expand rapidly the number of university places. By the end of the century, in many Western countries, more than half the 19 year old cohort were admitted to some form of post-secondary education. (In 2006, 55% of Canadians between the ages of 25 and 34 had completed a post-secondary program of study – OECD, 2008.)

This represents a massive increase in numbers and governments are spending ever more each year on post-secondary education. However, they have not been able or willing to fund staffing of universities and colleges at a level that would maintain the low class sizes common when access was limited. Thus in many North American universities, there are first and second year undergraduate courses with more than 1,000 students, taught mainly in large lecture classes, often by non-tenured instructors or even graduate students.  At the same time, undergraduate completion rates (the proportion of students who enter a four-year degree program who go on to complete the degree program within six years) remain below 60 per cent in the USA for many public universities (Bowen, McPherson, and Chingos, 2009). In other words, universities are failing a significant number of students each year.

With this widening of access to post-secondary education, the diversity of students has increased immensely. The biggest change is in the number of older and part-time students (including students who are technically classified as full-time, but who are, in fact, also holding down part-time jobs to pay for tuition fees, books, and living expenses). The mean age of students in North American post-secondary education institutions now stands at 24 years old, but the spread of ages is much wider, with many students taking longer than the minimum time to graduate, or returning to study after graduation for further qualifications. Many are married with young families. For such students, academic study is a relatively small component of an extremely busy life style. By definition, many of the students who now attend university or college are not in the top ten per cent of academic achievers, and therefore are likely to need more support and assistance with learning. With the growth of international students, and increasing numbers of students who are either recent immigrants themselves, or children of immigrants, there are now wider differences in language and culture which also influence the context of teaching and learning.

Lastly, in most economically advanced countries, the unit costs of higher education have steadily increased year over year, without any sign of abating. Between 1995 and 2005, average tuition and fees rose 51 percent at public four-year institutions and 30 percent at community colleges in the USA (Wellman, 2009; Johnson, 2009). The average cost per student per year in tertiary education (excluding R&D costs) in the USA in 2006 was just over $22,000 per student (OECD, 2008, p. 202). Thus although there are now many more post-secondary students, the average cost per student continues to increase, putting excessive pressure on government funding, tuition fees, and hence costs to parents and students. More disturbingly, these increases in overall costs have not been matched by similar proportions of spending on direct teaching and learning activities (such as increasing the number of faculty). Most of the increased costs have gone into other areas, such as administration, fund raising, and campus facilities (Wellman, 2009). Thus post-secondary education has become larger, more costly, but less academically efficient.

The predominant teaching model

Yet, despite the larger classes and the increasing heterogeneity of the student body, the predominant organizational model of teaching is the same today as in the nineteenth century.  It is no wonder then that unit costs are increasing. Modern universities and colleges still have many features of industrial organizations (Gilbert, 2005). For instance:

  • Classes are organized at scheduled times in a fixed location on the assumption of full-time attendance.
  • Students receive (at least within the same course) a ’standard’ or common product, in terms of curriculum (same lectures, same reading lists, etc. for each student in the course), delivered at the same time and place, irrespective of the needs of different kinds of students (full-time, part-time, working), following Henry Ford’s classic model-T car strategy: ‘you can have any colour you want, so long as it’s black’.
  • To deal with large classes, another classic industrial strategy is used: hiring low-paid and less ‘qualified’ workers – adjuncts and graduate students – to take up the extra load.
  • The institution is divided into departmental silos, with a hierarchical management structure of heads or directors of departments, deans and vice-presidents. Academic staff is also organized hierarchically: research student, post-doc, associate professor, full professor, departmental chair.
  • The Spellings Commission in the USA (US Department of Education, 2006) even pushed (unsuccessfully) for standardized measurements of output, to allow comparison in ‘performance’ between institutions, reflecting a classic industrial mentality of ‘standardized’ products.

Program delivery

The ‘old’ university is built around the delivery of programs through campus ‘residence’, i.e. the physical attendance of students at lectures, seminars, libraries and labs. ICTs now though enable students to access information and services, including interaction with instructors and other students, at any time and any place. Programs can now be delivered in a variety of ways to an increasingly wide variety of students, through face-to-face, blended or fully online learning.

Furthermore, instructors no longer have to create all their teaching material from scratch, and duplicate the process every year. They can increasingly select ‘ready-made’ modules of free, open access online teaching materials, and organise teaching and learning around the vast resources now available over the Internet. Even better, as we shall see in the next section, they can give learners the freedom and responsibility to select the learning materials that they feel to be of interest and relevance.

Given the potential and benefits of digital learning, a radical re-thinking of the benefits and limitations of physical presence, related to the nature of the subject matter and the type of learner being targeted (e.g., high school leavers or lifelong learners, full-time or part-time students) is needed.

Learner-centered teaching

The recent development of web 2.0 and mobile technology tools, such as blogs, YouTube, mobile phones and cameras, virtual worlds, and e-portfolios now enable learners to collect, create, transform, and adapt their own learning materials (Lee and McCoughlin, in press). These tools can be used for collaborative learning, group work, projects, problem-solving, and creative thinking, all skills needed in a knowledge-based society.

These tools enable the role of the instructor to change from that of a provider and controller of knowledge, to one of facilitator and guide. Increased time spent by learners on active online tasks and peer collaboration is one way to deal with the massification of higher education, allowing for greater personalization of learning and increased motivation, while at the same time controlling the workload of the teacher. These tools allow work to be shifted from the teacher to the learner. Learners can spend more time on task, interacting both with digital content and with fellow students. However, for this approach to succeed, radical changes to the standard mode of teaching are needed.

Managing, administering and organizing the institution.

Universities and colleges are organized around the benefits and constraints of a physical campus. However, information and communications technologies enable the institution to be managed, administered and organized quite differently. There are increasing moves to student self-service, through online admission, course registration, fee payment, and ordering and delivery of learning materials, not just to save money, but to provide more flexible and better service. Student, faculty and staff digital identities allow for single log-in and secure access to appropriate programs, services, and resources. New business intelligence tools allow for the distribution of information to faculty, staff and managers at all levels to better inform decision-making (Katz, 2008). Many universities and colleges are making moves in these directions, but they are more often piecemeal and uncoordinated, and are not driven by any new vision of the academy and how it should provide services.

The need for experimentation, innovation and vision

The challenge then is to square three competing factors: increasing access, increasing quality or improving outcomes, and reducing costs. Can technology provide the fourth side of the square?

Many universities and colleges will argue that they are experimenting, innovating and have vision with regard to the use of technology for teaching and administration, but what they are mainly doing is accommodating technology to the traditional model. Many professors and instructors are incorporating technology into their on-campus classroom teaching, and enrolments in fully online courses are growing rapidly. Nevertheless, both of these are a perpetuation of older models of teaching and learning.

Tierney and Hentschke (2007, pp. 13-14) argue that:

‘innovation in higher education has remained within a socially constructed framework where the innovators have tended to accept the parameters of traditional higher education and have worked within them…..As with all social constructions, deviations from these norms are relatively minor, in large part because those who participate in the construction have difficulties imagining ways much beyond the status quo….’

They argue that traditional universities and colleges seek ways to integrate new technology within the parameters of the traditional model, and look for changes at the margins, in a slow and incremental manner, that sustain the existing goals and values of the organization. Thus technology is being ‘accommodated’ to the prevailing model, not changing it.

What is lacking is a systematic, pedagogically-based approach that attempts to fit the design and delivery of courses and programs to the needs of an increasingly large and diverse student population. For instance, older, part-time workers are increasingly making up a large proportion of students, and this trend will increase further over the next ten years (see Hussar and Bailey, 2009). Many will not want to come on campus at all. But many professors see distance or adult students as ‘extra’ to normal teaching load. They already feel they have too many students to teach, and adding lifelong learners just makes matters worse.

I need not go into the argument made recently by Margaret Wente, a columnist in Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper, that professors have too light a teaching load (averaging around six hours a week). I happen to believe that the majority of university and college instructors (tenured or contracted) work very hard at teaching, when course and lesson preparation, student assessment, hiring and supervising adjunct faculty, and counselling students are all included. In research universities, teaching is supposed to count for no more than 40 per cent of their activities, and there are strong arguments to be made that good teaching and research reinforce each other in higher education. Time must be found for both. Thus professors are caught in a vicious cycle, and it is time to break out of that cycle. They do not need to work harder at teaching, but they do need to work smarter.

However, this cannot be done without major changes, without experimentation on a much larger scale than we have seen up to now – in other words, it cannot be done without disruption. Furthermore, these changes are needed, whether or not technology is the answer. So technology alone cannot improve cost-effectiveness; it needs to be linked to new visions for the university, to leadership, and to change management.

Identifying the problem with higher education in the 21st is the easy part. Much more difficult is finding solutions to the problem.

Open universities as an alternative model

John Daniel (1998) has argued that the very large open universities have managed to increase access, lower costs per student, and change the teaching and organizational models, while maintaining quality. Open universities have done this mainly by using mass media, such as print and broadcasting, which enable economies of scale.

However, the issue here is quality – the large economies of scale are achieved mainly through reducing the interaction between teacher and student. Without strong learner support, drop-out rates from open universities are massive – often over 90% (Belawati, 1998). To provide adequate learner support, local face-to-face study centres, or online discussion forums, need to be introduced, but these mean more instructors or tutors are needed and costs go back up.

Nevertheless the change of teaching model and the use of technology has enabled open universities, with good quality learner support, to operate somewhat more cost-effectively than traditional universities, even on the basis of cost per graduate, while maintaining a good degree of quality (the O.K. Open University for instance usually ranks highly in specialist league tables looking at research, teaching quality, and student satisfaction.)

However, open universities are specialist distance teaching universities serving a somewhat different profile of learners from campus-based universities, although in recent years differences in mandate and student profile between traditional and open universities have become increasingly blurred. In any case, the open university model itself is now 40 years old, and was designed for an era when access to traditional universities was much more restricted, and was based on technologies that did not include computers, the Internet, or mobile phones.

As with traditional universities, open universities have adapted to the new technologies, but they are not a comfortable fit – for instance, most of the undergraduate programs at the U.K. Open University, Athabasca University, the FernUniversität, UNISA, and many other open universities are still primarily print-based. The few open Universities that are now fully online, such as the Open University of Catalonia in Spain and Universidade Aberta in Portugal, have found that they need a completely different course design model from the older print-based model.

No, what is needed is a new model for the university that takes lessons from both traditional and open universities, that fully exploit new technologies, and which assures quality as well as access at an economical cost.


I am not arguing for major changes to the traditional mission of a university, which I would define as the preservation, creation and dissemination of knowledge, manifested through research, teaching, and public service. However, the balance between these activities may vary depending on the goals and mandate of particular institutions – as it does now.

Some, indeed, would challenge the traditional mission of the university as an anachronism. Knowledge is now created through networks and the Internet, through argument and discussion. However, I believe that this is a dangerous argument. Although the Internet can speed up immensely the dissemination of information, and open networks can add value to what we know, much of what gets into the public domain as grist for discussion is often initially generated by research and analysis conducted in the universities.

Indeed, the validation and assessment of ‘general’ knowledge, the scientific conduct of research, and critical analysis of popular thinking, will become even more important functions for the university in the age of the Internet. Thus one might add a fourth pillar to the current mission: ‘knowledge referee’, in the sense of challenging arguments that are not based on or are contrary to established facts, or ignore inconvenient data, or misrepresent or ignore minority views, etc.

Building visions for a modern university

I deliberately use the word visions in the plural. Although there is variety in the focus of different higher education institutions, for example between large research universities, small liberal arts colleges, polytechnics, two year community colleges, they all follow a somewhat similar model of teaching and institutional organization.

I believe we need much more variety in institutional structures and models of educational delivery than we have at the current time. We need in other words more innovation and experimentation if the challenge of greater access, greater quality and lower cost is to be met. Only through experimentation, trial and error and a certain amount of risk-taking are we likely to find new models that ‘work’ in that they achieve the three goals stated: more access, better quality, less cost.

This means we need lots of different visions of what a university could be. We also need those visions from the perspectives of different stakeholders – government, research scientists, dedicated teachers, employers, students, and, increasingly, professional staff such as registrars, librarians, instructional designers, web designers, and IT managers.

We have heard calls for changes, from different stakeholders (mainly external to the university) but where are the visions for the future? Unless we try to identify what we want, how can we possibly achieve it? Certainly, in my vision for the future there will be a greater variety of models for the university and especially for how we deliver teaching and learning.

What should universities look like in twenty years?

What is my vision for the university of the future, one that addresses the challenges of increased access, better quality and lower cost? My view is that technology is a useful tool for creating a new kind of university, but much more important are structural and cultural changes in which technology will play a supporting role. Without these cultural and structural changes, technology cannot change the university on its own.

Visions can be described at different levels of generality and specificity, and from different stakeholder perspectives. So I will start with a somewhat general vision from a learner’s perspective:

My university will be my guide and facilitator for higher education throughout my life. It will not only provide me with knowledge, courses, programs and qualifications itself, but will also help me access the learning opportunities I need from other quality providers.

How might this work out in practice? Well, let’s follow the life of this learner.


In my last two years at high school, one of my teachers advised me on possible programs and courses, based on my interests and abilities. Before I made a decision about a college program, I was able to enroll online as a guest student in three courses from three different universities I was interested in. Two courses, math and biology, I was studying for high school completion, and were offered by my local university in Cape Breton. The third course, on marine biology from the University of Vancouver, was new to me, but I really enjoyed it, and I also liked the teaching, because I could go to my local beach, and video and photograph material for a project in the course, which counted towards my high school completion. I therefore enrolled online for the University of Vancouver. This was a big move for me, because I had to leave home in Cape Breton and travel across the country.

First year

The best part though about enrolling at the University of Vancouver was that even in the first year, I could do about half of the program from home. I decided to start all my courses in January. I stayed with a friend when in Vancouver, and went to campus about twice a week, for the first six months of the year, mainly for the practical work in the labs, so I got a small part-time job in Vancouver that helped cover some of my expenses. For the last six months, I was able to take the rest of my courses from home in Cape Breton, which worked really well for the biology course, as I was able to collect and record specimens from the local shoreline that were different from many of the specimens from other students. Since my mother is not very well, I felt really good about this arrangement, as I could look after her, although I did go back to Vancouver for the last couple of weeks of the course, just before the Christmas break.

The courses were interesting. In my group of 20 students in marine biology, there was one, like me the year before, from a local high school, eight other first year students, four second year students, two third year students, two fourth year students, a graduate student, and three people who were working. These three already had degrees but had not done this course, which focused on the impact of waste management on coastal waters. The working students were great, giving me lots of help with stuff I didn’t know. We had to do a research project, and the graduate student was our main guide on this. I didn’t see much of the professor on campus after the first couple of weeks, but she occasionally jumped into our online discussion forums and once or twice really helped me out with my research design. However, there were about fifteen other groups that she had to look after, as well, but the grad student usually got us through, because the course was really well organised. Most of our reading in fact was done online, accessing materials on waste management and marine biology from all over the world. Our professor and the grad student had found a lot of it for us, but towards the end we were finding lots of new stuff for ourselves that related to our specific research projects. There were only three actual lectures on this course, all from the professor, and they were terrific. I missed the middle one because I was in Cape Breton, but it was recorded like the others so I just downloaded it. The prof had also made lots of short videos, showing stuff she was doing for her research, then giving us links to notes about the videos, related research articles and her own web site. I found this really useful when I came to do my own research design. The hardest part was writing up my research report for the end of course assessment. I had too much stuff – photos, videos, data, and real stuff, too, like oil-stained feathers, and had to leave a lot out – but I was able to get it all online in the end. The grad student did the first run at the assessment, but because I got a really good grade, the prof also reviewed it, so I can now concentrate on marine biology for the rest of my degree. However, I need a bit of money, so will take a break then re-enroll in the April second year cohort. (I just find it too hard to work and study at the same time).

Masters program

Well, I made it through my undergraduate program. The last year was really hard work, as my group had a really big research project to manage, and I spent quite a bit of time helping out some of the other students. Vancouver didn’t have quite the graduate program I wanted. I’m pretty clear now what I want to do, but a couple of the courses I want are from San Diego State University and some others are from Florida State University. I’m going do the research data collection mainly in Cape Breton, but I really wanted my prof at University of Vancouver as the supervisor for my dissertation. Fortunately the University of Vancouver has an agreement that allows me to take the courses from San Diego and Florida, mainly but not entirely online, and transfer them in, so I can keep my supervisor. (I think she wants me to do a Ph.D., but I’m not so sure about doing that.) As I really need to bring some money in now that my mother’s died, I’m going to spread the masters over two years, and even better my supervisor’s arranged for me to work part-time as a consultant for a local waste management company, so even when I’m working it will all feed into my dissertation. I’ll also get a little bit of money for teaching part-time in the undergraduate program, which I will really enjoy – you learn so much from the other students’ projects.

Out to work

Well, in the end it took me three years to finish my masters, mainly because I was offered a really good full-time job with the waste management company at the end of the first year. I’m now responsible for waste water environmental control. My prof was really disappointed that I didn’t go for the Ph.D., but the work is really fascinating, and one day I will probably do a Ph.D. because there’s lots of stuff we still don’t know in this area. In fact, I’m now taking a management program online from Athabasca University, which takes about all of my spare time. Again, though, I’m able to do the face-to-face group work on change management on campus at the University of Vancouver, over four weekends, as the group work is also a part of the Vancouver MBA program. My prof put me on to this and helped me work it out between the two universities. I’m also still teaching online in one of the university’s graduate marine biology courses – technically, I’m classified as a mentor – but I don’t do it for the money, which barely covers my expenses. I just keep learning so much from the students’ projects and I like helping them out.

Implications for the university

The next step is to move from the vision to the practical implications. So here are some of the implications from my vision.

  1. Abolition of the semester system. In my vision, students can start – and finish – courses at different times of the year, although I would limit them to three or four start and end times, to enable groups to cohere during the course. Some courses would stretch over a year, and would be worth 12 credits; others – especially foundation or prior knowledge modules – would be shorter, some as short as a week.
  2. Since course materials or content are constantly changing – many sources will be off-campus – courses will be built around learning outcomes, such as research design, critical analysis, knowledge management, within broad topic areas.
  3. Courses would be designed to accommodate a range of students, from those still in high school to those already graduated. There would be a strong emphasis on collaborative learning, group work, and student mentoring. The professor will define very carefully the roles and expectations for different kinds of students/mentors in each group.
  4. The teaching will focus on getting students to do the work: finding material, organizing it, reporting it, evaluating it, using digital technology to create portfolios of work, and participating in peer assessment. Students would be assessed on their progress through the course, as displayed by their work.
  5. Large undergraduate courses (over 250) will have one or two full professors, supported by graduate students and off-campus mentors (graduates of the program now in the workforce), an instructional designer and digital technology support staff. The course will be designed and delivered as a team. The professor(s) will be academically responsible for the course, setting learning outcomes, determining the scope of content coverage, and managing the assessment of students. This will entail setting criteria and rubrics for the measurement of learning outcomes, and ensuring standardization in marking between the graduate students and mentors. Most assessment will be done by the graduate students and mentors in undergraduate classes, monitored by the professor(s), and with some peer assessment by students.
  6. Large classes will be broken down into small groups of 20-30 students, each led by a graduate student or mentor. The professor(s) will move between the groups (both in face-to-face and online contexts), monitoring the work of the mentors, and occasionally participating in the discussions. Professors will also create learning materials that relate specifically to their research that links to the course topics. All such material created for teaching will be open content. Generally for undergraduate teaching one professor will be responsible for a maximum of 250 students or 10-15 groups. However, the concept of a ‘class’ will become blurrier, since students will be able to opt in and out more (see (7) below), depending on their needs.
  7. Assessment methods will vary, but it many cases it will be through ‘proof of learning’, either in the form of mainly authenticated electronic portfolios of work, or by challenge. In the latter case, students may opt to take an examination when they feel they are ready. They may not follow the set curriculum, but can opt to meet the published assessment requirements through a supervised or proctored examination, or through a submission of an authenticated portfolio of work. Portfolio work will be authenticated by graduate students or mentors who have been accredited to work with students.
  8. All Ph.D. students will receive up to six months training in teaching and learning, as well as research techniques, as a pre-requisite for tenure. Students taking masters courses who wish to act as mentors, as well as those who have graduated and are in the work force who wish to be mentors, will receive up to three months training in teaching, embedded within their studies.
  9. Most universities will belong to consortia, which allow for automatic credit transfer of courses or modules/credits from other consortium members into their programs. There will be many different consortia reflecting the growing diversity of higher education institutions. Many of these will be international consortia.
  10. Costs will be driven down in several ways: professors focusing on overall program design, supervision of assessment, and supporting adjuncts, graduate students and mentors in their teaching; students working within a managed learning environment, with more experienced students helping the less experienced; use of low-paid mentors from the workforce, who benefit from the contact with the research in the university; use of graduate students, who spend as much time mentoring and teaching as researching; use of technology to improve communication, and ensure that everyone (professor, graduate students, mentors, students) is aware of what is happening in teaching and learning within a program.

You probably don’t like this vision – great, think up your own! Visioning is best done as a group activity, involving different stakeholders, and not giving too much attention to current reality and constraints. We need lots of different visions, because so much is now possible.

Barriers to change

Satisfaction with the basic traditional university model

Despite lots of usually justified grumbling by faculty about overwork, too large classes, and increasing amounts of time spent on bureaucratic form-filling for accountability exercises, the basic model of teaching through classrooms on campuses with fixed schedules and timetables is generally accepted as the ‘best’ one. All that is needed are more resources for more professors and smaller classes. However, for most post-secondary institutions in even the most economically advanced countries, we have seen that this is not going to happen.

The status of Ivy league universities

The closest to the ideal model for the majority of academics, students and the public are the traditional Ivy League universities: Harvard, Yale, Oxford, Cambridge, etc. There is no denying that these offer, in the main, first class university education. Students have relatively close contact with the ‘best minds’, have small classes and excellent facilities. More importantly, access to these universities opens doors to top quality jobs and influential social and cultural networks. It would be madness for these institutions to change radically. They have a largely unassailable competitive advantage. They are well funded, have enormous student demand for places, and great prestige with governments and the public alike.

The problem though is that too many other institutions wish to aspire to this model. The importance paid to university rankings and mission statements such as ‘to be one of the 100 top universities in the world’ are symptoms of this aspiration. The Ivy League institutions are by definition elite institutions. It is not a model that can be economically reproduced in very large numbers, and certainly is not a model that can be reproduced with the kind of resources most public institutions are likely to access. It is with these less well-funded public institutions where the real problem lies. They cannot serve large numbers well by using a watered down version of traditional teaching. As a result, many students are getting a poor deal.

The solution then is not to abolish the still valuable if elite and socially divisive Ivy League universities, but to find models that better serve the vast majority of university and college students. This, though, is a challenge if such institutions try to ape – and ape badly – the Ivy League institutions.


When it comes to using information and communications technologies to improve the cost-effectiveness, the governance system of universities militates against major change. For good reasons, in most economically advanced countries, universities are relatively independent of government. Basically the attitude of universities to government is ‘Throw the money over the wall and go away.’ Governments in some countries have responded to this by demanding greater accountability (e.g. the Spellings Commission in the USA, the Quality Assurance Agency in the UK, and Degree Quality Assurance committees in Canada.) However, these agencies or commissions do not have the mandate to challenge the basic model – they just want to be sure that the existing model is running as well as possible.

Also, in the last 10-20 years, governments have by and large retreated from creating alternative models such as the open universities established in the 1970s and 80s. Where they have attempted to establish new models – such as the UK’s e-University – they have often been disasters. The policy in recent years, especially with regard to ICTs, is to hope that the integration of ICTs will lead to change within existing institutions. As we have seen, by and large, this hope for major structural changes has largely been disappointed.

But the real hope for change has to come from within the more traditional, state-funded public universities, simply because that’s where the majority of university students are, and where the pressures in terms of increased numbers and less funding are found. Here again, internal governance is a major barrier to systemic change. Sangra (2008) found in an in-depth study of the governance of ICTs in five European universities that in general, the universities had weak governance structures for decision-making and implementation, and in particular lacked well-defined strategic directions or rationales with regard to using ICTs for teaching.

One reason for this is that decision-making is deliberately dispersed in universities. The autonomy of the individual faculty member, and the view that senior academic administrators are there to serve the needs as much of the faculty as the students, means that it is difficult to make decisions for radical change. The demand has to come from the professors themselves, and we have seen that what they want is the traditional, elite model.

There are then no real incentives for change, either internally or externally, and few power levers to bring about such change.

What can be done?

The success of open universities in the 1970s and 80s does suggest that governments acting with wisdom and determination can bring about significant change in the higher education system, and it is probably time to see some more experimentation with new ICT-based models at least sponsored or encouraged by government (although calling them ‘virtual’ universities is probably not going to be helpful). What is really needed are some models deliberately designed around hybrid learning, to cater for lifelong learners, up-grading of workers in vocational, health and other knowledge based industries, and minority groups not well served by the existing system (such as First Nations in Canada), possibly on a private/public partnership funding model with respect to lifelong learners who have already benefited from a state-subsidised first degree.

Governments do provide guidance and some incentives for change, mainly through increased funding to enable student numbers to increase, and on rare occasions, will direct that money be spent on innovation and change. One example was the government of British Columbia, which between 1994 and 1995, withheld a total of 3.5% of operating budgets over two years, which the institutions then had to bid for through projects that supported innovation and change. One outcome of this policy was the development of WebCT (later bought by Blackboard) at UBC. This development was directly funded from the innovation fund, and had a major impact on the uptake of online learning worldwide. Another example is the Open University of Portugal, which was given clear instructions by the Portuguese Minister of Education in 2006 to modernise or close down. As a result, after training all faculty members in technology and in a constructivist pedagogical approach, it moved all print-based correspondence courses online within 18 months.

Also, it should be recognised that the for-profit sector in the USA and Malaysia especially has been successful in developing online universities, such as Wawasa Open University in Malaysia and Kaplan University, University of Phoenix Online, and Full Sail University in the USA.

But the challenge is whether traditional, public universities can make radical changes internally. Without strong incentives, and more clearly defined governance structures, change is likely to be slow and piece-meal. The danger is that change never reaches a critical mass, and the system is locked into an inefficient traditional model of public mass higher education for ever, or at least until the public gives up, and turns it over to the private sector.


I believe that the cost-effectiveness of the system must be improved. This is because the changing needs of a rapidly growing knowledge-based economy has required (or resulted in) a massive expansion of post-secondary education systems in economically advanced countries. Consequently, the conflicting pressures for increased access, higher quality, and controlling costs require us to consider radical changes to the way post-secondary education is provided.

The increased use of technology offers one possibility to improve cost-effectiveness, but not on its own. It must be accompanied by major structural changes in both the design and delivery of teaching, and the re-organization of the institution.

However, we are failing to use e-learning to improve the cost-effectiveness of the system. Currently we are merely adding cost to the system, without any clear, measurable benefits. We have not seen in higher education major breakthroughs in organization and management, vastly improved service, or major learning gains as a result of the investment in technology. To use the analogy of the banks, the cash dispenser is still the clerk behind the counter - we haven’t moved the ATM outside yet. This is because there are deeply embedded structural barriers, and a complete lack of incentives, for improving the cost-effectiveness of higher education. So it is not so much that e-learning has failed higher education, but more that higher education has failed to maximise the potential of e-learning.

I believe that it will be possible for some state-funded public universities to innovate and radically change their structures and teaching methods, and become more efficient and effective, through the use of ICTs. This will happen though only if there are strong incentives, both externally, and internally. This will require strong leadership committed to fundamental change. Above all, for universities to use technology more efficiently and effectively, an overhaul of traditional governance structures will be required, to ensure faculty engage and buy into the need for change, and to provide the means for ensuring implementation and maintenance of change.


Allen, I. E. and Seaman, J. (2008) Staying the Course: Online Education in the United States, 2008 Needham MA: Sloan Consortium.

Belawati, T. (1998) ‘Increasing student persistence in Indonesian post-secondary education’ Distance Education, Vol. 19, No. 1, pp. 81-108.

Bowen, G., McPherson, M., and Chingos, M. (2009) Crossing the Finish Line: Completing College at America’s Public Universities Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Canadian Council on Learning (2009) The State of e-Learning in Canada, Ottawa: Canadian Council on Learning.

Daniel, J. (1998) Mega-Universities and Knowledge Media: Technology Strategies for Higher Education. London: Kogan Page.

Gilbert, J. (2005) Catching the Knowledge Wave: the Knowledge Society and the Future of Education Wellington, NZ: New Zealand Council for Educational Research.

Hussar, W. and Bailey, T. (2009) Projections of education statistics to 2018 US Department of Education National Center for Educational Statistics: Washington DC.

Instructional Technology Council (2008) Tracking the Impact of e-Learning at Community Colleges Washington, DC: Instructional Technology Council.

Johnson, N. (2009) What Does a College Degree Cost? Washington DC: Delta Cost Project.

Katz, R. et al. (2008) The Tower and the Cloud: Higher Education in the Age of Cloud Computing Boulder CO: EDUCAUSE.

Lee, M. & McLoughlin, C. (eds) (in press). Web 2.0-based e-learning: applying social informatics for tertiary teaching. Hershey, PA: IGI Global.

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Education at a Glance: OECD Indicators 2008 (Paris: 2008).

Perry, W. (1976) Open University Milton Keynes, UK: The Open University Press.

Sangra, A. (2008) The Integration of Information and Communication Technologies in the University: Models, Problems and Challenges (La Integració de les TICs a la Universitat: Models, Problemes i Reptes) Unpublished Ph.D., Universitat Rovira i Virgili, Tarragona, Spain.

Spellings, M. (2006) A Test of Leadership: Charting the Future of U.S. Higher Education Washington DC: US Department of Education.

Tierney, W. and Hentschke, G. (2007) New Players, Different Game: Understanding the Rise of For-Profit Colleges and Universities Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 215 pp.

Wellman, J. et al. (2009) Trends in College Spending Washington DC: Delta Project on Postsecondary Education Costs, Productivity and Accountability

White, D. (2008) Innovative Learning for Europe, EDEN Annual Conference, Lisbon.

World Economic Forum (2008) Report of the Global Advisory Committee on Technology and Education Dubai: World Economic Forum.

About the Author

Tony Bates

Tony Bates is President and CEO of Tony Bates Associates Ltd, a private company specializing in consultancy and training in planning and management of e-learning and distance education. The company has served over 30 clients in 18 countries since it was started in 2003.

He is the author of nine books, including, Technology, e-Learning and Distance Education, published in 2005 by Routledge; Managing Technological Change: Strategies for College and Universities Leaders and (with Gary Poole) Effective Teaching with Technology in Higher Education, both published by Jossey-Bass, and National Strategies for e-Learning published by UNESCO.

His research groups at the UKOU, OLA and UBC published over 350 papers in the area of distance education and the use of technology for teaching. He is on the editorial board of six journals specializing in distance education and educational technology.

He has worked as a consultant in over 30 countries. Clients include the World Bank, OECD, UNESCO, national ministries of education, and several state higher education commissions in the United States.

He is much in demand as a keynote speaker, specialising in the strategic use of e-learning in higher education. He tutors online, currently as a guest tutor for the Masters in Distance Education offered by the University of Maryland University College and Carl Ossiesky University, Oldenburg, Germany.

His Ph.D. is in educational administration from the University of London, England. He was awarded the degree of Doctor Honoris Causa by the Open University of Portugal in 1995, Doctor of Letters, Honoris Causa, from Laurentian University, Canada, in 2001, Doctor Honoris Causa from Athabasca University, in June 2004, Doctor of Social Sciences, honoris causa from the Open University of Hong Kong in December 2004, and Doctor Honoris Causa from the Open University of Catalonia, Spain, in June, 2005.

Currently he is Chair of the International Experts Panel for the Open University of Portugal, advisor to the Universidad de Guadalajara’s Maestría en Tecnologías para el Aprendizaje (Mexico) and to Universidad Tecnologica Metropolitana’s Magíster en Educación a Distancia (Chile). He is a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Advisory Council on Technology and Education.

His hobbies include golf, skiing and flying a small plane. He is married, with two sons, three grandsons and a grand-daughter.

Webpage: www.tonybates.ca. See also Stephen’s Web (Downes/OLDaily) at http://www.downes.ca/cgi-bin/page.cgi?author=Tony%20Bates


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