Technology is key to reducing college education costs

Why is IT ignored in recent Cassells report on future funding for higher education?

In 20 years’ time, fewer school leavers will go to college. Far more study options will be available, many on the internet - and much cheaper than what is offered now.

Distance learning and work-based learning, including apprenticeships, will become more available, reducing the total cost of education by allowing school leavers to live at home and “earn while they learn”.

IT is revolutionising almost all information and communication businesses, so why should it not have a significant impact in higher education?

If you don’t believe me, consider this: you can, right now, get an accredited four-year degree in computer science from the University of the People - the world’s first non-profit, online university - for $4,000 (€3,770).

The claim that students need personal interaction with their lecturers and peers will be counteracted by claims from employers that full-time students are not prepared for the workforce - and that those who work and learn at the same time, learn more efficiently and are much better prepared for the world of work.


To top it all, employers will become less interested in degrees as learners will have many more ways to gain competencies, and employers will become better at assessing these before hiring.


So, as an invited participant to one of the consultative meetings on the future funding of higher education, I was intrigued that no-one seemed interested in discussing the possibility of reducing the cost of providing higher education.

Perhaps this was beyond their brief. However, the resulting Cassells report that emerged explicitly dismissed the idea that information technology might be a potential solution to the problem of funding.

Given the stated objective of the exercise was to “consider issues related to long-term sustainable funding of higher education”, the report is significantly flawed in not considering how costs can be reduced, particularly through the use of information technology.

IT is revolutionising almost all information and communication businesses, so why should it not have a significant impact in higher education?

George Bernard Shaw once suggested that all professions are "conspiracies against the laity".

Now, I don’t want to accuse the higher education community, (of which I am a member and in which I have many admirable colleagues), of conspiracy, but there is a natural tendency to resist change and defend the system you are part of, even when times have changed and there may be less need for it.

More money

So it is not surprising that if you gather together a consultative group of higher education professionals they will tend to tell you they need more, rather than less, money.

An alternative, less self-serving, explanation for this shortcoming may be that the expert group did not have the required expertise.

The report suggests that funds may be needed to support diverse “learning styles”, a theory of learning that has been debunked.

The issue here is not that the report might advocate for an expensive and ineffective teaching method, but that such a well-known educational myth slipping into the report suggests the group might not have had the full range of expertise it required.

Many of the techniques used to teach off-campus students can also be used to control on-campus teaching costs.

Students can be given access to online modules designed for distance learners, or many of the free online courses on the web.

Online modules can be created cheaply, specifically to be shared by several campuses or colleges.

If used in a “flipped classroom” mode, these can even improve the learning experience of the students.

When delivering to larger class sizes on many campuses, lecturers can use tools such as automated quizzes, peer assessment and rubric-based grading tools to reduce their workload, allowing them to give timely feedback and identify struggling students.

Even more sophisticated tools based on artificial intelligence are now emerging.

Adaptive systems using deep learning techniques are able to analyse the behaviour and performance of large numbers of students using the system to determine what learning materials to present to individual students next, as well as when to do so.

Recently in Georgia Institute of Technology university, a “chatbot” was added to the human teaching assistants which was so successful that one student nominated it for a teaching award.

With technology, a small amount of ingenuity and possibly a significant amount of courage, we can improve quality

Least ingenious

Spending more money, although often required on a temporary basis, is both the least ingenious and least sustainable way of solving a problem.

Asking lecturers to work longer hours is not a very clever, or sustainable, way to improve productivity either.

With technology, a small amount of ingenuity and possibly a significant amount of courage, we can improve quality, improve access and reduce costs in higher and further education in Ireland.

And if we don’t, someone else will.

* Brian Mulligan is a lecturer and programme manager in the Centre for Online Learning at Institute of Technology, Sligo, Ireland. His blog is at: