Everyone Knows that Ed Tech is Expensive. But is it?

Education technology offers the promise of better outcomes at lower cost. Lower cost? How can that be–networks and devices and software come at real expense.

If ed tech can enable these better outcomes while allowing a higher student:teacher ratio, and if the savings in personnel more than offsets the cost of the ed tech itself, then its a win on both fronts.

So what does ed tech cost?

For the past 20 years, I’ve served a town in the Boston Metrowest region as a Finance Committee member, a School Committee member, and a technology task force member. As such, I’ve had a front row seat to the implementation of ed tech in a small district (of fewer than 3,000 students).

Over the span of the last 10 years, the district has moved from a relatively ad hoc deployment of ed tech to a much more thoughtfully developed, streamlined, and integrated system.

  • The first step in this modernization was the development of a network infrastructure. A data center at the high school connects to the Internet and via optical fiber to the other four buildings in the district.
  • The second step was the distribution of laptop computers to the educators and the provision of professional development to support their use.
  • The third step was the rollout of a student one-to-one computing initiative. First at the high school level (laptops) and this year at the middle school level (Chromebooks), each student is issued a device.
  • Step four is currently in its early stages: the deployment of instructional technology on top of the infrastructure layer.

A reader might be forgiven for thinking, “Of course the leafy and relatively affluent suburbs of Metrowest Boston can afford an effort like this, but what about school districts with fewer resources?”

Before taking that stance, it’s worth examining what the effort outlined above actually costs.

The budget shows a technology expense just into 7 figures. Yes, that puts us in “million” territory. And this is only for a small district–what about large cities like Lowell or New Bedford or Worcester or Springfield or Boston?

Let’s dive into the numbers. The budgeted ed tech operating cost for the 2015-2016 school year comes in at $1.04M. Add an allocation of ed tech capital at $130k and the total approaches $1.2M.

Expensive, right?

Not exactly. Here’s how that $1.2M breaks down on a per student basis.

  • Ed tech staff: $180
  • Software: $35
  • Equipment: $200
  • Other expenses: $30
  • TOTAL: $445

There are several caveats worth noting. Were the district to expand one-to-one to the elementary level, costs will go up. As the district expands instructional technology, software will go up. So let’s allow for $600/student/year.

What does the district spend overall in a year? A bit more than $16,000 per student. As such, the future ed tech spend represents a bit less than 4% of the total budget.

Meaningful? Yes. But bank-breaking? No, especially if an outcome of the technology deployment allows a higher student:teacher ratio.

 

A promise partially fulfilled

learnlaunch2015The occasion of LearnLaunch’s just-completed 3rd annual conference, “Across Boundaries: Delivering on Edtech’s Promise” (Jan 23-24, 2015, at Harvard Business School in Boston) reminded me of a white paper I’d written while at Lexia Learning almost a decade ago.

I revisit that white paper here.

Breaking through the school productivity ceiling:
the promise of education technology

Unlike almost every other field of human endeavor, education has not seen productivity gains, and as a result finds itself in a perpetual funding crisis that fundamentally limits its ability to improve student learning.

“Productivity” in the context of education merits a bit of elaboration. I originally wrote it in the literal numeric sense of students per teacher. To be sure, a graduating high school senior today knows considerably more than he or she would have a century ago.

Per pupil expenditure is an important measure of school productivity that—while admittedly not measuring relative education quality—has not increased over the last century or so. Take the teacher of the early 1900s, adjust that teacher’s salary for inflation, factor in class sizes that if anything have gone down, and acknowledge that productivity has at best been flat.

I don’t have a source at my fingertips, but I recall coming across statistics showing average high school class sizes in the 1900s being on the order of 40+ versus sub-25 today. And this article from the right-leaning Newsbusters uses Census Bureau data to show a 40% decrease in class size (and therefore productivity) since 1960.

Education technology that will deliver a combination of instruction, practice, and assessment has for years offered the promise of breaking the productivity ceiling.

By “combination,” I was referring to what I call “closed loop” adaptive instructional technology in which the technology itself serves up the next piece of learning based on how the prior piece of learning was received. This is in no way an argument for the removal of the teacher from the loop.

One model is to allow students to work with engaging and effective technology in a relatively unsupervised setting while freeing up a smaller number of teachers (through normal attrition) to work with smaller groups where their expertise is most valuable.

 As an aside, I see educational technology as being the combination of “platform” technology (network infrastructure, hardware, operating and learning management systems, and office and other productivity tools) and “instructional” technology (software that instructs).

Advances in the pedagogy underlying software content coupled with the evolution of hardware and infrastructure allow that promise to be realized within the next five years for any school district willing to pilot and then implement a technology-centric educational system.

Five years would have been 2010, and sadly, we didn’t quite get there. That said, in 2010, numerous examples of instructional technology existed, and the number has only increased since. Upon re-reading, “technology-centric educational system” was poorly phrased. “Technology-powered” or “technology-enabled” would have been far better.

These school districts have the potential to substantially alleviate their funding crises for at least the near and perhaps into the medium term.

In brief, here’s the model. If a teacher with a class of 25 students using conventional approaches can use technology to get better educational outcomes with a class of 30 students, there would be a cost reduction of 20% (less the added technology cost, of course). To put the numbers in perspective, consider that districts in the Metrowest area outside of Boston spend more than $16,000 per student, and that on the order of 2/3 of this cost is in the form of teacher compensation. Call that $10,000. A 20% savings would be more than enough to cover the cost of platform and instructional technology.

To realize this success, a relatively narrow education technology path is necessary.
a. The technology path cannot add operational costs in the form of IT staffing.

Actually, that’s not really the case–the cost of added IT staffing just needs to be factored into the overall cost picture.

b. The evolution of networks and network security are making school software implementations more rather than less complex, driving up the need for unacceptable IT staffing.

Given the many platform and instructional technology options facing schools, complexity is certainly part of the landscape. As the next point outlines, however, the web-based nature of these options dramatically reduces the potential IT burden.

c. Web applications (including “light” downloads with Web-stored data) get away from the expensive and not always reliable network model by putting the implementation burden on the software publisher and not the school district or its IT staff.

d. To date, the relative unavailability of reliable-enough Internet connectivity has slowed the movement from network-based applications to web-based applications.

Contradicting the next point, connectivity continues to be a problem.

e. However, the connectivity problem is diminishing reasonably quickly over time.

f. The viability of Web applications will enable an education technology-driven school model that will improve outcomes and decrease cost. Print and software publishers that fail to embrace this model will lose importance over time as measured in single digit years.

 I probably wasn’t too far off here. The big publishers, having seen their textbook “empires” put at significant risk, have been investing heavily in educational technology. Whether this investment (in the form of internal development and external acquisition) will be enough to allow them to maintain their market share remains to be seen.

Who will be the last to pay a quarter of a million dollars for a college education?

college-costReposted from Medallion Learning blog

At the nation’s most expensive college, a four-year education now costs upwards of a quarter of a million dollars (Northeastern, we’re looking at you). Debates about the value of this education continue to rage. Most recently, the 2014 PayScale College ROI Report [1] allows readers to rank nearly 900 undergraduate institutions based on metrics including 20 year net ROI and annual ROI.

Let’s set aside for a moment the necessary simplifications embedded in the report’s methodology. Harvey Mudd College tops the 20 year net ROI ranking at just shy of one million dollars. At nearly 12%, the Georgia Institute of Technology leads the way on annual ROI. At the other end of the spectrum, Shaw University trails the 20 year net ROI pack at NEGATIVE $156,000 and the annual ROI list at -11.9%. That’s if you graduate—only a quarter of its students do.

Overall, the average 20 year net ROI for the ~900 schools comes in at about $230,000 with an ROI a shade less than 5% a year. Sadly, only half of all students embarking on this expensive path even graduate. Imagine that you’re one of these fortunate students. Just what is it that you’re getting?

The Lumina Foundation, working with Gallup, tackled that question as part of its 2013 study, “What America Needs to Know About Higher Education Redesign” [2]. The message from colleges and universities to its students rings positive—96% of chief academic officers at these institutions assert extreme or somewhat confidence “in their institution’s ability to prepare students for success in the workforce.”

Great news! Or is it? What do those doing the hiring think? That storm cloud rolling in brings the opinion of business leaders—only 11% strongly agree that “today’s college graduates have the skills and competencies that their business needs.”

Clearly, a disconnect exists between what colleges and universities offer and what employers need. What’s a poor student to do? Six figures is a lot to pay for a degree that doesn’t deliver … but don’t try getting a white collar job without one.

While it’s fair to be skeptical of Lumina’s finding that only 9% of business leaders claim “where the candidate received their degree is very important in hiring decisions” (sorry, Harvard; bad news MIT; you’re out of luck, Stanford), one cannot avoid the fact that a full 84% share that “the amount of knowledge a candidate has is very important in hiring decisions.”

Where are students turning to bridge the gap? More and more, online. Online courses and certifications offer students the chance to efficiently and effectively replace some or all of their brick and mortar “hours in the seat” with competency-based learning that appeals to employers. More than half of all employers (54% per Lumina) now report the likelihood of hiring “a candidate who has a degree from an online higher education provider OVER a candidate with the same degree from a traditional higher education institution.”

No doubt, the higher education experience offers more than just access to the workplace: a protected step away from the family home, illuminating interaction with peers and mentors, acquisition of knowledge for knowledge’s sake, well-rounding as a human being. For far too many, however, the price of that education exceeds the ability to pay. The all too common failure of that education as career preparation just adds injury to injury.

For reasons of content and cost, higher education finds itself poised on the cusp of major change. Not all that many tomorrow’s from now, someone out there is about to become the last one to pay a quarter of a million dollars for yesterday’s higher education.

[1] http://www.payscale.com/college-roi/

[2] http://www.luminafoundation.org/newsroom/news_releases/2014-02-25.html

Educator pay and improving student outcomes

Originally posted to Wayland eNews Discussion Forum

A study reported on in yesterday’s Boston Globe (9/22/2010) concluded that bonus payments to teachers did not improve student outcomes. There’s enough nuance in the article to make it worth a quick look–I won’t try to capture the pros and cons here.

For the most part, teachers already work hard to improve outcomes. It’s hard to see how the prospect of a distant end of year bonus might cause a teacher to do something different in the classroom on a given day. If we’re going to spend more for improved outcomes (and in the current financial climate, that’s a huge “if”), I think that there’s a better way.

Instead of tying the money to outcomes, I propose putting it toward resources that could affect those outcomes. Namely, I’d spend it on extra professional development. More so than most fields, teachers simply don’t get enough time to learn together and improve their collective craft.

Collaborative in-service training during the school day can be impossible to schedule without using substitutes to cover classroom time, and using substitutes in that way may reduce outcomes as much as improved teacher effectiveness increases them. So, why not pay teachers an hourly rate for extra professional development time outside the school day?

For this to work, of course, the professional development can’t just be a series of one-off seminars–it needs to be cohesively designed to span the school year and tie directly to actions in the classroom.