Is e-learning failing in higher education?

In previous blogs, I have discussed whether e-learning is failing in higher education. To answer the question, I have examined the expectations or goals for e-learning, and whether they are being achieved.

Finally, I come to the last goal or expectation: that e-learning will increase the cost-effectiveness of higher education.  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 in this posting 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.

In this posting, I will make the argument for radical change in the academy, in order to increase the cost-effectiveness of post-secondary education. In a second posting (Part 2), I will suggest some concrete ways in which cost-effectiveness could be improved.

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, and for the last half of the twentieth century, access to university and colleges was 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, so that 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 not surprisingly, governments, although spending ever more each year on post-secondary education, have not been able or willing to fund the 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.  However, at the same time, undergraduate completion rates (that is, 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 to 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, 2009, 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 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 are 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 increasing 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 increasing 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.

Teacher-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, 2009). 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 are needed to the standard mode of teaching.

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.

But I do believe technology can help, so in part 2 of this blog, to be posted in the next week or so, I will put forward some suggestions as to how technology could be used to increase the cost-effectiveness of universities and colleges. In the meantime, please use the comment box for your responses – or challenges – to this initial analysis.


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

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

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

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

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

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


  1. Hi, Tony. I really like your ideas, especially the use of a consortium, network, team, and technology as well as self-paced learning. And, I love the idea of students reaching out to other worthy resources in thier lives to include in the learning process.

    However, one idea I am not sure would satisfy learners (graduate learners in this case, per my doctoral research) is not having the attention, feedback, and communication with the main instructor. Per my study, I wonder if this need is due to generational traits as older students learned differently placing a lot of emphasis on the teacher and his/her expertise. I wonder then, in your vision, if somehow the teaching team would need to be introduced differently to ensure their commitment, expertise, and value. This in turn might satisfy, at least the older learner, that they are being taught by qualified and recognized instructors.

    What do you think?


  2. Hi, Kelly

    You are right – the most radical and difficult part of my vision is the concept of peer learning and student teaching. However, I cannot see how we can maintain a 1:20 ratio of tenured professors to students for all classes in all institutions. The system already in North America is highly dependent on contract or adjunct instructors who are poorly paid and poorly trained (in terms of teaching methodology).

    At the moment, some classes get to see their tenured research professor for one to three hours a week – along with 200 others in a large lecture class. In my scheme, tenured research professors would meet regularly with classes of 20 students or so, but mainly at graduate level, and more occasionally in the final year of an undergraduate program, but their main job at undergraduate level would be course design and course management (especially supervising assessment). I think this would be the best way to use a very scarce resource.

    I agree though that this will not be possible to ‘sell’ in most conventional universities, which is why I think we need new universities that start from scratch.


  3. Thanks for the response, Tony. And I agree that labour is a significant cost in education and using resources more effectively, like you suggest, is key. However, wouldn’t these other human resources cost money as well?

    Terry Anderson also mentions in his book “The Theory and Practice of Online Learning” that we might want to look at a new instructional design/course structure model of education and revisit ‘one faculty member to a few students’ especially with online courses. Again, the cost of labour is high but it seems student still want instruction. Working on new ways to sustain quality learning experience yet maintaining costs is important.


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