Why colleges should stop splurging on buildings and start investing in software (Washington Post)

By Donn Davis October 13

For decades, America’s colleges and universities have been on a massive spending spree, building new dorms, student centers, sports complexes, and academic buildings. Despite all these expenditures, the key metrics are not much better. Graduation rates haven’t increased at the pace of much of Europe and Japan. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the percentage of young Americans who are less educated than their parents exceeds other leading nations.

What if the leaders of our colleges and universities had channeled just a fraction of this edifice-complex capital into technology improvements instead?

In technology terms, higher-education has spent massive amounts in “hardware” while dramatically under-investing in “software.” Software is the technology, tools and systems that make any business or organization more effective and efficient. Ask any of the tens of millions of students back on campus this fall at any of the thousands of universities and colleges:  “How has technology been used to improve the classroom or enhance the learning experience” and you will get a blank expression. Technology has infused and changed every part of this generation’s life – except for education.

Despite an increase in edtech spending, up 11 percent from 2012 to $13 billion, 62 percent of that is still spent on laptops, tablets, and netbooks, which can only service one student at a time and quickly become outdated. With more and more students in the position to provide their own devices it is important to not overspend on hardware and allocate money to software programs that can run on multiple devices and be used by thousands of students at once. Schools will still need to provide a small pool of school-owned devices to be borrowed but this mentality will reduce costs.

Software has improved most every other segment of the economy. How we shop, how we are entertained, how we get around town, and how we connect with friends. And in almost all cases it does things better and cheaper. So what could software do for education?

Software today lets students to re-watch the lecture that they might have missed or did not understand, thereby increasing learning. It can allow peer tutoring by connecting students to other students to ask questions or build virtual study groups. Professors can upload a short video clarifying something from class, eliminating the need for students to wait for office hours or teachers to inefficiently answer same question over and over again. Software today can allow teachers to ask questions to 500 students in a large lecture hall format and have all of them engaged real-time and provide analytics so we know who is learning and who is not before it is too late, thereby increasing retention and graduation. None of this technology is science fiction.

What about the claim by some that “there is no money to invest in technology?” During the most recent economic crisis, the market-research firm McGraw-Hill Construction reported that colleges and universities spent more than $11 billion on new facilities per year in 2010 and 2011, an astounding number that was more than a 100 percent increase over their capital spending in 2000. While some of this facilities expenditures represent critical upgrades to school infrastructure, certainly some of it went to luxury or ego projects that do not have the impact for students that investing in technology innovations could have.

About Ryan C. Fowler

Ryan is a curricular fellow at the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington D.C. He also teaches at Franklin and Marshall College and Lancaster Theological Seminary.
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