Technology, teaching and productivity: the need for theory


Technology, teaching and productivity: the need for theory

The need for greater productivity in higher education teaching

I’m going to make a few posts on this topic, prompted by pressure from politicians in particular who are wanting to find ways to increase the productivity of the higher education system (see, for instance, the Ontario government’s ‘discussion paper on innovation to make our university and college system stronger’).
Now I don’t dispute the need for more productivity in the system. We’ve moved to a mass system of higher education, and the more people who access post-secondary education, the higher the cost for governments (and indirectly tax payers) where higher education is publicly funded (as I believe it should be). Productivity is all about getting the biggest bang possible for each buck spent, whether it comes from tuition fees or taxes. This is what students, parents and the general taxpayer expects from an effective higher education system.

Strategies for coping with growth

To date, the system has generally coped with expansion by increasing class size, hiring more lower paid adjunct faculty, and more underpaid graduate teaching assistants, and building more buildings. This has been not so much a deliberate strategy to increase productivity, but more like a creeping, unplanned and ill-thought-out response to changing conditions. In particular, there is no evidence that the ‘output’ has improved in terms of the quality of learning – indeed the opposite is often argued (although there is scant evidence for either argument). The only thing we can point to is more students in the system (but not necessarily more graduates, as students drop out more or take longer to graduate in a less efficient system), increasing total costs overall each year, and – worth noting – a weakening of earning power at the teaching end through the increased use of cheaper labour (adjuncts and TAs).

Productivity growth

Hence the hope or wish that technology will lead to increased productivity. After all, this is what it is supposed to do for industry. As Industry Canada states on its web site:

Productivity growth may occur from firms becoming more capital intensive, that is increasing their use of technology …. in order to become more productive.

What this actually means is replacing higher labour costs with lower technology costs, while maintaining or increasing output.

Educational technology and productivity

Universities around the world, and particularly in Canada and the USA, have invested heavily in educational technologies: not just learning management systems, lecture capture systems, or whiteboards, but in educational technology support staff, and the biggest but most hidden cost, the time of faculty learning how to use learning technologies then applying them. However, almost no-one within the system makes the argument that the investment in learning technologies is to increase productivity – to do so would mean the kiss of death for most learning technology initiatives. What we are doing is to ‘enhance the (already high) quality of teaching, or increasing access, or looking modern or cool’.

I think it’s time we became a little more grown-up about this whole topic. The growth in post-secondary education is such that we will continue to need professors and instructors for as far as most of us can see into the future. What we should be looking at is how we can get more output from those that are in the system, without necessarily increasing the number of hours that they have to work. To do this, we need to stop fixating on costs alone, but start focusing more on processes (such as teaching methods) and output (such as learning outcomes), and how technology could be used to improve output.
The second point is that models from industry are unlikely to transfer easily to higher education. We need to build models or theories of productivity that fit well with the goals and purposes of education. But that shouldn’t mean that we abandon the idea of productivity – we just need to make sure it fits.

The need for a theory of technology-based educational productivity

Like most truism’s, Kurt Lewin’s comment that there is nothing more practical than a good theory holds true for this topic. A good theory of educational productivity would enable a range of inter-linking concepts to be better defined and explored, and should allow predictions to be made of the kind: ‘If we do x under conditions y, we can expect z to happen.’ In fact there already exist some pretty powerful theories of general educational productivity. For instance, Walberg’s theory of educational productivity for classroom learning states that:

Classroom learning is a multiplicative, diminishing-returns function of four essential factors—student ability and motivation, and quality and quantity of instruction—and possibly four supplementary or supportive factors—the social psychological environment of the classroom, education-stimulating conditions in the home and peer group, and exposure to mass media. Each of the essential factors appears to be necessary but insufficient by itself for classroom learning; that is, all four of these factors appear required at least at minimum level. It also appears that the essential factors may substitute, compensate, or trade off for one another in diminishing rates of return: for example, immense quantities of time may be required for a moderate amount of learning to occur if motivation, ability, or quality of instruction is minimal.

from Beyond IQ: A Model of Academic Competence & Motivation (MACM) – Kevin McGrew, Ph.D.

My goal though is to be more specific and focus on the role that technology could play in increasing the efficiency of learning in post-secondary education, and in particular define this in terms of what faculty and instructors (and probably administrators) need to do to improve productivity through learning technologies, and especially the effect of moving outside the classroom to online activities.

Building a theory

So what would be the elements of a theory of technology-based educational productivity? I list some of the ideas to be explored in later posts below:

  • output: what do we mean by output in post-secondary education – and how should we measure/assess it?
  • how does or could technology change the process of teaching and learning to improve outputs and/or lower unit costs? (Indeed what is a ‘unit cost’ in education?)
  • what if any are the potential productivity gains from faculty becoming teaching consultants rather than instructors in the traditional meaning of the term?
  • what if any are the potential productivity gains from learners managing their own learning through the use of open resources, but under the guidance of a faculty member?
  • is it possible to replace high cost ‘overheads’ such as classrooms, buildings and physical transportation with lower cost overheads, such as telecommunications and remote learning? If so, what would the organization of post-secondary learning activities look like?
  • if we can define outputs better in learning terms, can we find more productive ways of assessing learning?
  • how will all this affect the direct and indirect costs for learners, as well as for institutions?
  • could we develop a productivity index for post-secondary education to measure the effects of increased investment in technology? If so would would be the elements needed?


I have to say that this is going to be a journey of exploration for me, which I hope you will join and guide me in. For instance:

  • is this a stupid waste of time? If so, why?
  • if not, what other elements should be explored?
  • what ideas do you have for immediately or perhaps in the long term increasing productivity through the use of learning technologies?
  • what other studies should I be aware of?
  • do we need a better language when talking about productivity in education?
  • lastly, although the idea of a theory may be pointless, is there still a need for more discussion about this issue? Would another tack be more productive (forgive the pun)?

I look forward to your comments. In the meantime, I’m going to discuss output and how we could/should measure or assess it in post-secondary education in terms of the productivity of learning technologies. (I’ll deal with the problems of Egypt after that).


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