Using Information Technology to Enhance Academic Productivity

William F. Massy and Robert Zemsky


Across American higher education the lure of the new information technologies remains as uncertain as it is unsettling. While few doubt that information technology (IT) has the potential to enhance teaching and learning, there is no agreement on how that technology should be used to boost academic productivity--or whether such an increase is in itself a valid goal if its enhancement means substituting technology for the more traditional, labor intensive rhythms of higher education.

Not that innovation is lacking on the micro scale. Examples of new technology applications abound. Most institutions have made major investments in the new technologies, distributing computing capacity across their campuses, linking faculty with students as well as with one another, and generally providing the necessary IT infrastructure that is a precondition to faculty involvement. What is missing, however, is any overarching sense of purpose along with any practical sense of what the shape and consequences of successful innovations might look like. Missing, as well, is any sense of urgency--either that which should accompany the optimism of the true-believer or that which should derive from the realization that in someone else's hands information technology threatens higher education's historic monopoly over the certification of students.

It was this set of issues that occasioned a conversation between the two of us, with our backgrounds in academic restructuring, and Educom, a pioneer in facilitating IT applications and organizer of the recently launched National Learning Infrastructure Initiative (NLII). Educom asked us to think about how the infusion of information technology into the educational process can reverse the declining productivity of American higher education. Eventually, our conversation grew to include an eighteen-member roundtable, which Educom convened in June 1995, consisting of higher education administrators, policy analysts, faculty members, and independent information technology consultants. Meeting at Wingspread under the auspices of the Johnson Foundation, this roundtable helped us test an initial statement of the issues, contributed its own sense of what was possible and not possible, and led us in the end to recast both our definitions of academic productivity and the role information technology might play in its enhancement.

We begin with a pair of observations.

First, the demand for IT-based teaching and learning programs will grow substantially, probably exponentially, over the next decade. In an economy that is itself increasingly knowledge-based, the new information technologies offer an economical means of providing the continuous education the U.S. now requires as well as a more readily accessible form of post-secondary education and credentialing.

Second, IT will change teaching and learning profoundly, no matter what the response of traditional higher education institutions. Just as the development of the printing press forever changed the teaching enterprise, IT represents a fundamental change in the basic technology of teaching and learning. The transformation will take a long time, long enough for critics to claim that perhaps higher education can thrive without fundamentally changing itself in response to the new technology. If traditional colleges and universities do not exploit the new technologies, other nontraditional providers of education will be quick to do so.

In short, we started with the view that IT offers great potential but in order to reap the benefits, institutions will have to transform themselves in fundamental ways. Our task is to understand these changes in terms that are both practical and operational. We begin by surveying the advantages and disadvantages of IT in the teaching and learning process. Then we consider the barriers, both internal and external, that traditional higher education institutions face in transforming themselves to take full advantage of the new information technologies. Next we examine more carefully the options for improving academic productivity and how the successful adoption of IT-based programs may be expected to affect the balance of technology and human capital within colleges and universities. We conclude this paper with a consideration of two alternative adoption scenarios and their implications for the future of higher education. While some of our predictions may seem grim, we believe that both scenarios are plausible and that the outcome will depend on whether institutions step up to the challenges spawned by the revolution in information technology.

More important, the scenarios themselves shed important light on the two questions whose answers both divided the roundtable and, not so coincidentally, reflect the difficulties that higher education is having in adopting IT- based teaching and learning strategies. First, can or should information technology actually supplant rather than primarily augment the traditional means of delivering a post-secondary education--in other words, is something essential compromised by substituting IT-based programs for traditional teaching methods? Second, how is higher education going to pay for the acquisition of the new information technologies? Will IT-based teaching and learning strategies, because they tap new markets and yield improved quality, yield sufficient growth to finance to acquisition of the necessary technology as an add-on? Or will the necessary investment in IT-based strategies require the same substitution of technology for labor that has characterized the transformation of other enterprises in search of increased productivity?


Most discussions of the possible advantages of IT-based teaching and learning strategies begin with a weighing of the relative advantage of technology against the inherent capabilities of faculty. What can IT contribute to increasing learning productivity? Here two general propositions, based on previous work but reinforced by discussion at the roundtable, that offer a natural starting point.

  1. IT offers economies of scale: After a (sometimes large) front- end investment, the cost of usage per incremental student is apt to be low. Moreover, access to very large amounts of information can be obtained at low incremental cost.

  2. IT offers mass customization: Technology allows faculty to accommodate individual differences in student goals, learning styles, and abilities, while providing improved convenience for both students and faculty on an "any time, any place" basis.

These propositions add up to a "modern industrial revolution." The first suggests a departure from the traditional handicraft mode of education, where faculty learning curves (for the production of learning) are shallow and capital offers little leverage beyond the traditional physical plant. But whereas the original industrial revolution led to undifferentiated mass-produced outputs, the modern information-driven revolution permits production to be adapted to the needs of each customer. The resulting advantages are profound, as we shall see. But we must weigh the benefits of departing from the handicraft educational paradigm against the costs of change--and the possibility that the result may not be recognizable as "higher education" as it has traditionally been conceived.

Perhaps IT's most widely known potential, through such tools as the Internet and the various online databases, is access to enormous quantities of information. As systems become increasingly sophisticated, IT will provide a growing capacity to navigate among such information resources at low cost. In the future, students will be able to access Library of Congress holdings online or view paintings in any museum in the world. In the past, libraries held the keys to research and knowledge; in the future, networked desktops will allow much of the same access when and where the user desires it. What is at stake is not just the library's sense of "place," but more importantly its sense of control. When "dialing up" becomes the normal means of accessing of information or learning about assignments rather than "going to the library," the result is a diminution of the institution's ability to limit access to a specific time at a specified address.

More generally, IT eases the limits of time and space for education activities. A state with an extensive distance learning program reports that many faculty have discovered that good communication between teachers and students remains important but direct physical contact is less so. IT will bring the best lecturers to students via multimedia anytime and anywhere so that, like the recordings of the country's most celebrated artists, those of the best will drive out those of the merely good. This sort of access is especially important for the increasing numbers of nontraditional students in higher education, who often have job or family responsibilities limiting their possible school hours.

Finally, IT enables self-paced learning with sensitivity to different learning styles and continuous assessment of student progress. The areas that can profit most from IT-based strategies are those subjects that have a high volume of students, a standardized curriculum, and over whose content faculty are less possessive. Examples of good target subjects include remedial and basic math, general education courses, and composition courses. IT enables students to work at their own pace with continuous assessment, in contrast to the traditional post-secondary education method, which can be described as batch- processing with episodic assessment. Continuous assessment allows teachers to pinpoint the areas where students falter--and in the case of some multimedia programs, those areas trigger further practice automatically so that students receive more instruction "just in time," when they need it most.

Because of its capacity to focus on individual assessment, IT will make the teaching and learning enterprise much more outcome-oriented, a change that has important implications for learning productivity. In fact, the areas that have made the most inroads with IT are subjects like foreign languages, math, and writing, whose outcomes can be most easily delineated. Continuous assessment provides the data needed to map the relation between cost and benefit, thus opening the way for experimentation and innovation.

Imagine, for example, the case for math remediation. If a group of community colleges, each spending substantial sums of money providing remedial programs in mathematics the old fashioned way, pooled the resources they would have spent on these classes and instead invested in the development of a good self-paced multimedia program, the savings after the first year could be substantial. We have been told that, "For an investment of $50 million, one could imagine solving a $200 million a year problem, and quality could be continuously improved." Not only could institutions invest less after the initial program is established, but also some costs could be passed along to the students in terms of a modest payment for software rather than textbooks. The potential barriers to this sort of effort, which we will discuss later, include bureaucratic and political ones for the institution, as well as motivational ones for the student. Often the students who would most benefit from self-paced learning have the least motivation to do so. However, a scenario like this one strongly suggests that, given sufficient volume, IT could reduce the marginal cost of teaching additional students.

As this example suggests, IT has strong potential to increase learning productivity in the areas of codified knowledge and algorithmic skills. In these specific areas, the implication is that IT should supplement human instructors whenever possible--human intervention should be oriented mainly towards making the advantages of IT accessible to all learners. In the case of math remediation, that might mean monitoring student motivation and providing support at critical junctures to ensure that a student completes the program. Wherever a significant portion of a curriculum includes non-codified, non-algorithmic knowledge, however, faculty maintain their historic advantage. IT provides a strong element of synthetic experience, of virtual reality fine for some purposes but not all.

In general, however, IT will empower students to have greater control over the learning process, with all the benefits associated with active learning and personal responsibility. Not only will students decide when to learn and how to learn, increasingly they will also decide what to learn and how that learning is to be certified. It is in this sense that IT "unbundles the learning enterprise from the teaching enterprise." Traditionally, higher education institutions have combined several functions in their faculty. Faculty are architects as they design learning programs; navigators as they help advise students in their course of study; instructors when they lecture; mentors when they help students form a sense of connectedness to the world; and evaluators and certifiers as they decide to grant students grades or degrees.

IT will allow educational providers to separate some key functions traditionally bundled together. For example, not all faculty will be architects and instructors once the best lecturers become available across campus boundaries--but perhaps more faculty will be involved in navigating, mentoring, and certifying. The investments in knowledge codification, delivery systems, and assessment techniques will decouple the provision of learning from the certification of mastery, thus opening new modes of educational delivery and paving the way for new entrants to the higher education marketplace.

These separations will allow colleges, universities, and other educational providers to unbundle their offerings and prices. Students will be able to pay for instruction with little mentoring or, alternatively, much mentoring, as they choose. They will be able to get learning with certification or contract for learning and certification separately. Both innovations will improve higher education's overall productivity, and they also will undermine the monopoly now enjoyed by traditional providers. One must remember not to confuse "contact" with "contact hours": some students will continue to want a traditional collegiate education with all its socialization or "contact" while others will just want the certification, the "contact [or credit] hours." IT will allow this separation and--moreover--allow the learner to choose either or both. IT's strongest potential influence is that it will place the advantage with the learner rather than the institution, by creating a more effective market in learning as opposed to a controlled allocation of scarce teaching resources.

Some fields are not suited to extensive computer mediation, especially those concerned with questions of meaning and value, of culture and philosophy. Nor, even beyond those subjects, will IT-based teaching and learning programs ever substitute fully for human interaction. The most IT can do is extend or enrich the scope of human interchange, as in distance learning or where communication is mediated through computers. What institutions will have to judge in the future is how and where that human interaction can be most effectively employed.


Beyond these innate limitations of IT, a host of barriers, stemming principally from the conservative tendencies of colleges and universities themselves, inhibit the full-scale adoption of IT-based strategies in traditional institutions. We describe these tendencies in "Expanding Perimeters, Melting Cores, and Sticky Functions: Toward an Understanding of Current Predicaments," where we argue that much of higher education remains characterized by its commitment to constancy, to a "sense of sustaining mission" and "a belief that at its core the academy is largely immutable--its costs largely fixed, its purposes well established, its educational and intellectual values well honed."

  1. We shall refer to these constants as "traditional academic values."

    Foremost among the barriers to IT's full adoption is a set of established institutional norms relating to teaching methods, faculty autonomy, and notions of productivity. The set of teaching-method-norms include such considerations as teaching loads, student-teacher ratios, and class sizes. Optimizing the use of information technology requires faculty to change what they clearly prefer to leave untouched. The very interconnectivity of the new information technologies similarly challenges the faculty's definitions of autonomy, which dictate that a professor can individually decide what, when, and where he or she teaches. Finally, faculty will have little interest in IT's capacities to boost academic productivity to the extent that they lack an appropriate vision of learning productivity.

  2. Most faculty think of productivity in terms of scholarship, especially research, and in terms of teaching tasks rather than learning accomplishments. Teaching is usually viewed as "scholarship-related" without the "fitness-for-use" (in terms of student needs) criterion more appropriate for considerations of learning productivity. Without such considerations, the potential benefits of IT may seem neither apparent nor desirable.

    Faculty have one other predilection that deters them from adopting IT: given the choice of additional money for information technology or another faculty member, most faculty would chose the additional faculty member-- and almost none would opt for additional expenditures on information technology if the result would be a smaller faculty. Like a brotherhood of monks, faculty intrinsically value other faculty members.

    In our study of academic departments, we have found departmental characteristics and processes that also inhibit the adoption of IT. The paper by Massy, Wilger, and Colbeck, entitled "Hollowed Collegiality" describes three general characteristics that obstruct collective decision-making and change:

    First, fragmented communication patterns isolate individual faculty members and prevent them from interacting around issues of undergraduate education. Second, tight resources limit opportunities and strain faculty relationships. Third, prevailing methods of evaluation and reward undermine attempts to create an environment more conducive to faculty interaction.

  3. Although these three characteristics describe most departmental interactions, many departments still maintain a veneer of collegiality, the aforementioned "hollowed collegiality." The very lack of discussion that furthers civility and equity while maximizing faculty time has all but precluded serious consideration of strategies for increasing learning productivity.

    In a large and growing number of institutions, incentives for teaching are few while those for research are significant. This fuels the "academic ratchet," a movement toward increased research production and reduced class loads.

  4. Many departments pay little attention to their teaching and learning processes; research is carefully evaluated, but teaching and learning seldom are audited effectively. Although individual professors evaluate students in individual courses, the departmental curriculum as a whole often lacks explicit educational objectives or outcome and performance measures for those objectives. To be effective, IT-based teaching and learning programs require such measures; at the same time, the introduction of a new information technology raises the question of comparative cost. Since most departments have little knowledge about the amount they actually spend on specific learning and teaching activities, the cost trade-offs between IT-based strategies and traditional process elements are almost impossible for them to assess.


Economists define productivity as the ratio of outputs to inputs, or more generally as the ratio of benefits to costs. Productivity can be improved by:

  1. Producing significantly greater benefits, encompassing quality and well as quantity, at modestly greater unit cost ("doing more with more")

  2. Spending significantly less money while limiting benefits reductions to modest levels ("doing less with less")

  3. Producing greater benefits while spending less money ("doing more with less")

    Productivity also can be increased by improving quality at the same unit cost--a result we consider a limiting case of "doing more with less."

So far, most IT-based academic productivity improvements have involved doing more with more. With labor--especially faculty labor--considered to be fixed, IT becomes a quality-enhancing add-on. This fits the faculty culture but suffers from at least two serious deficiencies.

First, scarcity of add-on funding limits IT's rate of adoption. While colleges and universities might like to pour money into more-with-more productivity enhancement, most are not in a position to do so. Funding scarcity constrains the courseware market, thus inhibiting would-be developers from making the large front-end investments needed to exploit fully IT's potential advantages.

Second, and more fundamentally, the more-with-more approach does not address the academy's need for cost containment. One can imagine a scenario where widespread IT add-ons produce a situation like that found in medicine, where technological breakthroughs produce a spending race that eventually threatens the system's affordability. Tight financial circumstances currently inhibit such scenarios, but even if today's constraints could be relaxed, more-with-more productivity growth would eventually encounter new financial limits.

While higher education cannot limit itself to more-with-more productivity improvements, we certainly do not advocate doing less with less unless it becomes truly necessary. Corporate America has found that downsizing can generate productivity gains, but few campuses would wish for such trauma. Therefore, we will focus on situations where institutions retain the ability to choose when and where productivity gains will be sought. By retaining such discretion, institutions can achieve more with less where circumstances are propitious and then redeploy the money saved to achieve other institutional purposes.

Using IT for more-with-less productivity enhancement requires that technology replace some activities now being performed by faculty, teaching assistants, and support personnel. With labor accounting for seventy percent or more of current operating cost, there is simply no other way. Faculty will have to reengineer teaching and learning processes to substitute capital for labor on a selective basis. Failure to make such substitutions will return institutions to the more-with-more scenario--though one must also recognize that failure to substitute intelligently will undermine educational quality and thus negate productivity gains.

Intelligent substitution will require much more attention to the processes by which teaching and learning actually take place. Faculty will have to invest time and energy in learning about what they do and why they do it, and then open themselves to the possibility of doing things differently. Departments will have to understand teaching costs at the level of specific activities, not simply in broad functional terms. Activity-based costing becomes critical when one considers substituting one process element for another. Faculty may be able to judge technology's impact on quality, but such information cannot produce decisions without good data on relative cost.

The two of us have developed an activity-based costing model for departmental teaching processes.5 The model encompasses teaching-related faculty time, support staff and teaching assistants, facilities, and, where applicable, information technology. Most of the data are available from registrars, deans, and financial officers, and the remainder can be collected from focused telephone interviews with faculty (not time-utilization diaries). The study currently is in pilot testing with fieldwork planned for 1995-96.

We designed the model to produce benchmark data on conventional teaching methods. However, the methodology can readily be applied to natural experiments in which departments have substituted IT-based activities for labor- intensive ones. The model also can be used to structure "what if" scenarios, thought experiments in which alternative teaching and learning processes are imagined, judged for efficacy, and costed out. We believe that such experiments will lead to the development of new design principles for teaching and learning processes. These principles will replace the traditional rules of thumb. They will encourage a greater focus on continuous improvement and, where appropriate, reengineering to exploit fully the potential of information technology.


Using information technology to enhance productivity will increase the ratio of capital cost to labor cost in the academic budget, whether or not overall costs can be reduced. Larger capital-labor ratios represent a shift away from the handicraft mentality. They offer three major advantages.

First, real labor costs tend to rise with economy-wide productivity gains (say two percent per year, on average), whereas technology-based costs tend to decline due to learning-curve effects, scale economies in production, and continued innovation. Increasing technology's share of cost will reduce overall cost growth until the rate differential reduces technology's share to the point where labor again dominates. By this time, however, total cost will be lower than it would have been without the injection of technology. If the real cost of technology were to decline at a 25 percent annual rate, after ten years the alternative scenario would cost about 12 percent less than the baseline. If the rate of decline is only 10 percent, the saving ten years out would have passed 9 percent and still be rising. Given the differential growth rates of labor and technology, one can expect positive long-term returns on investment even when returns are negligible during the first few years.

Second, technology-based solutions also tend to be more scalable than labor-intensive ones. While our model does not address economies of scale, one should expect that additional students could be accommodated at lower cost with technology than with traditional teaching methods.

Finally, technology provides more flexibility than traditional teaching methods once one moves beyond minor changes that can be instituted by individual professors. The "career" of a workstation may well be less than five years, whereas that of a professor often exceeds 30 years. Workstations don't get tenure, and delegations are less likely to wait on the provost when particular equipment items are "laid off." The "retraining" of IT equipment (for example, reprogramming), while not inexpensive, is easier and more predictable than retraining a tenured professor. Within limits, departments will gain a larger zone of flexibility as the capital-labor ratio grows.

The benefits of shifting away from handicraft methods, coupled with scale economies and increased flexibility, argue for the adoption of IT even when one cannot demonstrate immediate cost advantages. For example, the ability to break even during the first few years provides strong justification for going ahead with an IT solution, provided the effects on quality are not harmful.


Imagining how the substitution of technology for human capital might work once the traditional constraints have been lifted is not difficult. We have begun to see evidence of such substitutions, but at this stage a hypothetical case is better than dealing with the complexities, caveats, and disclosure limitations of a real situation.

We imagine the teaching of introductory microeconomics at a liberal arts college: first, according to traditional methods, and then, using an IT- based process fashioned after Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute's successful studio physics, chemistry, and calculus courses.6 The traditional method requires 6 sections of 48 students each, taught by three faculty members twice a week, to accommodate an assumed 288 enrollments. The upper portion of Table 1 shows this configuration to require 180 contact hours during the academic term. We also assume that six undergraduate student preceptors are utilized, each at 12 hours per week.

Contact hours grossly underestimate the amount of time faculty actually spend in their teaching duties. Faculty spend time out of the class--before the term begins, during the term, and after classes end. Table 2 lists the activities pursued during the term, with data that might be obtained from faculty using the traditional teaching methods presented in the first column. According to the hypotheticals, each professor spends about 20 hours per week, in addition to his or her four contact hours, in course-related duties. An additional 30 hours is assumed to be spent on preparation before the term begins, and 38 hours in grading and follow-up after the end of classes. These figures do not include the faculty's indirect teaching effort--time spent keeping up with one's field, in major course revisions, and on scholarship. Costing out the included time commitments and adding allocations for the undergraduate preceptors and facilities utilization produces a total cost for the course of $71,396, or $248 per student, of which some 96 percent represents the cost of labor.

The lower portion of Table 1 presents our imagined configuration for "studio microeconomics," based on as-yet undeveloped courseware that mirrors the learning programs used by Jack Wilson and his colleagues at RPI for teaching the natural sciences and introductory calculus. First we replaced the standard format of 30 one-hour lectures per term by 7 two-hour studio sessions, where 48 students meet with the professor in a workstation-equipped classroom. Students are expected to learn independently to a substantial degree, using the studio, other computer labs, or their own machines. Voluntary studio sessions, which meet an hour each week under the guidance of a professor, assist students who are having difficulty, and undergraduate preceptors and faculty are available by e-mail as well as in the office. We have assumed that one-fourth of the students attend the voluntary sessions each week, though 50 percent more could be accommodated by increasing group size from two to three at the workstations.

One of IT's potential advantages is to free faculty-student contact time for discussing the implications of what the student has learned independently. Our configuration honors this principle by maintaining all but one of the weekly discussion sessions taught by faculty. Now, however, these sessions need not take codified-knowledge questions as first priority. Students have alternative means of getting their questions answered, so the discussions can focus on non-codified knowledge and deeper questions of meaning. We believe that using information technology in a scenario like this can enhance rather than curtail student-faculty time together--with attendant improvements in educational quality. Even greater advantages could be obtained by abandoning the traditional course structure altogether and adapting a mastery learning format. While we believe such an approach offers great potential, we did not try to simulate it because we wanted a straightforward cost comparison with the traditional course.

Relieving faculty of repetitive labor represents another of IT's advantages. Preparing a semester's worth of 50-minute lectures can be a time- consuming task, even when one has taught the material before. Because the courseware embodies significant structure, which would be improved continuously and cumulatively by the authors, faculty do not have to "reinvent the wheel" for each week's lectures. They can key off the courseware and the student questions that interaction with the courseware elicits, rather than putting the students into passive mode and carrying the main continuity burden themselves. For this reason we felt justified in reducing each professor's weekly preparation time from 6.5 to 3.5 hours as shown in the right-hand column of Table 2. Likewise, because the courseware takes over much of what used to be quiz and exam preparation and grading, we reduced the average weekly hours devoted to these tasks from 4.0 to 2.5. We also guess that better learning support and student-faculty in-class interaction will reduce the office-hour load from 5 to 2 hours, for a total out-of-class time of 11 hours per week.

Some new costs offset these gains. First, of course, comes the cost of the technology itself. This is built into the model by means of an allowance for depreciation and maintenance of special facilities, workstations, and software. Cost of operating central networks and servers are not included, but neither is the cost of library acquisitions and operations included in the conventional model. Looking to direct labor cost, we doubled the number of undergraduate preceptors to provide support for the students' independent learning. We also doubled support-staff time to 12 hours a week to allow for hardware and courseware setup, maintenance, and administration. We did eliminate the weekly hour of faculty supervisory time, however, believing that the higher level of course organization would bring this time under the weekly hour (per faculty member) allocated to collegial meetings. Lacking any specific rationale, we did not change the "before-term" or "after-term" faculty time estimates.

The new configuration produces essentially the same cost, $71,408, as the traditional configuration. However, the labor content now has dropped to 84 percent. Some $11,392 of capital-related cost has been injected into the teaching and learning production system, and paid for by labor-cost reductions. The result, we argue, is improved learning at the same cost as the baseline configuration. We do not rule out the possibility of improved quality at lower cost (as appears to have been achieved at RPI), but we did not wish to put forward such a result based on hypothetical data. As we shall see, even break-even cost substitution confers economic advantages because it increases the ratio of capital-based cost to labor cost.

The question remains: "What does an institution do with the faculty hours freed up by capital-labor substitution?" The saved hours might relieve shortages elsewhere in the institution, but this outcome becomes less likely if the institution's markets are not expanding. No financial saving accrues if the hours are simply redirected to departmental research as has been traditional in many institutions. To do so would simply speed up the academic ratchet, which would not meet higher education's economic needs or satisfy the enterprise's critics.

Absent demand growth, the scenario requires a net employment reduction for the institution taken as a whole. Faculty might take over duties now performed by staff, or regular faculty might displace auxiliary faculty, or the regular faculty may decrease in number. Absent sudden revenue setbacks, which would cause trouble in any case, the downsizings should generally be attainable by attrition--easier to achieve with staff and auxiliary faculty, but even among regular faculty there is some attrition nearly every year. About three percent of an institution's tenured faculty may be expected to turn over in an average year, with larger numbers expected during the next decade. Matching one of these three percentage points with one percent each from the auxiliary faculty and the relevant staff would produce a three percent overall annual employment reduction. Our scenario could be implemented in something like five years--quite an acceptable outcome if it could be accomplished.


Achieving even the modest substitutions envisioned in the previous section will be difficult for most colleges and universities. Achieving information technology's full potential, which would require far more extensive changes, could be problematic indeed. Concerns will be raised about educational quality, about the central importance of traditional means of instruction and established patterns of student choice. The issue that underlies these concerns, IT's true Gordian knot, is the trade-off between faculty control and educational cost.

Concern about costs has been one of the drivers of change in nonacademic organizations. In higher education, public criticism and calls by state agencies for increased institutional accountability have a strong cost component, an implied question about value-for-money. A small core of traditional institutions will probably remain buffered from these changes: these are the well-endowed institutions with many more applicants than student places. A small core of traditional learners, those who can afford it and those whose abilities are rewarded with scholarships, will continue to seek out the traditional handicraft-oriented education that has been the hallmark of our system. For these students, traditional education provides acculturation as well as learning. The public has begun to question, however, whether this model is extendible to the whole of higher education. Already the criticism of higher education's rising costs suggests that society finds this educational model too expensive for massified higher education.

Competition for the learner who does not desire such expensive, labor-intensive education already has increased. Sometimes this competition comes from within universities in the form of distance learning programs; often, the competitor is an outside organization. IT-based teaching and learning programs with built-in assessment protocols offer these other organizations a means to break the faculty monopoly on knowledge and certification. Given new competition and better performance measures, one can predict that the general level of educational quality will increase and that, subsequently, the cross-subsidies from teaching to research which currently exist in many institutions will come under fire. Given the tremendous knowledge base already extant in their communities, higher education institutions have a significant advantage in capturing this new market in learning--but only if they invest their resources wisely.

With this in mind, we have drawn up two alternative scenarios of investment in information technology, with different outcomes for the future of colleges and universities. The first is "business-as-usual," a scenario in which traditional higher education institutions, especially research universities, try to maintain their monopoly over the knowledge base. These institutions resist substituting capital for labor and instead try simply to add IT on to their existing operations. They retain the traditional courses, teaching configurations, and academic calendar, not altering much to accommodate the new possibilities opened up by information technology or to meet the needs and aspirations of new generations of learners.

In our earlier paper, "Expanding Perimeters, Melting Cores, and Sticky Functions: Towards an Understanding of Current Predicaments," we described the development of two economies within institutions over the past fifteen years.7 These economies consist of a "perimeter," those faculty who are acting entrepre-neurially, constantly expanding the scope of their activities though not necessarily holding to their traditional teaching mission, and a "core" which has rigidly stuck by its educational values and, in some cases, suffered severe revenue losses. If business-as-usual continues, the entrepreneurial activity around the perimeter will continue to expand; meanwhile, continuing financial pressure due to state funding limits and tuition resistance will increase pressure on the core, leading to an eventual "meltdown," defined as a loss of vibrancy, failure of faculty renewal, and diminished creativity and scholarship. Reductions of research funding can only compound the problem.

Business-as-Usual. In this non-adaptive scenario, other organizations will cherry-pick the knowledge base and intellectual property that colleges and universities have helped develop but have been unable to exploit in terms of revenues. We predict that the consequences of this scenario will vary over the different segments of higher education, namely that:

  1. Research universities will lose out competitively to other higher education segments. Well-endowed highly selective institutions will do better than average, however.

  2. Liberal arts institutions will be hard-pressed financially as the cost of labor continues to rise relative to the rate of inflation. The tuition pricing umbrella that the research universities have offered liberal arts institutions may diminish, forcing even greater financial constraint.

  3. More innovative nontraditional providers will take over a greater share of the undergraduate education market. They will deliver higher education more cheaply and with greater learning productivity in the areas of knowledge easily accessible through information technology.

  4. Mass undergraduate education will shift away from human intermediation toward more automated systems dispensing codified knowledge with easily-measured performance indicators.

  5. Non-codified knowledge, interpretative ability, and deeper wisdom will be available mostly to a privileged few (the affluent and the best and the brightest); however, even these few will suffer an opportunity loss compared to what humanly intermediated information technology could have provided.

  6. The knowledge base will atrophy as research universities falter.

An Adaptive Scenario. In comparison to the business-as-usual scenario, which leaves higher education as a weakened industry, the adaptive scenario envisions higher education as a younger, restructured industry. In the adaptive scenario, colleges and universities succeed in accomplishing the restructuring and reengineering necessary for adopting an IT-based perspective. Faculty examine and correct the research-teaching balance and work together to optimize the use of IT. They set operationally meaningful teaching and learning objectives, and in the process they examine the comparative advantage of IT and human intermediation at each stage of the educational process. Teaching and learning quality and learning productivity improve.

The adaptive scenario has not one but two possible outcomes. First, one may predict that the adaptations increase the demand for services from colleges and universities to the point where existing faculty resources remain fully employed (though redeployed). It is not hard to find optimists ready to affirm higher education's renewed potential as a growth industry. Jobs in the information age require lifelong learning, and in this scenario, colleges and universities have managed to tap that market. Not only are they involved with educational delivery, but they also continue to work with other industries in knowledge development and application.

The second adaptive scenario is one in which the demand for educational services does not expand; hence the faculty employment base declines. Universities continue to attract traditional students and have managed to contain their costs by substituting capital for labor, including faculty labor, but traditional higher education institutions do not manage to capture the expanding market of nontraditional learners. Even if this second adaptive scenario proves to be the case, colleges and universities would still be better off than in the business-as-usual scenario, since educational quality and learning productivity have improved, marginal and perhaps average costs have declined, and the knowledge base continues to be maintained and developed. However, this scenario would require adjustments to reduce faculty and staff numbers in order to pay the bills for technology.


Whether academic productivity should be viewed in the context of higher education as a growth market or in the context of reduced employment has emerged as a lively topic. Will institutions have to reduce faculty size in order to finance IT investments or can these investments be funded from the revenues associated with penetration of new markets or, in the case of public institutions in some states, incremental appropriations from government? The capital-labor ratio rises and the educational model becomes more productive in either case, but the implications for an institution's internal climate--including the barriers to adopting IT--differ profoundly. No one argues that the growth scenario isn't desirable, but some doubt that it will in fact be achievable. What happens if the desired growth cannot be achieved remains debatable.

Higher education's core values will be at risk if more and more undergraduate education shifts to nontraditional providers. By traditional values we do not mean a "canon" of treasured works but rather an investment in areas of inquiry that a corporate or for-profit market may not deem profitable. Sometimes, in fact, the profitability of these ideas may not be visible for many generations; in other cases, as with questions of philosophy or culture, the value is not a fiscal one. Indeed, the most fundamental objective of the classic university, that of nurturing the community of scholars who conserve and advance mankind's intellectual and cultural heritage, may be lost if the educational function in our society is taken over by nontraditional providers. We believe that colleges and universities have a heritage whose sustenance will require the diligence of all those who affirm the importance of the unfettered pursuit of knowledge. Ironically, those research institutions which are most adaptive, most flexible, and most capable of developing IT utilizations seem to have the least incentive to do so. Their very strength permits them to maintain the traditional ways, to defend their faculty's pursuit of the status quo.

In this paper we have tried to identify the most likely routes toward increased learning productivity with information technology, while recognizing that the benefits and applications will vary greatly depending on the subject, the type of institution and the type of student. The cost issue is critical, and the approach to activity-based costing and simulation we describe sets an agenda in that area. The two scenarios we explore, non-adaptive and adaptive, suggest that institutions have a great deal to lose or gain depending on their decisions about technology. Whether or not one agrees that today's colleges and universities have a worthwhile core of values that should be protected or that technology should in part substitute for faculty labor, the potential for increased learning productivity through technology is too great for higher education to ignore. If colleges and universities fail to adapt effectively, other kinds of institutions will take up the challenge.


Table 1

Course Configurations

(contact hours, frequencies, and class size)

	              Weeks       Sessions    Session      Class     No. of
		      per term    per week    length       size	     sect 

Traditional Method 
Lecture sessions	15            2		50	    48	       6

Breakout sessions 15 1 50 16 18 Studio Method Studio sessions 7 1 110 48 6

Discussion sessions 14 1 50 16 18

Voluntary 14 1 50 48 3

Term length is 15 weeks; enrollment equals 288; session lengths are in minutes.

Table 2

Faculty Out-of-Class Time

(hours per week during the term)

	  	       Traditional Method	  Studio Method
Teaching preparation	       6.5	               3.5

Assignment prep. and grading 4.5 2.5

Meetings with students 5.0 2.0

E-mail with students 2.0 2.0

Meetings with colleagues 1.0 1.0

Supervising Preceptors 1.0 0.0

Total 20.0 11.0


1. Robert Zemsky and William F. Massy, "Expanding Perimeters, Melting Cores, and Sticky Functions: Towards and Understanding of Current Predicaments," forthcoming in Change.

2. Massy and Wilger, "Improving Productivity: What Faculty Think About It--And Its Effect on Quality," Change 27, no. 4 (July/August 1995): 10-20.

3. William F. Massy, Andrea K. Wilger, and Carol Colbeck, "Overcoming `Hollowed' Collegiality," Change 26, no. 4 (July/August 1994), 10- 20.

4. "The Lattice and the Ratchet," Policy Perspectives 2, no. 4 (June 1990), the Pew Higher Education Research Program; Robert Zemsky and William F. Massy, "Cost Containment: Committing to a New Economic Reality," Change 22, no. 6 (November/December 1990): 16-22; William F. Massy and Andrea K. Wilger, "Productivity in Postsecondary Education, A New Approach," Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis 14, 4 (1992): 361-76.

5. William F. Massy and Robert Zemsky, "Notes: Educom Conference on Academic Productivity, Wingspread, June 6-8, 1995," prepared for the conference.

6. "Twice Imagined," Policy Perspectives 6, no. 1 (April 1995), the Pew Higher Education Research Program.

7. Zemsky and Massy, op cit.

William F. Massy is professor emeritus of education and business administration at Stanford University and director of the Stanford Institute for Higher Education Research.

Robert Zemsky is professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania and director of the Institute for Research on Higher Education.

This is the first in a series of white papers on the topic of academic productivity produced by EducomÕs National Learning Infrastructure Initiative (NLII). More information about NLII can be obtained by contacting Educom or by sending electronic mail to [email protected].


Paul T. Brinkman
Planning and Policy Studies
University of Utah

George Connick
Education Network of Main

Gordon K. Davies
State Council for Higher Education for Virginia

William H. Graves
Associate Provost for Information Technology
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Arthur M. Hauptman
Senior Consultant
Association of Governing Boards

Robert C. Heterick, Jr.

Stephen A. Hoenack
Hubert H. Humphrey Institute
University of Minnesota

Weldon E. Ihrig
Vice Chancellor, Finance and Administration
Oregon State System of Higher Education

D. Bruce Johnstone
Graduate School of Education
State University of New York at Buffalo

Dennis P. Jones
National Center For Higher Education Management Systems

William F. Massy
Stanford Institute for Higher Education Research Stanford University

James R. Mingle
Executive Director
State Higher Education Executive Officers

Donald M. Norris
Strategic Initiatives, Inc.

Kerry D. Romesburg
Utah Valley State College

Carol A. Twigg
Vice President

Ellen D. Wagner
Principal Consultant
Informania Inc.

Richard P. West
Vice Chancellor for Business and Finance
The California State University

Robert Zemsky
Professor and Director
Institute for Research on Higher Education
University of Pennsylvania

Using IT to Enhance Academic Productivity
by William F. Massy and Robert Zemsky
(c)Educomreg.1995, Interuniversity Communications Council, Inc.

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