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Duplication theory of educational value

Higher education faces a value crisis. Value is a fuzzy concept. In theory, I can purchase a $3 steak that isn’t a good value. Or a $20 hamburger that is a great value. Similarly, I could purchase a house for $500k that was a great value pre-2008 and is suddenly a terrible value in 2011. With physical objects, value is based on what you receive in relation to what you spend. The transaction always occurs in some context where value is a function of numerous inter-relating entities (stock market, economy, demand). Some of these contextual entities relate to input costs such as the materials needed to build a house, while others relate to intangibles such as the appeal of a particular neighbourhood. Basically, value is an outcome of a transactional process that occurs in a specific context, where the transactional agent is money or based on a barter system.

The internet has a different value scheme than what we encounter with physical products, particularly in relation to input costs. For each physical book that I purchase, I have to pay for input costs (paper, printing, shipping). These input costs don’t exist with digital content. The web is, at least partly, a huge content duplicating machine. It costs me almost nothing if you copy resources from my site. My input costs consist mainly of the time I spent producing the resource and bandwidth of the server costs of someone accessing and downloading the resource. Because duplication requires negligible tangible cost input, content that I produce can really only be valued based on intangible value. Intangible value, however, can be assigned through various means: money, speaking invitations, reputation, influence in my field, and so on.

Digital educational content in itself is not worth money. It is easy to duplicate. One of my favorite images in capturing this is the Encarta price curve of death:

When Encarta was gearing for release, early prospective customers stated they would be willing to pay $1000 to $2000 for the product. Microsoft set the price at $395. When they eventually cancelled Encarta a few decades later, it was selling for $22.95.

Companies such as Pearson and McGraw-Hill are aware that content value is approaching zero. They’ve opted to raise value through a process of integration: content, evaluation/assessment, system to host the content, instructor resources and videos, and so on. Pearson sells a learning experience, not content. Which is why they’re rebranding themselves as the world’s largest learning company. These companies are betting on integration of services as a value point.

But what is the value point for learners?

Should students go to university considering the incredible increase in tuition and associated costs? The College Conspiracy video, with over 2 million views, argues that higher education is basically a scam. Similarly, the Higher Education Price Index (.pdf) details higher education costs and inflation, consistently exceeding other segments of society. TD Economics counters naysayers and argues that higher education is the best investment you can make (.pdf):

The sizeable debt that students often have to bear on graduation from postsecondary education, combined with the recent weakness in the youth labour market, have led some to speculate whether a diploma or degree is worth the cost. This perspective is fallacious. Investment in post-secondary education remains the single best investment that one can make. Higher education raises the prospects for employment, is more likely to result in full-time employment, reduces the odds of unemployment, lowers the duration of unemployment if a job is lost, and helps to facilitate retraining and/or skills development – all of which raises annual income, which is compounded over your entire lifetime. The end result is a higher standard of living, not just for the individual but also for their family. It also brings gains to society.

UNESCO states that (.pdf) higher education continues to see enormous student increases, with over 150 million students enrolled in 2009 – a 53% increase from 2000. India needs to build about 800 new universities by 2020. King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, opened in 2009, cost as much as $20 billion to build and staff.

Higher education is valuable for individuals and for society.

It is certainly critical for improving quality of life for individuals through science and medicine. Higher education should also serve a personal role in helping people discover ideals, even truths, by which to organize and live their lives. I see the university as one of the power structures of society, the others being government, businesses, press and (increasingly) social media, and religious institutions. Universities serve to hold to account the other power structures of society. I’m constantly amazed that people with liberal leanings are sometimes the most aggressive in dismissing universities. Anyone with progressive or liberal perspectives (I’m not referring to politics) will lose the most if universities fragment and lose their societal influence. If I was a diehard capitalist – for the record, I don’t have enough money to quality – focused on creating a context where I could pursue profit making with limited regulation, I’d love to see those meddling universities subdued through a divide and conquer approach. Better yet, I’d love to take over the role of universities and use the learning experience of others as a personal profit generator.

In an age of YouTube and open education, what possible value can university offer learners? Research and athletics – at least in the US – are commonly stated as important contributors to university value. However, we could do far more research if the state didn’t have to pay for students. Scrap students, invest it all in research. In terms of sports, the shame of college sports left a bit of a bad taste for me. I don’t buy that either research or sports need to be connected to universities.

Let me posit a duplication theory of education value: if something can be duplicated with limited costs, it can’t serve as a value point for higher education. Content is easily duplicated and has no value. What is valuable, however, is that which can’t be duplicated without additional input costs: personal feedback and assessment, contextualized and personalized navigation through complex topics, encouragement, questioning by a faculty member to promote deeper thinking, and a context and infrastructure of learning. Basically: human input costs make education valuable. We can’t duplicate personal interaction without spending more money. We can scale content, but we can’t scale encouragement. We can improve lecturing through peer teaching, but we can’t scale the timely interventions and nudges by faculty that influence deeper learning.

Universities that thrive in the future will be those that recognize the need for new value point positioning. Some will pursue an integration approach to value creation, others will rely on world-class faculty, and still others will rely on huge research projects or successful sports teams. Those will be anomalies and outliers. The vast majority of universities that will educate humanity in the coming decades will be those that structure their value point on elements that cannot be easily duplicated and scaled, or at minimum, require input costs to do so.

This might seem like a trite observation. But consider for a moment how dramatically a university would change if it adopted a duplication theory of value. Content would be open. Teaching would be open. The relationship between on-campus and online would change as well. Hybrids are the way to go. Most of the economic input costs of the university would (should) be directed to those areas that impact learners. Teaching, learning actually, and personalization of content and feedback would be central to the university. I’m sounding a bit utopian, but I can’t think of a different model on which to base higher education. The future of higher education has almost become a separate area of passion for me (Kathleen Matheos and I did an article on systemic change in education), so I’d be interested to what others think. What is the foundation of education moving forward?


  1. Howard wrote:

    Finding a new “value” proposition; that’s an interesting take on reform. I’m not sure the institutions can change that radically in a short-time, but time for Higher Ed may indeed be short. What could disrupt Higher Ed? How about a return to something more like the medieval guilds focusing on performance and apprenticeships?

    Thursday, September 15, 2011 at 2:58 pm | Permalink
  2. Part of the problem is that the politicos see HE as a commodity much like your analysis of “stuff” right at the beginning. They are undermining the strength and importance of the “personal input” aspect because they see HE more in terms of providing the content than in providing the learning. Unfortunately I think this has an impact on (prospective) students too, who will become much more demanding – with the fees rises – of the “stuff” and more and more resistant to the value adds of HE such as “skills for learning”. How do we turn this around?

    Friday, September 16, 2011 at 2:09 am | Permalink
  3. Two takes on this, first one here:

    and the second one here:

    Interested, as always, in your thoughts.

    Sunday, September 18, 2011 at 7:06 pm | Permalink