Symposium Entry

Affordability and sustainability through ICT-supported education

May 27th, 2015

Why it’s critical to understand the potential of technology to not only improve student learning, but help the planet.

The affordability of college education, conjoined with the discussion of the public and/or private value generated by that education, has never been a more important topic. If we believe that society must educate the global population in order to create a better world for present and future generations, then it is critical for those of us in higher education to understand the role that technology has to play in enabling post-secondary learning for all.

A recent case study of Arizona State University’s online campus, ASU Online, conducted by the ASU Walton Sustainability Solutions Initiatives and its Global Sustainability Solutions Services, determined that online education not only provides greater access to higher education offerings but also has become a cornerstone element of the institution’s sustainability plan generating socio-economic value and benefits for the degree-earner, the institution and the greater economy.

The case study began when Dell approached ASU in mid-2014 with a request to analyze the sustainability impacts of information and communication technology, or ICT, in online education as part of its Dell 2020 Legacy of Good Plan. Dell wanted to understand the role of ICT in generating net positive progress in a variety of industries, including higher education (work that is also currently underway in conjunction with Business for Social Responsibility [BSR] through its Center for Technology and Sustainability).

Our study resulted in several significant conclusions: the online and “immersion” (traditional, campus-based, face-to-face) models are rapidly merging; most online and immersion courses will utilize the exact same technology base; the ICT intensity varies little between the two modes; and the socio-economic benefits of online education dwarf its environmental benefits, however important they are.

We conducted this study from the perspective of a public research university, in our case the largest in the nation under a single administration, which comprises four campuses, 83,000 students (13,000 online) and more than 3,000 faculty. To determine the net positive value, our research team estimated the environmental costs and benefits of online education, with a primary focus on net carbon benefits as well as near and long-term socio-economic benefits, using the acquisition of an undergraduate degree as the baseline unit of analysis.

From an environmental benefits point of view, a student choosing a fully online degree saves 30 to 70 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (the standard measure of greenhouse gas emissions and a primary concern of the ICT industry) over immersion students. These savings are largely driven by eliminating transportation to and from class and, most important, through a significant avoidance in classroom construction. It should be noted that classroom space represents less than three percent of total building space on ASU campuses. Unless the research university itself becomes virtual, most of the other 97 percent is still required.

Accessibility and net worth

On the socio-economic side of things, we found that benefits accrue from accessibility. Most students choosing the online route simply would not get a campus-based degree. Using existing research on the economic upside of a post-secondary degree, we estimated as much as $550,000 worth of lifetime benefits for each student that earns an online degree. That half million dollars covers increased life-time income, greater net worth at retirement, avoidance of costly social services, and contribution of positive social services on the part of the better educated citizen.

ASU Online was originally created six years ago to increase access while providing a new revenue stream, and with the reduction of state and federal funding, the importance of new revenue sources cannot be understated. There was some concern that ASU Online might “cannibalize” its typical 18 to 25-year old student base. Instead, ASU Online accessed a large, growing, global market, enrolling students who tend to be older, working, married parents who tried college before, stopped, want to start again, and must work asynchronously. Over six years, ASU Online has developed a profitable, new revenue stream that helps support the overall operations of the enterprise with an envisioned future student population of 200,000 students annually by 2030, 100,000 each through immersion and online modes.

Accessibility also means equality. A key, driving principle of the ASU model is that an online degree should be indistinguishable from an immersion degree. Nowhere on the degree or transcript is it specified whether the degree was attained through immersion or online mode. The curricular content of immersion and online degrees are identical. The courses are designed, developed, and delivered by the same top-notch research faculty. The intent is to ensure that an online degree is of the same high quality and rigor as an immersion degree, anchored in advanced research and delivered by qualified expert faculty.

Affordability and the impact on the institution and faculty

The education system has many stakeholders: students, parents, faculty, university administration, technology providers, public and private employers, and the greater society in which the university is embedded, including the metro area, state, country, and planet. All of these stakeholders incur costs and accrue benefits from higher education. The prevalent concern about ICT, and the online learning modes enabled by ICT, has been on its impact on the affordability of higher education for the student and, often, the parent(s) of the student. But, the impact on affordability for the faculty, institution, employers, and greater society are also interesting questions.

For example, at what point do the diminishing costs (to the student) of an online degree negatively impact faculty? At $480 per credit hour, a degree through ASU Online costs roughly the same price as in-state tuition, certainly making a degree more affordable for out-of-state students. While it is not necessarily more affordable to the in-state student, it is still a good value in today’s market. If the price were reduced due to market forces to $120 per credit hour, the education would be more affordable to students, wherever they might be. But, as one ASU executive noted recently, it is doubtful that ASU could afford such a change. It would be difficult to incent faculty to design and deliver courses, resulting in further degradation of quality of the education. The value of the degree earned would not likely bear up under the scrutiny of accrediting institutions, eroding ASU’s position as a provider of high-quality online degree education.

Higher-ed’s ICT-supported future

Higher education is undergoing radical, disruptive innovation, due to a wide variety of factors: the scale of the global challenge; the cost of an education; its changing cost/benefit ratio; the silly assertion that education is strictly a private good; the corresponding abandonment by the public sector of its historic social contract to provide an affordable public education; and the emergence of new business and pedagogical models enabled by new ICT technologies.

The future we see at 2030 or 2050 is a world that will continue to be characterized by increasing complexity and diversity. The higher education market will grow radically and expand globally. ICT-enabled models will make education available to all citizens of the world. The higher education market will segment into a wide variety of niches and business models differentiated along dimensions of discipline, competencies, degree focus, price, and quality. The higher end might continue to be the Ivy League and its imitators. The lower end might be rapid, MOOC-style courses available from not always trusted sources. Quality degrees from public research institutions such as ASU that are of high value are likely to occupy a significant niche, delivering the same quality education it does today in immersion, online, and hybrid modes.

As this evolution takes place, it is incumbent on the leaders of our universities to experiment aggressively with online education in order to maintain our public institutions relevance in a new age.

Quality higher education has long been recognized as a significant contributor to a life well lived. Broad, global access to it is necessary to enable nine billion people to live well on our planet, within its resources, by 2050 (a commonly cited benchmark year for global sustainability goals). ICT will play a critical role in making post-secondary learning affordable and accessible to all.

Dan O’Neill is a Senior Sustainability Scientist and General Manager for the Global Sustainability Solutions Services at Arizona State University. In this role, he connects the sustainability needs of local and global stakeholders to the knowledge and delivery capabilities of ASU and its global network of partners through the delivery of real, practical, effective sustainability solutions.