Skip to main content Skip to navigation

Harnessing Technology for Teaching Efficiency Gains:

Adrian Boucher, Institute of Education, University of Warwick


Over the past twenty years the quantity of public funding for higher education has increased in real terms by 45%. Over the same period the unit of funding per student has declined in real terms by 40%. The Report of the National Committee of Inquiry into the Future of Higher Education (Dearing, 1997) notes these financial aspects, while pointing to the massive expansion in student numbers which has occurred over the same period. Whereas in the 1970s the proportion of the school-leaving population progressing to courses in higher education was less than one in fifteen, this proportion increased significantly during the 1980s and 1990s, to reach approximately one in three by 1996-97. Additionally, Dearing highlights the large and increasing numbers of adults aged twenty-one and over who have opted for study in HE during the past decade. These mature students represented almost half of all higher education students in 1995-96 (HESA, 1997), with 42% of the total aged over twenty-five. This demographic profile may be expected to change in the near future in response to proposed changes in the way that higher education is to be financed. Early in 1998 the educational press has suggested the number of mature applicants to higher education had fallen by approximately 16% over 1997, compared to a fall overall of some 4.2% (Times Higher, February 13 1998). Commentators include among the reasons for this reduction, introduction of tuition fees and removal of maintenance grants in favour of income-contingent loans, as well as demographic factors. It is also suggested that the past success of universities in recruiting mature students to courses has tapped the pool of pent-up demand for higher education among over-21s.

The Dearing Report suggests that a number of universities have responded to increased pressures on finance by under-investment in physical space and other infrastructural investment. Professor Brian Fender, Chief Executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, indicated at the annual conference of the Council in April 1998, that bids for funds to improve the quality of university buildings and estates had amounted to some £300m, to be met by a fund of only £35m. More tellingly, bids had indicated that in 31 institutions, major repairs or replacement were required, and that in some cases, buildings were already unusable for their designated purpose.

Related to the funding problems which have adversely affected the physical infrastructure, some universities have indicated that previous and current models of course delivery which involve a broad mix of lectures, seminars, workshops and, that rarest of creatures, the tutorial are unsustainable. For some universities present organisational arrangements and systems of student assessment cannot cope adequately with the increased numbers of students. One consequence of the recent changes has been increased demands on lecturer and support staff time. This, coupled with increased pressure on academic staff to engage in scholarly activities other than teaching and research - additional administrative duties related to increased student numbers, consultancy, organization of short, fee-earning courses - has, in some institutions, put severe pressure on the amount of conventional teaching contact time available. A number of institutions have conducted internal analyses of current working practices, and given thought to alternative course delivery methods. Examples of some alternative teaching and learning models and indicative implications for cost of development and course delivery are outlined in Appendix Two of the Dearing Report (Dearing 1997). This appendix examines the characteristics of standard lecture-based course delivery with seminar support alongside resource-based learning alternatives. The analysis is somewhat ambiguous in places (Hobbs and Boucher, 1997), but indicates overall that claims made in favour of the efficacy of IT-assisted teaching and learning methods in complementing conventional course delivery are worth exploring, to establish whether the claimed benefits to be derived from information and communications technology (ICT) support are borne out in practice. Therein lies the problem…

How Effective have past ICT Initiatives been?

Assessment of the effectiveness of a sequence of national and local IT-assisted teaching and learning initiatives has proved challenging for policy-makers, university senior management, and academic staff alike. Research for HEFCE in 1996-97 (Boucher, Davis et al. 1997) attempted to derive measures of costs and benefits of ICT activities in UK HE. It emerged from this study that systematic collection of relevant data has not been a priority for institutions. Measurement of costs associated with design, development, trialling and delivery of ICT significantly under-recorded the true costs of such activities. No allowance was typically made for costs of project management. Many aspects of the development, testing and implementation costs of ICT-based teaching and learning activities were omitted from project performance data, and methods for establishing the benefits expected to arise from IT-assisted methods of teaching and learning were rudimentary. Perhaps this should come as no surprise. Neither is comparable data available to make an assessment of the efficacy of conventional course preparation, delivery and evaluation. Higher education institutions have not, in the past, been required to undertake analyses of resource allocation decisions according to such a framework, and there is no generally agreed methodological framework for establishing the educational benefits deemed to arise from either conventional or ICT-based approaches to teaching and learning.

The HEFCE project sought to measure ICT costs and benefits according to standard economic definitions, and also to establish the corresponding educational costs and benefits. It was also focused on pursuit of evidence relating to possible economies of scale from adopting non-conventional, technology-related learning methods. Conventional wisdom, repeated in virtually all literature dealing with ICT in support of teaching and learning, asserts that use of such approaches will lead to efficiency gains, and gains in effectiveness of student learning. According to these arguments, if ICT approaches were widely adopted, over significant periods of time, the high front-end development costs of courseware and contingent costs of hardware and software required to undertake the development work might be amortized over a number of years through use by large numbers of students in many institutions, providing a stream of benefits over time to the sector. Unfortunately, in few of the cases of ICT support observed to date has the stage been reached where sufficiently large numbers of students have experienced this way of learning, and the evidence available so far is ambiguous. In this respect, the experience of higher education in its inability to establish the return on investment in ICT mirrors that for much of the business sector (Willcocks, 1994, 1996; Parker, 1997).

ICT and "Efficiency Gains"

An initial question relates to the precise meaning to be attributed to "efficiency".

Economists commonly distinguish technical efficiency from economic efficiency. Much of the literature on ICT use in education does not make this distinction clearly. Technical efficiency exists where productive processes use inputs (labour and capital, say) in such a way that none of these scarce physical resources is wasted. For simplicity in exposition, we consider only two inputs to the production activity; in reality, multi-factor production analysis can be undertaken. Typically, at least at the ex ante stage of production planning, decision-makers may be faced with a range of alternative production techniques, involving different combinations of inputs, each of which may produce identical output. In the case of higher education, the output, student learning at a defined level, might be achieved with varying combinations of lecture-based teaching, ICT-supported course delivery and intermediate techniques, each involving differing amounts of the scarce inputs.

The locus of points of equal output, generated from optimal use of all input combinations, is termed an isoquant and technically efficient production occurs at any point on the isoquant for which the slope of the isoquant is negative. This implies that subtracting an amount of either input from the production activity will cause output to fall. Note that no mention has been made so far, of the costs or prices of the inputs to the production process.

Economic efficiency arises where the resources are used in such a way that there is no waste of expenditure. This necessitates consideration of the input prices. Although technical efficiency implies that production can occur at any point on the negatively-sloped part of the isoquant, only one point on the isoquant will be economically efficient. This point is the combination of inputs which produces the technically efficient output at minimum cost, and depends on the relative prices of the inputs. The total expenditure on inputs will be the product of the input price and the number of units of the input used in production. A locus of input combinations that require the same expenditure is termed an isocost line, and the economically efficient point of production occurs when the isoquant for a given level of production is tangential to the lowest attainable isocost line.

Acknowledging that course delivery can be undertaken in a variety of ways, involving different mixes of academic staff time (labour) and of ICT resources (capital), Dearing briefly considers alternative capital-labour combinations in production in its consideration of the conventional vs. resource-based learning approaches outlined in its Appendix 2. There is, however, little discussion of the concepts of efficiency, either technical or economic, in the Appendix.

ICT Initiatives in Higher Education

Since the initial decision to channel intellectual effort and financial resources into support for IT-assisted teaching and learning activities in higher education, funding agencies have introduced a succession of high-profile developments, designed to encourage academics to explore alternative models of course organisation and delivery. Nationally-focused initiatives have included the Computers in Teaching Initiative (CTI), Teaching and Learning Technology Programme (TLTP) Phases I to III, Fund for the Development of Teaching and Learning (FDTL) and related JISC initiatives. Alongside these programmes a number of universities have devoted significant staffing and financial resources to IT-assisted teaching and learning projects which have been designed to address local needs and resource constraints. Many of these initiatives have led to outstanding examples of high-quality ICT materials, a number of which have received commercial support for wider exploitation beyond UK higher education. Others have been awarded prizes for educational quality, graphic design and content. In some cases, IT-assisted teaching and learning developments have been effectively adopted as local solutions to shortage of subject-specific expertise, to enable remote access to resources, and to enable students to work flexibly at times and in locations which are convenient to the learner.

With the continuing growth in power and ubiquity of the Internet / WWW and expected future (inexpensive) access to world-wide resources using networked desktop computers and personal computers (Dearing, 1997), such flexibility will provide increased opportunities for access to higher education for a wider potential client group than currently. As part of the present Government's recently-announced policy for promoting truly lifelong learning, the experience and expertise which UK higher education has developed over the past decade in developing high-quality ICT support for teaching and learning puts this country in a leading position in world markets for educational provision, both at initial degree level and in addressing the potentially enormous market for lifelong learning, skills development and continuous professional development worldwide. Since the UK has already gained a large potential lead in this area, a lead bolstered by the recognition of English as the major language for education, business and world trade, it is disappointing that the considerable amount of public funding allocated to the initiatives listed above has not, to date, been translated into high take-up of TLTP materials (to name but one set of resources) in higher education, and has not until very recently been positioned as a strategic asset for overseas exploitation.

Opportunities for UK Higher Education in ICT-related Activities

The Education and Training Exports Group, set up in 1994 under the joint aegis of DfEE and DTI has, unsurprisingly, made little impact to date in seeking to develop overseas presence in education and training markets. A recent revamp of the Group to incorporate Universities, FE Colleges, TECs, computer software developers and educational publishers provides an opportunity for serious focus on developing a potentially vast, sustainable competitive advantage in an industry where UK universities and colleges are truly world-class, possessing distinctive competences, based on:

  • a well-defined and developed architecture (via CTI/TLTP/FDTL and locally-developed ICT initiatives, together with TLT Support Networks, SuperJANET and the MAN Initiatives)
  • strategic assets (the courseware and supporting learning materials developed in conjunction with the foregoing initiatives, and through which universities and colleges can develop higher value-added, complementary materials)
  • reputation (UK higher education is widely acknowledged as among the best in the world, with several universities recognised as world-class) and
  • innovation (the massive and effective responses to the changes in structure and funding of higher education over the past 10 years is alone sufficient testimony to the quality of innovation already practised by most higher education institutions).

Students of business strategy will recognise that these are precisely the components of sustainable competitive advantage discussed in the more thoughtful business literature (Kay, 1993; Porter, 1985, 1990).

In order to exploit these precious intellectual assets to the fullest, it is essential that the past and present assertions that ICT in support of teaching and learning can confer efficiency gains to the sector, and can improve the quality of teaching and learning be buttressed by careful research to establish the objective picture.

Here are some questions for consideration by researchers.

Unfortunately at the time of writing many of these questions are difficult to answer, and research findings are still largely unquantified, but the search for defensible objective measures must continue.

Questions for consideration

[not an exhaustive list, and in no particular order]:

Does the use of IT-assisted teaching and learning improve the quality of students' learning?

How would we measure this?

What methodology should be developed to compare student performance under "conventional" teaching and learning structures and ICT approaches?

Are ICT approaches to be seen as a substitute for or complement to conventional teaching and learning approaches?

What are the costs associated with providing conventional higher education courses?

What are the costs associated with the ICT variant?

How are these costs to be measured?

What benchmarks (metrics) can be established? (Marshall, 1994; Boucher, 1995)

What is the best way of encouraging development of IT-related materials for a range of academic subjects and/or programmes of study?

Should such developments be encouraged?

What is the value of creating applications for teaching and learning specific skills or techniques in selected academic disciplines? How is the valuation to be undertaken?

What is the value of development of transferable skills in ICT for lecturers and associated academic staff? How is this to be related to RAE and the development of the proposed Institute for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education (ILTHE)

How are we to value materials specifically focused on issues relevant to academics' own professional development?

How is the higher education sector going to implement the management and organisational developments related to ICT called for in Dearing Report?

To what extent is development of key transferable skills for students necessary in preparing for careers in the Information Society? Is this an appropriate role for a university?

How is higher education to address the question of provision of wider access to higher education through use of telematics or via Internet/WWW?

How is such access to be funded?

What role does the University for Industry have in these developments? How does the higher education sector relate to UfI?

How is the sector addressing questions related to ICT developments in the management of learning?

What provision does the sector make for developing students' Knowledge Management Skills?

What are the capital and recurrent equipment costs of adopting ICT approaches?

What are the infrastructural costs?

What are the access costs, when access is to be flexible, 24-hours per day, 7 days per week?

Is physical access necessary any more?

What are the replacement costs of hardware and infrastructure?

What are the institutional overheads associated with increasing intensity of ICT usage? (space, heating, lighting, administrative support, etc.)

What are the development costs for ICT approaches to teaching and learning?

What are the maintenance costs of equipment, software and other materials?

What are the user support costs (technical support, training, etc.)?

What are the costs of adoption of ICT approaches in higher education institutions (including dislocation costs)?

Should these costs be measured on a course basis? Departmental basis? Faculty basis? Institutional basis?

What are the spillover costs associated with adopting ICT approaches?

What are the marginal costs associated with provision of appropriate resources?

What are the average costs? Cost per student? Cost per course? Cost per subject unit?

How do the costs relate to the degree of ICT-intensity adopted within course programmes? Departments? Faculties? Institutions?

What difference does ICT-intensity make to the quality of learning?

Is the cost of IT declining over time (as conventional wisdom suggests)?

Or does periodic upgrading of hardware, systems software and applications and termination of support for previous resources consign us all to the "Digital Treadmill"? (Rumble, 1998)

A broadly similar set of questions may be invoked to establish the benefits associated with ICT-assisted teaching and learning. Merely undertaking a search for "costs" and replacement by "benefits" in the foregoing questions should provide hours of vigorous debate. Unlike the costs, which in principle may be collected through accounting activities, imputing monetary values to the benefits of ICT methods of teaching and learning is rather more difficult. But that should not prevent us trying…

Dr Adrian Boucher
Director, NatWest Financial Literacy Centre
Centre for Education and Industry
University of Warwick
Coventry, CV4 7AL

  • Boucher, A C (1995): Who pays the costs? Who gets the benefits? [in J Darby and S J Turpin (Eds.) "Embedding Technology into Teaching" Report of the 2nd Annual CTISS/TLTP Joint Conference, Oxford, CTISS Publications.
  • Boucher, A. C., N. Davis, et al. (1997) IT-Assisted teaching and learning in UK higher education. London, Higher Education Funding Council for England. Research Series
  • Dearing, Sir R (1997): Report of the National Committee of Inquiry into the Future of Higher Education, London,
  • Higher Education Statistical Agency (1997): Higher Education Statistics London, HESA.
  • Hobbs, P J and A C Boucher (1997): An analysis of teaching methods, costs and student preferences, Active Learning, No 7, December, Special Section, The Future learning Society pp. vii-x
  • Kay, J A (1993): Foundations of Corporate Success, Oxford, Oxford University Press.
  • Marshall, I M , W B Samson and P I Dugard (1994): Multimedia courseware development: estimating the effort, Interact, 2, 18-19.
  • Parker, M. (1996). Strategic Transformation and Information Technology: Paradigms for performing while transforming . London, Prentice-Hall.
  • Porter, M E (1985): Competitive Advantage: Creating and Sustaining Superior Performance New York, The Free Press.
  • Porter, M E (1990): The Competitive Advantage of Nations London, Macmillan
  • Tapscott, D (1996): "The Digital Economy", New York, McGraw-Hill.
  • Willcocks, L. (1994). Information Management: Evaluation of Information Systems Investment . London, Chapman and Hall.
  • Willcocks, L. (1996), Investing in Information Systems, London, Chapman and Hall.

Interactions Logo 
bullet  Editorial
bullet  Articles 
bullet  News   
bullet  Innovations   
bullet  Resources   

 CAP E-Learning