Monday, February 24, 2014

Online and there is no choice

In a recent consultant’s report, in a section where the discussion focused on online degree programs, the report noted that 34% of the master’s degrees in education are earned through online education. I’m not surprised and I fully expect that this number will exceed 50% within the next five years. What is surprising to me is that there is still so much resistance to this inevitable trend. More than a decade ago, I began regularly talking about the need for part-time graduate programs to move into a distance learning mode. There was not surprisingly substantial resistance. The key to this resistance is the legitimate fear that you lose the personal interaction so important to gaining the maximum educational benefit.

Fast forward to today and it is clear that there is a new legitimate fear, namely losing students from in-person programs to online programs. And if you don’t have the students, you also don’t have the ability to deliver a personal experience. The interim period of time has however demonstrated that the personal element is alive and well in online education. If you measure a personal experience by student faculty contact, there is more contact as well as more frequent contact in distance learning via distance learning. Students no longer come, in large numbers, to faculty open office hours. Even in the past these hours had their limitations: the hours were often scheduled (certainly not intentionally) during the times that students had other classes, or were off campus or were working. Now the ability to communicate through email or through a learning platform encourages on-going interaction and often at those times that are most helpful to students and their learning. I am not suggesting that emails sent to faculty in the middle of the night or at other inconvenient or inappropriate times, should be answered at those times. I am suggesting that if a student has a question on a Friday, there is no longer the need to wait until the following Tuesday to take advantage of available office hours.

For much of private higher education, there is the additional concern regarding the cost difference between online programs at public institutions and online programs at private institutions. Can private institutions compete when there are lower cost public alternatives? The answer is a clear yes in my opinion. We compete effectively with substantially smaller classes, more interaction with students, more support for students, and the use of faculty rather than teaching assistants. We stress an overall more personal experience. These same advantages carry over to online education and the same ability to compete is present even if the learning platform has changed.

In a world where our students—especially our graduate students—are carrying out multiple responsibilities and where time is a scarce commodity, it makes tremendous sense for these students to take advantage of the benefits of online learning. Leaving an office early, coming home late, and commuting are not irresistible nor are they part of the learning process. There are many more good learning options available than there were when many of us went to school. We should do all we can so that students can take advantage of them.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Beautiful Theater and Economics

The first Broadway show I ever attended was My Fair Lady. My mom took me to the show, and I remember enjoying it but being disappointed by the ending. My only other live theater experience, when I was growing up, was going with my mom to Radio City Music Hall every time there was a new Cary Grant film, and where every movie was accompanied by a live musical performance by the Rockettes. In those days I had not yet experienced my first economics course, not yet majored in economics in college and not yet earned my PhD in economics. Fast forward to today and from that very limited initial exposure to professional theater, I now try to see almost every Broadway musical but, given my educational background, I also think a lot about the economics of Broadway.

Last night I attended a performance of Beautiful, The Carole King Musical. The show, not surprisingly, focuses on the life of Carole King and also on the music of Carole, Carole and Gerry Goffin as well as the music of their contemporaries, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil. I grew up with this music and I enjoy it as much today as I did growing up. Songs like “So Far Away,” “Some Kind of Wonderful,” “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling,” “Walking in the Rain,” “You’ve Got a Friend,” and “Beautiful,” are classics that are easy to listen to and have broad audience appeal. In Broadway terms, the fact that the music is known and liked also helps the show succeed and takes some of the risk away from the almost speculative investing that is part of almost every Broadway show. You need to look no further away than Spiderman which at its closing, almost three years after it opened, still had a loss of 10’s of millions of dollars. If the story is good, and that was certainly the case for Beautiful, and the music memorable to begin with, the show has a greater chance of success and the risk involved in the investment is somewhat mitigated. Added evidence in support of this conclusion include Jersey Boys, Motown, and Mama Mia. But great music is not a guarantee of a great show or even a modestly successful show. All Shook Up featured great Elvis music and a great cast, but a story line that just didn’t work. Other Broadway shows featuring the hit songs of very popular groups have closed before I even had the chance to see them. Nevertheless, beginning with top notch music is a recipe for financial and artistic success

Because the costs of putting on a Broadway show are as high as they are, and because there is very substantial risk in the investment, the ticket costs of Broadway show are high and very much limit the potential audience. Turning shows into movies (Les Mis) and into television specials (The Sound of Music) can increase their accessibility. So can not-for-profit- family theaters such as New York’s New Victory. College and high school groups also enhance accessibility. I am an advocate for the arts and for the profound impact that theater can have. I know that the economics of professional theater requires high tickets prices to cover costs and recoup investments but I also know we need to do a better job in promoting accessibility and providing alternatives. When done right, the experience and the educational impact is certainly beautiful.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Right Priorities but…

I have been watching and listening to multiple state and local leaders articulating their priorities for next year. And much of what I hear is music to my ears. I support a longer school day, I support universal pre-K, and I support no increase and, if possible, a decrease in local and state taxes. What is there that anyone could argue with in this ambitious agenda?

If you take a look at much of the K-12 education that we already provide in our local communities, there are often areas where more could be done or more resources are necessary. I live in an excellent school district but we are nevertheless constrained. There are a significant number of excellent districts; and there are unfortunately too many districts that are far from excellent. Dated facilities, limited technology, dated textbooks, and limited support services are just a few of the symptoms of districts that are not able to provide what is needed. And please remember that the end result of not providing the inputs that are necessary is that the children in the schools are at a disadvantage, one that often lasts throughout their careers and their lives. These kids would benefit from universal pre-K and they would benefit from a longer school day but before we do more, with an added cost, we first need to make sure what we are doing is being done as well as possible.

Universal pre-K and a longer school day are very worthwhile objectives but cannot be implemented with the present resources and obviously require added funding. Where will that come from? Vastly greater government or school efficiency? At the margin perhaps there are a few resources that can be reallocated. But the bulk of what is necessary will have to come from added taxes. Either very visible taxes such as income or property taxes or more subtle taxes such as sales taxes or fees. Other than income taxes, much of our tax structure is regressive. Increased taxes can be positioned as impacting only the rich, or millionaires, or the top 1%. But if the tax is only on the top 1%, and if the increase is reasonable, I doubt that sufficient funds will be generated for what needs to be done. Who, then, do you tax next?

Robust growth can of course lead to more employment, higher income, greater purchases and as a consequence, more revenue for government. Our economy is stronger but the growth won’t be sufficient to provide the resources we need. The reality is that at best we will be able to make token progress in these new priorities given the constraints we operate under. And if that is the case, my vote and my priority would be to concentrate on doing better what we are already doing rather than do more but with too little of it done well.