The Efficiency Gains of Online Education For Universities

When the Pandemic hit last march, Universities across the U.S. went through arguably the most comprehensive restructuring in modern history. In a matter of weeks, academic institutions had to scramble together online curriculums for thousands of students. The recent digital reinvention of education has yielded criticism from both students and faculty, regardless of discipline. Claims of inefficiency due to the termination of in-person schooling, and technical errors in remote administration, only scratch the surface of complaints. However, I argue that online education has awakened a new level of efficiency that universities have never before benefitted from.

The first argument discusses efficiency from the standpoint of removing classroom waitlists, hence increasing student access to education while simultaneously mitigating expenditures. For decades, universities have had to utilize waitlists for classes to address the problem of student over-enrollment. However, with education going full-remote, there is no longer any need for wait-lists, as online environments are not bound to the same kinds of constraints as physical spaces like classrooms. Therefore, universities have the capacity to teach far more students than ever before, and can do so without increasing costs. According to a study conducted by HSE University and US Researchers (published in the journal Science Advances), “With equivalent learning outcomes, the cost of instruction per one student in blended modality is 15-19% lower, and in the online modality, it is 79-81% lower, depending on the course. These estimates take into account the costs of developing and maintaining online courses. According to the authors of the study, with online courses universities will be able to teach 15-18% more students at the same cost.

Furthermore, increasing the number of students that a university can instruct will boost the demand for instructors. This will in turn equip budding graduate and PhD students with more opportunities to fulfill their professor-in-training requirements at a faster rate. Students will also no longer have to push their degree progress further and further back as a result of filled classrooms. This simple example demonstrates how eliminating waitlists can solve the problem of wasted time, both on the end of the instructor and the student. Indeed, it is the efficiency gain of time that will be discussed next.

As a student entrepreneur who commuted to campus, wasted time was something that I simply could not afford. After my first week at the University of Minnesota, I realized that I could source all of my lecture materials online, be it on YouTube, Khan Academy, or another website. Because of this discovery, in addition to knowing that attendance was not graded, there was no need for me to waste my time commuting in traffic to campus and sitting in a classroom for an hour plus, when I could just as easily complete my work from home on my laptop in half the time. Unsurprisingly, According to Ipsos, “80% of Gen Z teens say YouTube has helped them become more knowledgeable about something, and 68% say YouTube has helped them improve or gain skills that will help them prepare for the future.”

What’s more, whenever I did show up to campus, the lecture halls always presented the same scene: students dozing off, glued to their phones, listening to music, or chatting with a friend, rather than tuning into the lecture. After witnessing this time and again, it became clear to me that most students do not want to be stuck inside of a classroom for hours. By doing this, not only are students wasting their time, but so are professors. If only half of the students are paying attention, why should the professor waste time on teaching? With the shift towards online education, the efficiency gain of time can be exploited. Students have the freedom to adequately balance their schedules, while professors and instructors have more time to focus on producing research for the university.

Lastly, online education has brought about the efficiency gain of quick adaptability to changing circumstances. With the onset of pandemic, in just two weeks, my alma mater managed to pool together Covid protocols, resources, and new methods for the administration of online classes to over 50,000 students. In other words, academic institutions have proven the impossible. Moreover, the success of online administration is also due in large part to the adaptability of Generation Z. Imagine you were born into a world where you had no choice but to evolve alongside a rapidly changing digital environment, one characterized by the inception of the internet, the rise of social networks, and the increasing implementation of artificial intelligence. Gen Z was raised in this exact circumstance. Born between 1995 and 2010, Gen Z is now the majority generation on the planet, constituting 32% of the world’s population. By extension, they now make up the majority of the globe’s university student body. They have been cemented into the history books as the first true Digital and AI Native generation, equipped with intimate, first-hand knowledge of and experience with rapid digital transformation. Since birth, Gen Z has been adapting to sudden shifts in the world’s digital landscape. Therefore, when the Coronavirus forced education to go fully digital, Gen Z was programmed to embrace and welcome the change.

Digital transformation of society was inevitable. Coronavirus simply accelerated the rate of change. As CEO of Microsoft Satya Nadella stated, “We've seen two years' worth of digital transformation in two months.” Because universities have undergone digitalization on a massive scale, and now possess new and improved technological faculties, it is now possible for institutions to fulfill the reality of AI-augmented education. AI-driven education will lead to new efficiency gains, such as personalized learning, smart content, and customized curriculums designed by AI––hence optimizing administrative tasks, saving time, and providing higher quality education for students.

This article has summarized some of the efficiency gains from online education that universities will experience. Although online education has a long road to perfection, it has already proven its benefits to students and faculty.

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