About the Learning Productivity Network

The Learning Productivity Network, supported by foundation grants, began in the summer of 1995 at the University at Buffalo under the direction of D. Bruce Johnstone, former SUNY chancellor and University Professor of Higher and Comparative Education. The Network includes individuals involved in programs, research, or advocacy related to the concept of learning productivity.

This concept begins by acknowledging that higher education must become more productive, for the sake of students, parents, and taxpayers alike. But the core assumption of learning productivity is that enhancements in productivity will increasingly have to come not from lessening or cheapening the inputs (mainly the faculty and staff) but from increasing the outputs--mainly learning--in a way that delivers the same or more higher educational quality, but for less money.

The Network will communicate via e mail, a newsletter, and conferences. Through the Network, individuals will be able to report on, or ask questions about, relevant research, institutional and system initiatives, pertinent state and federal legislation, and the status of key policy issues having to do with the productivity of learning.

The Imperative of Productivity in Higher Education

There is little doubt that higher education in the United States, and indeed throughout most of the world, is in a serious, and probably lasting, period of hardship, extending to conditions of crisis for many institutions. This hardship is most visibly manifested in financial austerity within higher education's public sector, but it extends as well to the private sector, particularly to the degree to which this sector depends directly or indirectly on public funds or is vulnerable to the declining number of families with college-age children and who can afford to pay full tuition.

The roots of the crisis are deep and complex. They include the general sluggishness of the national economy; the socioeconomic demographics of the traditional college student population; changing political attitudes toward the public sector generally and toward such traditionally liberal public goals as higher educational access; and finally the public's impatience with what is widely perceived to be an unwillingness of colleges and universities--especially public institutions and those oriented largely to research -- to take undergraduate teaching and learning sufficiently seriously.

This crisis threatens all of higher education's traditional missions, including: the advancement of new knowledge; the training of a productive work force; the socializing and civilizing functions of higher education; and the extension of opportunities to individuals and groups who have hitherto been excluded or at least underrepresented, in our colleges and universities.

The roots of the crisis involve both revenues and expenditures, beginning with a diminution of both public and private revenues for higher education, as well as an increasing view that colleges and universities are simply too costly or insufficiently productive or well-managed. The problem for higher education is exacerbated by a mood that would downsize all of government, reduce taxes, and diminish public concern for such traditional social values as expanding opportunities or assisting children borne into poverty.

In the private sector, dependent upon high tuition, the long-anticipated price resistance may finally have arrived, at least for some institutions. Those with the most prestige and the greatest endowments will continue to be able to meet their enrollment and net tuition revenue targets, although at alarmingly high costs to parents and high debt burdens to many students, and some experiencing diminished selectivity in admissions. Some of the less selective, less endowed institutions are likely to be unable to overcome their most fundamental problem, which continues to be the decline of the traditional college-age population from middle and upper-middle income families able to pay full tuition. Some such institutions may close; other may be sustained by a combination of program specialization, aggressive marketing, and high levels of student debt.

Higher education's traditional response to a gap between its trajectories of cost and revenue has been to increase tuition and cut costs: eliminating low-enrollment programs; substituting low-cost, part-time faculty for full-time faculty; increasing class sizes and loads; eliminating non-teaching professional staff, secretarial services, and other support; cutting and deferring maintenance; and allowing salaries to lag. Probably more of these kinds of cuts will be made--although more institutions, public and private alike, have virtually nothing left to cut that will not significantly diminish the nature and quality of the teaching and learning.

Much is being made of the concept of restructuring, usually meaning cost cutting in the manner of American businesses, which have changed entire product lines, closed or moved factories (generally in a southerly direction, to a state or country with lower labor costs), reorganized traditional lines of authority and communication, and laid-off large numbers of middle- and upper-level management. Perhaps there are ways that American colleges and universities can similarly make fundamental changes in their management structures or their professorial production functions to lower per-student costs. Or perhaps there needs to be a closure of some of the less scholarly research universities and their reconfiguration as lower-cost institutions, with much less of the aspirations, and also the costs, associated with a pervasive research mission. Or, perhaps there needs to be a reconsideration of the traditionally American open collegiate door, which gives a chance at higher education to many students of admittedly marginal academic preparation, and to move instead to a considerably more elitist, and somewhat less expensive, pattern of higher education.

But while these cost-side responses to higher education's financial dilemma are being constructed and debated, there needs to be much more attention to the output, or learning, side of the alleged productivity problem. Expressed another way, the major remaining productivity problem--particularly given the great downsizing and cost cutting that have already occurred in most public and less-selective private colleges--is no longer excessive costs, but insufficient learning.

The Concept of Learning Productivity

From the perspective of learning, the culprits in higher education's seeming absence of, or resistance to, productivity are such practices as:

    • redundant learning; 
    • excessive drift and aimless academic exploration, with academic schedules too often geared less to learning objectives than to personal convenience (whether of the teacher or the student) or to the needs of balancing study and a part-time job; 
    • excessive non-learning time because of lengthy vacations and poor use of the full learning day; 
    • insufficient use of self-paced learning, which might allow some students to proceed much more quickly (and at less cost to themselves or to the taxpayer) toward their learning objectives; and 
    • insufficient realization of the potential of collegiate-level learning during the high school years.
All of this leads to excessive time to the degree, which prolongs entry into a higher-skilled and higher-paid labor market, and also prolongs the expense of the college education, both to the taxpayer and to the student and family. Enhancing the productivity of learning would:
    • maximize learning per unit of instructional resource (mainly teaching time); 
    • minimize, or at least lessen, the currently extensive downtime in student learning (i.e., excessive vacation time as well as the days and hours of the academic week spent in other-than-learning activities); 
    • reduce the aimless curricular exploration and excessive "drift" that has currently characterize American higher education; 
    • lessen the current "lost learning" in the transition between high school and college, enhancing the learning during the critical last year of high school, minimizing curricular redundancy, and maximizing the potential of collegiate-level learning during the high school years; 
    • better individualize the pace of student learning, permitting, where appropriate, learners to proceed more rapidly, in part with the aid of technology and the techniques of asynchronous learning.
Although the concept of learning productivity is rather easily accepted in general principle, there is less accord on specific applications. Some, while embracing the concept of enhanced learning, are nonetheless offended by the concept of productivity, which they believe to reflect a corporate mentality, and to insufficiently appreciate the great cuts that most colleges have already absorbed--with little public acknowledgment.

Some proponents of learning productivity are interested mainly in reducing attrition and time-to-degree, including the packaging and promotion of three-year baccalaureates. Others are most interested in improving the learning during the 12th grade and in gaining more collegiate-level learning in the last year of high school. Some advocates are interested primarily in the teaching-learning calendar (e.g., year-round study, or better use of the hours in the teaching day); others are more interested in new pedagogical techniques and the use of technology for self-paced learning.

Finally, some who understand and sympathize with the basic propositions of learning productivity are concerned lest it widen the already large gap between the collegiate success of those whose family and peer backgrounds are already highly supportive of higher education, and those who are, at best, only marginally prepared academically, and for whom a college degree will continue to be a challenge, both financially and socially.

The Learning Productivity Network

The University at Buffalo, with support from Ford and other foundations, has created a Learning Productivity Network. The Network links those interested in research, advocacy, and implementation of elements of the learning productivity agenda, including: three-year baccalaureates and other time-shortened degrees; self-paced, distance, and other forms of technology-aided learning; and collegiate-level learning during the high school years. The Network will serve as a forum for communication among those who are conducting some of the relevant basic research, those advocating policy or operating on a more theoretical plane, and those actually implementing programs designed to enhance the productivity of learning.

The Network will communicate via e-mail, a newsletter, and conferences. Through the Network, individuals will be able to report on, or ask questions about, relevant research, institutional and system initiatives, pertinent state and federal legislation, and the status of key policy issues having to do with the productivity of learning.

An important function of the Network is to keep the theme of productivity and cost savings at least "on the table" as planning, research, and demonstrations go on involving these and other such themes. The temptation in many such innovations is to convert them into ventures that may well increase learning, or may in any event increase faculty and student satisfaction with the teaching-learning interaction, but that eschew any objective of more efficient, or avowedly cheaper, learning. However, the premise of learning productivity is that higher education, in addition to its roles as guardian of culture, creator of knowledge, and engine of economic growth and social mobility, must also be affordable--and to continue to be affordable, it must become more efficient and productive.

Thus, the Network may help to identify who and where and how some of the following topics and issues are being addressed:

  • Time-shortened degrees; 
  • Attrition, persistence, and other issues associated with time-to-degree; 
  • Self-paced, asynchronous, distance, and other forms of technology-aided learning; 
  • Financial aid, cost-of-education, and the effects on time-to-degree; 
  • Early entry into graduate and advanced professional study; 
  • Year-round calendars and other academic calendar options; 
  • Enhanced collegiate-level learning during the high school years; 
  • The implication to faculty (workloads, expectations, job security, etc.) of enhanced learning productivity; 
  • The relationship between conventionally measured institutional productivity and learning productivity; 
  • The larger societal implications of enhanced learning productivity: e.g., the absorptive capacity of the young-adult labor market, the possible disconnect between shortening the time to the degree[s] and the notion of life-long learning, and the disconnect between the function of higher education in lessening intergenerationally-transmitted differences and the function of higher education in accelerating individual differences.
Faculty and staff at the University at Buffalo associated with the Learning Productivity Network include: D. Bruce Johnstone, University Professor of Higher and Comparative Education, Project Director: Financial and governance implications of learning productivity, collegiate-level learning in high school.

William Barba, Adjunct Professor and Director of the University at Buffalo Higher Education Program: Implications of Learning Productivity to faculty workloads, rewards, and collective bargaining arrangements.

Beth Del Genio, Editor of the Learning Productivity News.

For further information, contact:

The Learning Productivity Network
484 Christopher Baldy Hall
Graduate School of Education
University at Buffalo
Buffalo, NY 14260-1000
Telephone: (716) 645-6635
Fax: (716) 645-2481
E Mail: