Education is expensive. It’s a sad truth with a lot of factors beyond the costs incurred by students and their familial piggy banks (AKA parents). Whether you’re talking lunches, infrastructure, or operational costs like salaries, there’s always money changing hands somewhere in the world of facilitated learning.
To some degree, that will never change. Until we move to a Star Trek-esque utopia, where people work for free in the interest of the greater good, someone has to pay the legions of teachers, IT guys, and lunch ladies that keep the academic ecosystem going. While corners can always be cut, and budgets can always be slashed, it’s safe to say that’s not the best option in a system designed to turn our country’s youth into productive members of society.
Fortunately, finding that fabled sweet spot between fiscal responsibility and quality education doesn’t have to involve huge recurring costs or a reduced overall experience for students. The key is embracing technology, and doing it creatively.
Think of the average classroom and all the educational equipment within it. A stable of properly-equipped tablets or smartphones (in some instances) could replace the teacher’s lesson book, her classroom computer, the students’ computers, the old tube TV on its rickety cart … the list is only limited by the teacher/school’s willingness to utilize the tech. Heck, the average smart device can even simulate one of the grossest experiences in any high-school student’s life, dissecting a frog.
No frogs were harmed in the writing of this article.
That’s not to say tablets have to replace every aspect of the classroom to be effective from a financial standpoint. They could make a world of difference just by taking on one notoriously wasteful industry; textbooks. Students, parents, and institutions at every level have long decried the publishing industry for inflated costs and unnecessary reissues. The concerns are understandable, especially at the collegiate level.
One Flat World infographic claims students spend an average of $175 per book and $900 per semester on texts, a figure that stings even more considering the industry’s tendency to render their own work irrelevant by making minor changes to the titles they sell year after year.
In an academic area where tuition and fees rise more than 5% over inflation, anything that reduces costs is guaranteed a warm reception. Because eTexbooks cost an average of 50% to 60% less than their print alternatives, it’s only a matter of time before electronic devices become standard. The same report claims electronic texts could similarly save K-12 schools a whopping (and decidedly broad) $250-$1000 per student. Considering the flexibility and interactivity the devices offer, it seems as though smart devices are a clear winner over textbooks.
Technology is already a huge part of the average academic life. Now that everyone knows how to use a computer, it’s expected that papers will be written, researched, and submitted electronically. Fortunately, the software and hardware that makes this possible doesn’t cost a lot in terms of cash or processing power.
Trimmed-down PCs like Google’s ever-expanding line of Chromebooks is a point-for-point match for general educational needs. The devices, which offer pricing and functionality that fits somewhere between tablets and traditional computers, are perfect for low-intensity tasks and surprisingly affordable for cost-conscious buyers on both sides of the school desk. Even the most inexpensive Chromebooks can handle every step of a research paper from with Google’s built-in, frequently free slate of Web-based services.
In fact, it’s the software that clinches Chromebooks as perhaps the perfect tool for general educational needs. While industry powerhouses like Microsoft have seen fit to offer lower-costs versions of their (relatively) expensive software suites through services, like Office 365, the vast majority of Google’s offerings are free for individual users. Google Docs, while not a blow-by-blow recreation of the Office juggernaut, is more than capable for most word processing needs. Google Doc’s collaborative editing and cloud-based saving features are perfect for the copious amounts of group work professors and K-12 teachers assign their students.
Cloud-based services could also be another huge cost saver. Instead of spending extra to buy licenses for grading/attendance software on multiple machines, those same schools could provide their teachers access to cloud-based data services like Dropbox or Google Drive, letting them create, store, and share data through shared spreadsheets and the like. Cloud-based software suites are another potentially huge cost saver for academic institutions. The monthly cost of programs like Adobe Creative Cloud may sound like a lot, but when you compare it to the $2,000 you’d have to spend every couple of years for the latest version of the complete Adobe Creative Suite, the savings are clear.
Sometimes, educational savings are a byproduct of technology’s natural trend towards more power and lower costs. Other times, they’re the intended effect, and the results of that focus can be spectacular.
Take Starbucks, for example. The company recently announced plans to revamp their tuition reimbursement program to great fanfare, not to mention attention from major outlets like USA Today. The program grants Starbucks employees free enrollment to Arizona State University’s online program, and even John Stewart admits he can’t find a reason to hate it.
Other programs don’t necessarily come attached to an accredited institution, but they still offer great courses to curious minds for FREE. The sheer number of online learning portals, many of which we’ve discussed in previous updates, is astounding. For burgeoning tech-related fields like IT and software development, where traditional education isn’t as important as certifications and general knowledge, an aspiring professional could ostensibly gain a full education while paying for little more than the qualifying exams at the end.
The tech community itself also makes frequent strides to lower the cost of education, focusing on both individual students and whole institutions. Apple has been offering discounted hardware and software students and educators for years now, both online and at participating university bookstores. Beyond that, their Apple and Education page features free material to help teachers utilize their products and info on bulk pricing for institutions.
Google for Education offers similar advantages. Despite the company’s lack of branded hardware, the site has discounted devices from partnering manufacturers, along with training solutions for educators using their suite of products, a host of scholarship opportunities, and more.
Countless other programs with their own unique hooks and benefits can be found with a quick Web search, but the end goal is largely the same: making education less expensive. On behalf of principals, students, parents, and those of us who can now barely look at a poor little froggie without retching, we can only hope a full conversion comes sooner rather than later.