Why Are Laptops So Cheap and Institutional Technology Costs So High?

The answer, writes Josh Kim, is people.

November 15, 2017
 

This past week I finally -- and reluctantly -- purchased a new laptop for work. Over the past few months, I’d been resorting to ever more desperate measures to keep my four-year old MacBook Air alive. In the end, too many things were going wrong with the machine to justify the time and expense of resuscitation. My productivity was taking a hit in terms of application slowness, frequent crashes and quickly draining battery life. It was time to move on.

My new laptop is a 13-inch MacBook Air. The price was $1,049 ($1,278 total with the AppleCare service and support contract). Initially, I thought that I’d buy the new 13-inch MacBook Pro -- especially because Apple seems to have mostly given up on the Air -- but I found that I liked the Air keyboard (and USB ports) enough to stick with an old favorite.

What struck me in purchasing this laptop, with work funds, is how little money that I spend on technology for work. I fully expect that this new laptop will last four years. That puts the annual cost of the hardware that I use to do all of my work -- my laptop -- at about $320 per year.

Nor does software seem all that expensive. I’m not sure what my school pays for an institutional Microsoft Office license, so there is that cost. The software that I use most, including Google Drive and Evernote, is either free or almost free. I do have an external monitor, a keyboard and a mouse. But none of that hardware is very expensive, and I expect it to last for years.

The Paradox of Educational Technology

Contrast the cheap hardware and software technologies that we use in our daily higher education work with the growing expense of educational technologies. Every school I know is struggling to find the resources to meet the growing demands for technology-related services. Our personal technologies -- even the ones we use for work -- are becoming cheaper and cheaper. At the same time, the bill for our institutional technologies seems to be growing larger and larger. This is the paradox of educational technology.

The reason that institutional ed-tech costs are rising is not a mystery. The problem is people. Most schools spend a majority of their technology money on human resources -- and people are expensive. Yet it is people, the instructional designers and research computing experts, that bring real value to higher ed technology.

Every school needs to run administrative (finance, HR, etc.) and student information systems (SIS). Every school needs email and storage. And every school needs a robust wired and wireless network. None of these technology activities, however, are differentiating. An enterprise resource planning, SIS and learning management system (LMS) are table stakes for being in the business of higher education. They do nothing to raise the quality, reputation or desirability of a school.

What does raise the quality of a college or university -- the experience offered to students and the productivity of those employed by the school -- is a combination of people and technologies. What is going on in the world of higher education technology is that the value is moving from the stuff -- hardware and software -- to relationships. Faculty are increasingly collaborating with IT professionals at every stage of their teaching and research. Online, blended and flipped learning has accelerated this trend, and so has the increasing dependence on computation and big data analysis for research and discovery.

As higher education technology goes up the value chain, as it gets closer to the work of teaching and learning research, it also becomes more expensive. The work of teaching and research is transitioning to a team sport. Technologies are the medium and the platform in which more and more of higher education occurs. This requires that our campuses have the ability to recruit and retain professionals who are bilingual in teaching/research and technology.

Over the next few years, budget pressures on every college and university will only become more pronounced. Cuts in state funding, rising costs and increased competition will only deepen the permanent scarcity in which most schools operate. These are structural economic challenges for the postsecondary sector -- challenges with no easy solutions.

The costs for educational technologies will also increase, even in the face of declining hardware expenses and new opportunities to leverage low-cost cloud solutions. This will occur as the demands on campus IT organizations increase, and it becomes apparent that these demands can only be met by people.

If colleges and universities hope to leverage technology as a differentiator, then they will need to invest in the people to make that possible.

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