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Class Act: ROI in the EDU
Increasingly, educational technologists are asked to weigh the costs in money and labor of technologies with tangible, demonstrable returns.

A couple of years ago, a non-traditional student (higher-ed speak for someone older than about 22) wandered into my office asking to buy audio cassettes for a French class. I was a bit confused by his request. It had been at least three years since my department last duplicated an audiocassette for a course.

I explained to him that we didn’t have tapes anymore, and that the course’s materials were streamed online.

Unsatisfied, this student asked if we didn’t have some old tapes that he could listen to in our "language lab." It seems his instructor told him that there used to be tapes and that somebody in my department should have them lying around. I’m certain we did (and still do) have masters in our archive, but we didn’t have a language lab to listen to them in, and I sure wasn’t going to hand over masters to a student.

Ultimately, I took the student into our computer lab to show him how to use the online audio. Although he was still unsure, I was able to show him that using streaming media was more convenient and sounded better than cassettes. His eyes opened wide when I told him that he could listen using any computer on the internet, not just in our computer lab.

This story is relevant to me because the struggle to bring streaming media to language courses was still fresh in my mind when that student wandered in. It seemed particularly ironic that, just a few years after we completed the transition to streaming, this one student asking for old tech would be such an anomaly.

The push to wean faculty and students off tape and onto streaming audio and video started in earnest in 2000. Over the course of a few years, I had to make the case over and over again to faculty that streaming audio would be better for their students and themselves.

For veteran instructors with decades invested in their syllabi, it was a bit of a hard sell. Even though our streaming media service is, for all intents and purposes, free to individual instructors and courses, there’s still a cost in teachers learning new technology, trusting it, and feeling confident in students using it.

Theirs wasn’t just a knee-jerk reaction, nor technophobia. These language instructors just wanted some assurance that their efforts in using this new technology would be worth it. Just like any company considering the purchase of a new product or service, they wanted to make sure there was some return on their investment—or ROI, as it’s known outside the academy.

Although the term is creeping into use inside the offices of university CIOs, ROI is still not spoken of much in education. But that doesn’t mean the concept doesn’t exist. Increasingly, educational technologists are asked to weigh the costs in money and labor of technologies with tangible, demonstrable returns.

Except in certain circumstances, ROI in education isn’t measured in dollars or market share—though an institution’s ranking is certainly a valuable asset. It’s often measured in other tangible (higher grades) or intangible ways (student satisfaction).

The challenge—and the opportunity—is to define the returns you’re looking for, and figure out how to demonstrate them. Making instructors’ and students’ lives easier was the key return in language courses. The weekly hassle of making sure tapes were ready and available every week of every semester was eliminated. Students no longer had to buy tapes or compete to use a limited number of cassettes and players the night before a test. Add to that the fact that we no longer needed to staff a language lab or spend hours duplicating tapes, and it was easy to sell streaming in straightforward economic terms.

Defining the returns requires really understanding the goals of teachers and students and looking for ways those goals can be achieved more easily, more efficiently, or just in a generally better way.Discovering this means working closely with faculty and being willing to question your own methods and answers. Are you certain that putting a camcorder into every student’s hand really offers something of value, or do you have a solution in search of a problem?

In too many instances, I’ve seen educational technologists employ a "build it and they will come" method for implementing new services and building studios, spending tons of money and effort in the process. And yet, when asked what their goals were, I’ve heard only vague answers about how everyone loves video, or that podcasting is the big thing right now. Where’s the ROI?

At the end of the day (or four to twelve years) students expect a return on their investment, too: a diploma, and possibly a career. Using digital media in their education will aid success, and it’s up to us to prove how that happens.

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