Policy Recommendations II

Virginia Tech Cyberschool

"Enhancing On-Line Education for All Students:

A Technology Fee"

Len Hatfield and Timothy W. Luke
Coordinators, Cyberschool
April 5, 1997

During our initial meetings in the Spring 1997 semester, the Cyberschool faculty discussed the importance of securing greater budgetary support for new instructional networks at Virginia Tech, as well as the significance of assuring the quality of these networks' functionality. Consequently, we want to make some particular recommendations in support of levying new technology fees to help defray the costs for these needs.

A technology fee should be levied on all Virginia Tech students, both on and off campus, as part of the cost of gaining entry into its many new and on-going on-line educational facilities. And, we suggest that this fee could be used to hire more professional support staff to help faculty and students. This fee is important because it will draw funds from extended campus learners into the construction of the networks that carry educational services to them. It also will enable on-campus students to help underwrite some of the costs of bringing more on-line education to them. This fee cannot cover all costs, but it will help to off-set the existing networks' expenses as well as provide a fiscal foundation for new on-line, technology-intensive initiatives. Of course, student financial aid packages and scholarship arrangements should be adjusted to help the truly needy students pay this fee, but the "user pays" logic of this fee could be fairly equitable, especially as almost every functional unit of the university will have an on-line interface in the very near future. On-campus students increasingly must interact with University offices on-line, and most extended campus students can only obtain assistance this way.

Virginia Tech has a long history of experimenting with new educational technologies all the way back to the 1950s. Until recently, however, most of these experiments presumed that innovation involved purchasing new computing machinery and installing it in existing campus buildings for students, faculty, and staff to use on-site. Clearly, though this need still exists, and the University must continue to make such purchases. The advent of new networking technologies is changing the cost equations of supporting technological innovation in higher education very rapidly and quite radically, and there are no other likely sources for these funds at this time.

First, an entirely new telecommunications infrastructure must be constructed within the University's existing built environments to carry networked-mediated instruction. The complexity, traffic volumes, speed, and carrying capacities of this wired and/or wireless infrastructure are constantly increasing; this growth necessitates continuous upgrades. Moreover, large modem pools, or other data transfer installations, need to be maintained in order to link on-campus sources of instructional content to many more off-campus learners.

Second, in addition to this new material infrastructure that on-line learning requires, an entirely new kind of "built environment" composed of continuously up-gradeable "virtual sites" or "infostructures" must be designed, constructed, maintained, and refined as a foundational part of supporting the University's on-line educational initiatives. Once again, the complexity, functionality, adaptability, and utility of these new infostructures always can be enhanced, a process which will also require constant maintenance. Furthermore, these virtualized sites of interaction are accessible anywhere and anytime all over the world, making it imperative for the University to keep them at the cutting-edge technologically and substantively if we are to live up to our "cutting edge" reputation as an innovator in computer-mediated instruction.

Clearly, these new facilities require a great deal of financial support, but there is no single existing pool of funds or revenue stream in the University's current accounts to sustain these initiatives. Up to this point, funds for computing machines or telephony have been used to support these new initiatives, or the odd remnants of academic budgets at year's end have been channeled toward these projects. This sort of "one-time money" investment regime, however, is inadequate. A permanent stable source of funding is needed, and a user-based technology fee is needed to provide these monies. Ironically, this system is already in place for faculty and staff. At this time, telephony and inbound modem access are already operating on a "cost-recovery basis," with the result that faculty who are leading the process of pedagogical innovation are forced to pay monthly fees in order to access the campus network. Thus, we are already using the metaphors of distributed costing and user-based cost recovery for the faculty and staff, and it also makes sense to charge the students as the system's main users.

Virginia Tech must systematically and regularly budget monies to construct, maintain, and then modernize its infostructures--in both the virtual domain of courseware, digital archives, and on-line services and the material informatic infrastructure of cables, switches and servers--to remain a first-tier research and teaching university. New funds from Richmond are quite unlikely, industry sources will not be sufficient, and capital campaign monies usually are spent on other equally vital needs, but money for costs such as these usually does appear. Support staff, however, are much harder to obtain, and a technology fee works well here. For example, a full-time professional support staff position might cost $30,000 a year in salary. If the University imposed a $60.00 a semester technology fee, or the equivalent cost of a typical new science textbook, per capita, then it could raise $3 million a year in the Fall and Spring semesters. This could pay for 100 new staff workers who could then be allocated across the University's 80 departments. At this time in its history, the University must consider moving toward a technology fee, just as it has in the past accepted the imposition of student activity fees, science lab fees, or health service fees to pay new costs in providing higher education.

This resolution does not come out of nowhere, and it does not need extensive study. Many other universities--ranging from Indiana University, Wake Forest University, University of Texas to University of Minnesota-Crookston, Cornell University, University of North Carolina--are already imposing such fees after recognizing this mechanism as the only alternative that they could use in the current higher education climate.

Several different strategies could be used to levy technology fees. The simplest alternative would be to ask all students to pay a fixed sum each academic term regardless of academic load. A second option would be to make fees load-sensitive, and charge a percentage figure on the number of coursework house being taken. A third possibility would be to charge a fixed premium attached to each course, which would vary from nothing to something considerable, as a function of its net-centeredness or technology-intensitivity. A fourth approach would be to charge different levels of technology fees for "on campus" students versus those of "extended campus" learners who might receive virtually all of their instruction on-line. Finally, it would probably provide efficient to enact a mix of all these strategies could be used to generate a fixed, predictable base revenue stream for all technology needs as well as more flexible, on demand revenue spikes earmarked for particular high-cost courses or degree programs.

In any event, a definite budgetary plan needs to be formulated in order to determine how these monies will be spent. These plans ought to involve administrative and faculty input as well as participation from representatives on the undergraduate and graduate student governance associations. Students are well-aware of the importance of technology in education and work, and they need to contribute to any plan that will levy new fees on them in order to get better computer access and network connectivity to them.

Implementing this recommendation requires fast action, and we support taking immediate decisive action. Once in place, a technology fee should lead to many new administrative and academic benefits. These might include:

1) Better Planning: a university-wide technology fee would allow Information Systems, CNS, Educational Technologies, and the Library along with the central administration to plan much more rationally for network expansion and improvements. The budget crunch, which has constrained the hiring of adequate support staff, slowed the creation of fully on-line administrative and academic services, and retarded the mobilization of broader extended-campus learning communities, could be at least alleviated, if not answered, with a steady stream of predictable income from all students.

2) Institutional Efficiency: university-wide technology fees would allow a net set of accounts to be dedicated to on-line learning initiatives. Monies that now are devoted to pay for technology could be spent more narrowly to buy new computer equipment, and technology fees could go into supporting on-line and infrastructural needs.

3) Infrastructure Planning: university-wide technology fees would let planners, designers, and web masters across the University plan rationally for an on-going program for creating the university's varied virtual infostructure as well as to anticipate new material infrastructure needs by providing more staff.

4) Program Development: university-wide technology fees would create new pools of money for sustained program development. Those academic and administrative units that have held back from going on-line then could do so with the secure expectation of receiving sustained funding, while leading departments and individuals might be able to better sustain their development work, shifting from a largely incidental or even voluntary arrangement to one of stabilized funding. New staff would help realize this task.

5) New Strategic Initiatives: university-wide technology fees would create the financial reserves to launch a new on-line instructional initiative using internally generated funds. Instead of being dependent upon Richmond, the private sector, or budgetary remainders elsewhere in the university, technology fees would get the users of on-line services to support their own service both on campus or out in the networks carrying the extended campus to their many users.

This brief list of possible outcomes can outline only a few of the anticipated benefits of a technology fee. Certainly, new fees will generate resistance, but the university must do this to remain competitive. Moreover, like the common fees for lab or athletic equipment use, the technology fee needn't be very large in order to bring the benefits noted above. There are no other likely sources of new funds, and this fee will add immense value to the education process just as other fees have in the past. No one wishes to pay higher fees, but no one also wants to be left behind in the use of advanced technologies. Learning to work, learn, and interact on-line is becoming an integral part of becoming fully educated. Computer network access, high quality on-line services, and extensive digital archives are as essential in learning today as the most up-to-date textbooks and fine library faculties. The University would be remiss if it did not require this fee to pay for the best possible mix of professional staff to support Virginia Tech's use of the latest approaches, and students, the families, employers, and society at large will complain if our graduates do not have this experience. Technology fees in the current economic and political environment appear to be the only sustainable option to pay for these services, so we believe the University must go forward with this alternative.