How APUS is Breaking the Iron Triangle of Access, Quality and Cost

By: Dr. Vernon Smith, Provost

In June, I attended the annual WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies (WCET) Summit in Salt Lake City. Thought leaders and luminaries in both higher education and technology gathered to share ideas and reflect upon the future, especially in regard to how to develop a content strategy to sustain innovation in teaching and learning while aligning human capital and technology. I participated in a related panel, Do you fail at scale or do you pilot to tell? with Stacey VanderHeiden Guney from Aims Community College, Kara Monroe from Ivy Tech Community College, and Paul Thayer from Colorado State University, which was facilitated by Luke Dowden from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

I shared with the attendees a three-part framework for innovation, something I refer to as “Breaking the Iron Triangle.” In higher education, and elsewhere, oftentimes we limit what we believe is possible due to the constraints inherent in the system itself. For higher education, these are access, quality and cost.   Access means opening doors to higher education that would not have been otherwise possible. The founding mission of our own American Military University and, later, American Public University, was just that: to offer flexible online courses to active-duty military, public servants and other working professionals that dramatically eased access to higher education.

The second component is quality. Investing in faculty experts, technologies to improve the student experience, and holding curriculum and assessments to high standards of substance and rigor all contribute to what we do at APUS to ensure quality for our students. Lastly, cost is the third corner of the Iron Triangle. APUS understands the high cost of higher education and has purposely held down expenses for students. For example, our book grant provides undergraduates with all course materials at no cost. Such costs can be substantial and research has shown that over 60% of college students don’t have the required textbooks by the first week of class—a critical time-period of learning for student success.

When considering the Iron Triangle, you can only realistically affect two of the three components. If you want access and lower cost, the traditional thinking is that you can’t have quality. If you concentrate on quality, alternatively, you can’t really have open access and lower cost. However, we can break the Iron Triangle. APUS’s innovative approach suggests that if one can address at least two of the three components, it is worth the corresponding investment of time and effort. And, if a resolution addresses all three, then there is true innovation.

Our innovative faculty are breaking the Iron Triangle by aggressively pursuing an Open Educational Resources (OER) strategy with textbooks and course materials. The quality of OER materials has significantly increased over time, with many OER textbooks having more peer review, higher scrutiny, and up-to-date content than many publisher-based texts. Additionally, new technologies allow faculty members to carefully curate, select and replace publisher-based textbooks with open materials that are more stable, and put the faculty member vs. publisher in the driver’s seat for selecting and incorporating those materials into the classroom experience. Moreover, something very special results. The faculty member’s engagement with the materials in a careful and meaningful way before the course even starts increases quality in the classroom.

A growing body of evidence shows that OER enhance student learning outcomes. Finally, OER cost savings allow APUS to reinvest in academic quality and access. In short, the use of OER is really a student success issue. Some of our faculty leaders like Dr. Rick Hines in history, Dr. Marie Gould Harper in business management and Dr. Kate Brannum in security and global studies, among many others, are leading the way on our OER sprint, an intense process that is currently anticipated to convert over 150 courses to OER versions by the end of the year, with a large batch rolling out for July class-starts.

The response to our OER model from summit attendees was overwhelmingly positive in regard to the speed and scale at which APUS has been able to advance this important innovation. But we will not be content to stop there, and will continue to seek other creative ways to break the Iron Triangle moving forward.

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