Iron Triangles Are Great — Everyone Should Have One
I read Power and Gould-Morven’s paper “Head of Gold, Feet of Clay: The Online Learning Paradox” on the ride in this morning. In it, they summarize John Daniel’s Iron Triangle of education, which presents a trade-off between access, quality, and cost, then replace it with one of their own where the corners are cost-effectiveness, quality, and accessibility. That isn’t a big deal by itself, but it allows them to place stakeholders at the triangle’s corners: administrators seek to maximize cost-effectiveness, faculty to maximize quality, and students, accessibility.
All of this is warmup to claims that their BOLD (Blended Online Learning Design) instructional design methodology satisfies all three groups at once. I don’t have any way to evaluate that claim (and they only present arguments, not data), but their one-to-one match-up of stakeholders with corners seems forced to me. In my experience, these three groups have more complex priorities:
- Administrators actually do seek to minimize cost, rather than maximize cost-effectiveness. Partly, this is because they have no way to measure the latter, but another reason is that people don’t really care about how much students learn at university; they care about GPA × the school’s reputation.
- Faculty care about the quality of their research, as judged by their peers. Most care much less about the quality of their teaching: for proof, look at how few actually invest time in learning how to teach well. They also care about cost, but for them, the currency is time rather than money, since the former affects them directly, while the latter (mostly) falls on their school.
- Students… Well, that’s a hard one. The good ones care about quality, though that may be a circular definition, since I pretty much define a good student as one who cares about learning . Accessibility? That’s certainly important for free-range students . But I think it’s more useful to think about time cost and financial cost. The former is what matters to students who are fitting their lessons in around the rest of their lives; full-time students have, by definition, decided to devote all their time to studies, so what we see them thinking about secondarily is financial cost.
I therefore think that the triangle in education is financial cost vs. time cost. vs. quality. Administrators care mostly about the first; most university faculty care primarily about the second; and different kinds of students balance the other three in different ways. It isn’t as tidy as Power and Gould-Morven’s breakdown, but it’s a more accurate starting point for discussions about what’s worth doing, what’s likely to succeed, and why those aren’t always the same.
 Given a choice between an apathetic genius or someone working as hard as they can to maintain a C, I’ll take the latter.
 I really don’t like calling these people “non-traditional students”, since almost all learning throughout our lives has always taken place outside a formal classroom. Plus, it allows me to refer to students sitting row on row in a lecture theater as “battery-farmed”, which I like.