Achieving Information-Based Productivity Gains
For more than a generation, libraries have been notably successful in improving the productivity of their own operations with digital technology. It is inconceivable that existing staffing levels could handle today's circulation workload if we were using McBee punch cards or-worse yet-typewriter-written circulation cards kept in book pockets and marked with date stamps attached to the tops of pencils. While libraries have an admirable record of deploying information technology to increase the productivity of their own operations, and while there is more of this to be done, the most important productivity gains in the future will lie elsewhere. The emergence of massive amounts of textual, numeric, spatial, and image information in digital formats, and the delivery of that information through networks, is decisively shifting the question to one of teacher and reader productivity.
What does the Scully Project tell us about library, teacher, and reader productivity? To answer that question, I will comment first on a set of operational issues that includes the use of library staff and Teaching Fellows to select and prepare images for class use; the preservation of the images over time; and the use of space. I will assess the Scully Project both as it was actually deployed, with little impact on the conduct of classroom instruction, and as one might imagine it being deployed, as the primary source of images in the classroom. The operations I will
describe are more or less under the university's administrative control, and savings achieved in any of them can at least theoretically be pushed to the bottom line or redirected elsewhere. I will also comment on student productivity. This is a much more problematic topic because we can barely imagine controlling or redirecting for productivity purposes any gains readers might achieve.
Productivity Gains Subject to Administrative Control
The comparative costs of selecting images and preparing them for instructional use in both the photographic and digital environments are set out in the four tables that follow. These tables are built from a cost model of more than three dozen facts, estimates, and assumptions about Professor Scully's course and the library support it requires. The appendix presents the model, with some information obscured to protect confidentiality. I do not explain the details of the cost model here but focus instead on what it tells us. One cautionary word is in order. The cost model generates the numbers given in the tables (rounded to the nearest dollar, producing minor summing errors), but these numbers are probably meaningful only to the nearest $500. In the discussion that follows, I round the numbers accordingly.
Table 4.1 compares the cost of library support for Professor Scully's course in its former dependence on photos exhibited in the study gallery and in its present dependence on digital images delivered in a Web site.
Before the Scully Project, the university incurred about $7,000 in academic support costs for Professor Scully's course in the year it was taught. These costs over a six-year period, during which the course would be taught three times, are estimated at $22,000. As deployed in the fall of 1996, Web-site support for Professor Scully's course cost an estimated $21,000, or $34,000 over a six-year period. The result is a $12,500 balance arguing against digital provision of images in Professor Scully's course, or a 36% productivity loss in the use of university resources. However, a longer amortization period clearly works in favor of digital provision. The cost model suggests that the break-even point on the productive use of university resources comes in about 16 rather than 6 years. This gradual improvement happens for the following reasons:
• The higher absolute cost of the digital images results from one-time staff and vendor cost of converting analog images to digital format. While there is some incremental growth in these costs over six years, staff costs for providing analog images grows linearly. The long-term structure of these costs favors digital provision.
• The cost of the "real" space of bricks and mortar needed to house the photo collection is substantial and grows every year. Similarly, the operation and maintenance of physical space carries the relative high increases of costs for staff and energy. By contrast, the "virtual" space of digital media is relatively inexpensive to begin with, and its unit cost is falling rapidly. Again, the longterm structure of costs favors digital provision.
Along with the amortization period, the number of images digitized is another major variable that can be used to lower the total cost of digital provision and so move toward a productive use of resources. For years, it has been possible to mount no more than 400 photos in the study gallery. As Table 4.2 shows, if the Scully Web site had contained 400 digital images rather than 1,250 images, conversion costs
(italicized to isolate the changes from Table 4.1) would drop significantly, and the six-year cost of digital provision ($20,500) would be just under the cost of analog provision ($22,000). There is a 6% productivity gain over six years favoring digital provision.
The choice between 400 and 1,250 images has a dramatic impact on costs and productivity. That being so, one must ask what motivates the choice and what impact it has on student learning. Further consideration of this "what if" case is best deferred to the discussion of student productivity.
Speculation about another "what if" case is worthwhile. Professor Scully and his Teaching Fellows made no use of the Web site in the lecture hall or discussion sessions. What if they had been able to depend on the Web site instead of traditional slides for their face-to-face teaching? There is of course a warm debate on whether digital images can match film images in quality or ease of classroom use. The question posed here speculatively assumes no technological reason to favor either analog or digital media and focuses solely on what happens to costs when classroom teaching is factored in.
Two changes are identified (in italics) in Table 4.3. They are (I) the cost savings when Teaching Fellows no longer need to assemble slides for the three classroom discussion sessions that each conducts during the term and (2) the added cost of equipping a classroom for digital instruction.
This "what if" modeling of the Scully Project shows an $11,000 negative balance, or a 34% loss in productivity. While digital provision in this scenario is not productive within six years, the significant comparison is with the 36% loss in productivity without using digital images in the classroom (Table 4.1). The conclusion is that substituting digital technology for the labor of selecting slides is itself productive and moves the overall results of digital provision modestly toward a productive use of university resources. This conclusion is strongly reinforced if one considers a variant "what if" condition in which the Teaching Fellows teach not just 3 of these discussion sessions in a classroom but all 14 of them, and in which each Fellow selects his or her own slides instead of depending in considerable measure on slides selected by the head Teaching Fellow. This scenario is modeled in Table 4.4. As a comparison of Tables 4.3 and 4.4 indicates, the weekly cost of selecting slides in this new scenario increases 12-fold, while the use of the electronic classroom increases fivefold. That the classroom costs are absolutely the lower number to begin with also helps drive this scenario to the highly favorable result of a 44% increase in productivity.
It is important to emphasize that these scenarios all assume that funds for Teaching Fellows are fungible in the same way that the library's operating and capital budgets are assumed to be fungible. Faculty and graduate students are most unlikely to make that assumption. Graduate education is one of the core products of a research university. The funds that support it will not be traded about in the way one imagines trades between the operating and capital funds being made for a unit, like the library, that supports education but does not constitute its core product.
Productivity Gains Subject to Reader Control
Having accounted for the costs and potential productivity gains that are substantially under the university's administrative control, I will look briefly at potential productivity gains that lie beyond such control-the productivity of readers. In doing this we must consider the value of the qualitative differences between film and digital technologies for supporting Professor Scully's course. The availability of the images throughout the semester at all times of day and night, rather than just before exams, and the large increase in the number of images available for study constitute improvements in quality that make any discussion of increased productivity difficult-but interesting and important as well.
Students were enthusiastic about the convenience of the Web site. They could examine the images more closely, without competing for limited viewing space, at any time they wished. Without question this availability made their study time more efficient and possibly-though the evidence is inconclusive-more effective.
Let us focus first on the possibility that, as one of the Teaching Fellows observed, students learned more easily but did not learn more. Let us imagine, arbitrarily, that on average students were able to spend two hours less on memory training over the course of the semester because of easy and effective access to digital images. What is the value of this productivity gain for each of Professor Scully's 500 students? It would probably be possible to develop a dollar value for it, related to the direct cost and the short-term opportunity cost of attending Yale. Otherwise, there is no obvious way to answer the question, because each student will appropriately treat the time as a trivial consideration and use it with no regard for the resources needed to provide it. Whether the time is used for having coffee with friends, for sleeping, for volunteer community work, for additional study and a better term paper, or in some other way, the student alone will decide about the productive use of this time. And because there is no administrative means to cumulate the time saved or bring the student's increased productivity to bear on the creation of the information systems that enable the increase, there is no way to use the values created for the student in the calculation of how productive it was to spend library resources on creating the Scully Project.
The possibility that students would use the time they gain to prepare better for tests or to write a better paper raises the issue of quality improvements. How are we to think about the possibility that the teaching and learning that libraries support with digital information might become not only more efficient and productive, but also just better? What are the measures of better, and how were better educational results actually achieved? Was it, for instance, better to have 1,250 images for study rather than 400? The head Teaching Fellow answered with an unequivocal yes, affirming that she saw richer, more thoughtful comparisons
among objects being made in student papers. But some student responses suggested they wanted to have on the Web site only those images they were directly responsible for memorizing-many fewer than 1,250. Do more images create new burdens or new opportunities for learning? Which objectives and what standards should guide decisions about enhancing instructional support? In the absence of some economically viable way to support additional costs, how does one decide on quality enhancements?
Such questions about quality traditionally mark the boundary of productivity studies. Considerations of quality drive us to acknowledge that, for education, we generally do not have the two essential features needed to measure productivity: clear measures of outputs and a well-understood production technology that allows one to convert inputs into outputs. In such an environment, we have generally avoided talking about productivity for fear that doing so would distort goals-as when competency-based evaluation produces students who only take tests well. Moreover, the rhetoric of productivity can undermine socially rather than empirically validated beliefs among students, parents, and the public about how higher education achieves its purposes. All institutions of higher education depend fundamentally on the maintenance of such socially validated beliefs.
So I end this account of the Scully Project by observing that what we actually did was not productive, but could be made so by extending the amortization period for the project or by reducing the number of images provided to students. It also appears that the project made study much more convenient for students and may well have enhanced their learning. Such quality improvement, even without measurable productivity gain, is one of the fundamental objectives of the library.
These are conditionally positive findings about the economic productivity and educational value of a shift from photographs to digital images to support instruction in the history of art. Such findings should be tested in other courses and, if confirmed, should guide further investment in digital imaging. The soft finding that the use of digital images in the classroom may be productive is heartening, given that digital images may support improvements in the quality of teaching by simplifying the probing of image details and by enabling much more spontaneity in classroom instruction.
All of my arguments about the Scully Project posit that new investment in digital technology would be supported by reduced spending elsewhere. However, such reductions would be difficult, forcing us to regard capital and operating budgets-especially the funds that support both "real" and "virtual" space-as fungible. Other possible cost shifts involve even more fundamental difficulties. It is, for instance, a degree requirement at Yale that graduate students in the History of Art participate in undergraduate instruction. Teaching discussion sections in Professor Scully's course are often the first opportunity graduate students take for meeting this academic requirement. For this reason and others, none of the shifts imagined
in the scenarios described above would be easily achieved, and some would challenge us to revisit strongly embedded administrative practices and academic values. Funds rarely flow across such organizational boundaries. Failing to make at least some of these shifts would, however, imperil our ability to improve the quality and productivity of higher education.