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.