Manufacturing: The Key to Sustainable Business Innovation in the U.S.

By Daniel Riley and Jacob Park When President Barack Obama gave his State of the Union Address (1) last month, he made the case that U.S. economic revival is tied to a healthy manufacturing sector. Of course, he is not the first to triumph the importance of manufacturing to the economy. The key question, however, is what type of manufacturing the U.S. should have in the future. The answer, for the economy and for sustainable business innovation, may lie in advanced 3D printing technologies (2) or what some technology analysts refer to as, "additive manufacturing whereby machines based on advances in electronics and laser technology build complex materials from granules of plastics or metal" (3).

While not usually touted as a traditional sustainable technology, additive manufacturing processes can dramatically reduce the amount of waste created in the production of items from furniture to packaging. As compared to traditional manufacturing technologies, 3D printing technologies have relatively small capital requirements. MakerBot Industries (4), for instance, sells 3D kits designed for hobbyists for around $1,000.

According to the UN Environmental Program, the typical car wastes about 10,000 kg of raw materials during production (5). For example much of the bulk of a fender, because of uniform thickness requirements of typical manufacturing processes like welding and molding, is completely unnecessary. To Jim Kor of KOR EcoLogic who wanted to create the most efficient car possible, that unnecessary material increased drag and decreased fuel economy. "If you look at a cross section of a bird bone, you'll see that there is bone only where the bird needs strength," Kor explained. "The bone looks like chaotic webbing. [3D printing] is the only process that can replicate a bird bone." This logic led to the creation of the Urbee, the world’s first 3D printed car (6).

Like stacking bricks to build a house, 3D printing creates objects in layers, from the base up, without the limiting constraints of molding requirements or human error in welding. The result maximizes material usage, ensuring that no material needlessly goes from welder’s torch to junkyard. Even in smaller 3D printing projects, material use efficiency is an automatic consideration. The small scale of production typical of most 3D printing efforts means that, unlike with large-run manufacturing the cost of wasted material does not have to be ameliorated through economies of scale.

Shapeways, a company that allows customers to design custom products like furniture and household objects that might be hard to replace otherwise, actively encourages customers to save money by using less material (7). By prompting their customers to actively think about the materials that go into the production of their products, 3D-printing businesses like Shapeways foster consumer awareness of cost and material wastes involved production. This transparency is increasingly relevant as consumers demand that products be not only cost competitive (obviously an important factor in our current economic times) but also designed and produced with environmental sustainability in mind (8).

In addition, the U.S. is still dominated by the business model of making as many products as cheaply as possible, which often means outsourcing the actual manufacturing.A truly innovative feature of the additive manufacturing model is that it brings the possibility of scale to the emerging "hyperlocal" trend that can be seen from Northern California to Vermont. There are many emerging sustainable business enterprises that attempt to build on the growing consumer interest in all things local (e.g. food, energy, economic development, etc) and additive manufacturing provides a market template from which to scale a local business model to greater competitive advantage.

Case in point: what if a small community-oriented bookstore like Northshire Bookstore in Manchester, Vermont, had a machine that allowed consumers to print books that were in the Public Domain (i.e. do not have copyright protection)? All you would have to do is search and find the book of your choice and, if it were in the Public Domain, order the number of copies you want at a fraction of the cost of going through traditional book retailers. Through what Northshire Bookstore refers to as "print on demand technology"(10), this small but innovative business can now more effectively compete with large e-retailers like and chain book retailers like Barnes & Noble.

The argument that the future of the US economy lies in sustainable business has been made before, and additive manufacturing cannot substitute for well-designed tax and other policy incentives for green energy technologies. Rather, there is a strong case for building a well-articulated U.S. additive manufacturing strategy to complement current green technology research and development efforts, such as solar and wind energy. This could have a major impact on the entire American business system By using 3D printing technologies to promote local production and advances in material sustainability, U.S. manufacturing has a real opportunity to be reborn as a hub of 21st century sustainable business innovation (11).

As Cory Doctorow, author of Makers, suggests in an influential 2010 Wired magazine article (12): "The days of companies with names like ‘General Electric’ and ‘General Mills’ and ‘General Motors’ are over. The money on the table is like krill: a billion little entrepreneurial opportunities that can be discovered and exploited by smart, creative people."


(1) President Barack Obama State of the Union Address (January 24, 2012)

(2) "The Fundamentals of 3D Printing," The Future of Open Fabrication, n.d.,

(3) March. P. (2011) "Production Processes: A Lightbulb Moment", Financial Times, December 29, p. 5.


(5)  "Waste and car production - Maps and Graphics at UNEP/GRID-Arendal," Maps & Graphics, n.d.,

(6) "URBEE car - 3D Printed Body," Resources: Case Studies, n.d.,

(7) "Shapeways | creating hollow objects," Creating Hollow Objects, n.d.,

(8) OgilvyEarth research is one important source

(9) Alexa Clay and Jon Carnfield, "5 Big Ideas for a New Economy", Co.Exist Blog


(11) 3-D printer is featured in Fortune Magazine’s "Brave New Work: The Office of Tomorrow" photo essay (pg. 49-55) in its January 16, 2012 "The Future Issue"


Contributor Biographies

Daniel Riley (email: is a senior studying Environmental Management at Green Mountain College. After graduation he plans to start a business using 3D printing as a way to solve current environmental issues of resource use and material efficiency.

Jacob Park (, Associate Professor of Business Strategy and Sustainability at Green Mountain College, specializes in the business of social and environmental innovation and entrepreneurship in emerging economies.

Traffic Movement

By Steve Jones and Sally Rodgers Traffic Movement is an imagined environment which transforms a recognizable street scene into a sonorous tone-poem. In this future soundscape, intelligent traffic lights speak their minds, the hum notes and partials of Electric Vehicles (EVs) ascend and descend, birds can be heard in the distant trees and footsteps echo on the city streets.

As governments worldwide begin to deal with environmental pressures by providing strategic economic stimulus to green energy start up programs, EVs are finally becoming a viable solution to many environmental concerns, for example air pollution. Loans and grants are available for infrastructure and the development of pollutant free fuel cells such as the energy dense lithium-ion battery. As the technology becomes more accessible, electric and hybrid-electric cars and scooters will begin to replace traditional combustion powered vehicles.

But there are still problems to address.

Since EVs are not powered by combustion, they produce almost no engine noise. There is growing concern that this absence of sound poses a risk to pedestrians and other road users. Because human beings are reliant on sound to confirm an action is taking place, EVs present very real safety issues for children, the elderly, the blind and the partially sighted. Early scientific research has concluded that a conventional vehicle can be heard at over 30 feet away, while an EV can only be identified at a distance of 7 feet (1). In response, governments are considering introducing legislation to regulate a minimum sound emission (2). Likewise, manufacturers are looking for solutions ahead of legislation to forestall the negative impact of product liability litigation and help ensure positive PR (3).

So what can be done and what might the future sound like?

It would be retrogressive to simply mimic the sound of a combustion engine, so perhaps we might look to the world of art for inspiration. Karlheinz Stockhausen observed that rhythmic pulses from an impulse generator would transform into a tone when their speed reached around 600 bpm. This same tone would rise in pitch as the speed increased: the rhythm now perceived as musical timbre. If we imagine this principle as adapted to function in conjunction with the acceleration and deceleration of an EV via onboard sound synthesis software, we might begin to hear the future of traffic noise.

Sound designers Steve Jones and Sally Rodgers are currently developing real-time software to make this concept a reality.

(1) "Hybrid Cars are Harder to Hear." University of California, Riverside Newsroom, April 28, 2008. Accessed November 7, 2011.

(2) "President Signs Pedestrian Safety Act." National Federation for the Blind. January 5, 2011. Accessed November 7, 2011.

(3) "Adding Sounds to the Silence of the Electric Car." PRI’s The World. June 27, 2011. Accessed November 7, 2011.

Contributors' Biographies

Steve Jones has an MSc in Sound Design from the University of Edinburgh and Sally Rodgers has an M.Litt from the University of St. Andrews, where she continues to conduct doctoral research into the historical impact of technology on modern poetics. Their enduring collaboration includes many licensed works and recordings, under the artist name A Man Called Adam, which are popular with electronic music fans around the world.

As sound designers they have a reputation for delivering high quality compositions and gallery-enabling sound for a diverse range of clients including The British Museum, Johnson Banks, The Burns Group, Clay Interactive and The BME. Recent commissions include a series of musical identifications for the National Science Museum and the sound for short films from award-winning biomimetic architects Tonkin and Liu. Their A/V work ‘Maud,’ based on Tennyson’s monodrama, will be exhibited this December as part of the Engine Room Festival celebrating the work of Cornelius Cardew at Morley College, London.

In performance they are currently experimenting with a concept using installation technology, which they loosely describe as ‘talking with spaces,’ in which they improvise with the sounds of the space they are in to generate a new sound. From recitation to the hidden sounds of obsolete technologies, they use real-time processing to create a unique audible discourse.

For more information about their work go to:

Building Businesses through Cleaner Cooking Fuels in Ghana

by Edward Burgess, Research Editor for The Sustainability Review For this interview, we spoke with Dr. Mark Henderson, Director of the Global Resolve project at Arizona State University. We discussed some of his latest research efforts in Ghana, Africa where he and his colleagues are working with local villages to design technologies and businesses that could improve the health and well-being of the local people and their environment.

The Sustainability Review: Dr. Henderson, you direct the Global Resolve program at Arizona State University. Can you tell us about it?

Dr. Mark Henderson: The purpose of Global Resolve is to help start sustainable economic development projects in the developing world. The way our process works is that we first visit communities in the developing world to conduct interviews and really immerse ourselves there. We want to find out what the community needs and help solve the actual problems they face, usually through the development of some technology. Ultimately, we also want to convert that technology into a business venture for the community. The hope is that the community could benefit from these ventures in several ways. First, they could get employment. Second, it could solve a problem they face. Third, they could sell the products and get income. And finally, they could be a role model for other communities and spread the business.

TSR: What projects are you currently working on?smoky cooking fuel pull-quote

MH: The two latest examples we have are the "gel fuel" and the "twig light" projects. I’ll talk about gel fuel first. In a nutshell, this idea grew out of a UN development project to use ethanol as a smokeless cooking fuel and reduce the incidence of respiratory disease by replacing wood and charcoal. The main problem with liquid ethanol is that if it spills it can spread a fire throughout the whole house. In order to make it safer and a better product, we gel it—or make it like a jelly. Have you heard of Sterno?

TSR: You mean the little cans for keeping food warm?

MH: Yes it’s similar to those but using ethanol instead of methanol. Part of the reason we want to provide a new fuel source is that smoky cooking fuel is a leading cause of death among children worldwide. If we can remove the smoke from the fuel then hopefully we can save some lives. And perhaps we can also create some businesses around producing the fuel. Right now, many villages create charcoal fuel to sell by pruning branches from trees and smoldering them. But it’s very smoky and it’s also deforesting the jungle, so it’s not a sustainable solution.

The gel fuel actually is a sustainable solution if we can use biomass that can be converted to ethanol. Corn is one example that is used in the U.S., but you can also use sugarcane and many other plants. And if we can make the process of converting cellulose more affordable then we can use any cellulosic plant—maybe grass or bamboo, which grows very fast, like a weed. Using cellulose removes the competition between food and fuel.

TSR: So the technology is not quite there yet for cellulosic ethanol?

MH: You can do it, but it’s expensive because of the special enzymes needed. We’ve just concentrated on using starchy and sugary biomass like sugarcane or corn.

TSR: In terms of sustainable harvesting, are there implications for land use if this takes off?

MH: Sure, those are definitely issues we need to consider. And there are also issues to consider for social sustainability, too. If you start creating this gel fuel, you might create unintended consequences that disturb the cultural activities in the community, and we want to avoid that. For example, women often spend several hours a day gathering wood. If we try to implement gel fuel, we have now taken that social time away from the women. That time spent gathering wood is like their "coffee klatch." Interfering with this social time would be an unintended consequence of the technology and may be a bad thing.

TSR: Are there any other unintended problems with the gel fuel technology?

MH: Another problem is that if you remove smoke from houses, the incidence of malaria increases. The smoke drives away the mosquitoes that transmit the disease and they come back if you take it away. So how do we balance this? Just think—in the U.S., how do we drive away mosquitoes from your patio?

TSR: (laughing) Well, we build a whole screen around it!

MH: Yes we do! But what else might we do?

TSR: Well, maybe we could use one of those scented candles.

MH: Right, maybe we could add something like Citronella in the gel fuel. Right now, we’re not sure if that would be toxic since the fuel is used for cooking. I always assumed it was safe, but those are things we need to find out when we think about how to minimize the disruption in the community.efficient stove pull-quote

In addition to simply producing the fuel, we have to make sure it’s an affordable solution. Nobody is going to buy it if it’s more expensive than what they already have. Right now, harvesting wood is free, which is a hard price to beat. So instead we want to see if the village could actually sell the gel fuel to the nearest larger city where people have to pay for wood and charcoal. We’re trying to arrive at economic parity with those other fuels. There is a stove being built in South Africa that is about 15% efficient, but that wasn’t quite good enough, and the gel fuel was too expensive. To help bring the price of the fuel down, we designed and built a stove that’s more than twice as efficient as the existing South African stoves. Brad Rogers, another professor in Global Resolve was in charge of this. He’s the one who really understands the thermodynamics of the gel fuel process.

TSR: Do you have any trips planned for the near future?

MH: We’re going to the village of Domeabra in Ghana in a few weeks with the new stove design. Our plan is to find out if we can produce the stoves there. We’re also going to try to ratchet up the production of gel fuel in the village and hopefully help them start a business. We are bringing a great team including myself Brad, John Takamura in design and Dan O’Neill in technological entrepreneurship and eight students and two teaching assistants. We also have five MBA students from Thunderbird School of Global Management who are staying longer to help develop a business plan.

TSR: So are they connecting the villagers with the market in the city?

MH: Yes, eventually. Right now, we’re supplying fuel to a school that we’ve partnered with in Kumasi, Ghana. The School Director works with other schools in the area, so if we can start with her, I think the village could start using the schools to create a larger business that would be successful.

TSR: How did you get started on this type of research?

MH: Well the first step was deciding to do it. I’m an engineering faculty, and so is Brad, and we had another faculty member in Global Studies (David Jacobson) and another in Business (Rajiv Sinha). We all had coffee at Starbucks one day in 2005 and asked ourselves how we could match our interests together.  We soon realized we’d all been having similar ideas about helping sustainable development in the "base of the pyramid" countries. Once we realized we’d been thinking the same thing, we began to build upon that to create a program that would not only help the countries but could also bring in other faculty and students.

TSR: Were there any breakthroughs in technology that helped Global Resolve projects?

MH: Yes—a year ago a grad student at our Polytech campus developed the concept for the "twig light" that I mentioned earlier. It’s a device that generates electricity from heat without a battery. You don’t need the sun either. All you need is heat. In many places, a household might be cooking with charcoal as the sun is going down, and there’s a need for a light source. With the twig light, all you need to do is put a few hot coals in the top, put the bottom in water as a cooling source and in the middle there is a "thermoelectric generator." It produces enough voltage to power LED lights or a cell phone. This is different from solar devices, which can be quite expensive and which have a battery that wears out. And of course, you can’t recharge a solar device at night.

TSR: What’s the reception to having visitors? Is there any negative reaction along the lines of: "Who are these Americans that think they know all the answers to our problems?"

MH: Well, the truth is that we honestly don’t know the answers to their problems. Only they know what they need, so they help us come up with solutions, and we offer what we can by trying to help out. We enter the community as learners. It’s very important to make that distinction because we don’t have the answers, and they truly are the experts in their lives and needs.

One exercise we’ve used in the past to help convey this notion is Rural Village Appraisal, which includes a collaboration exercise to have the community help us draw a map of their village. We might use charcoal or colored paper or sometimes just twigs and leaves to have them show us where the chief’s house is, where the toilets are, the church or mosques, the water sources, the rivers, roads, etc. Through this exercise they show us something about themselves and their needs. We show that we’re there to learn, and hopefully we can become trusted partners. That’s the key—to have trust on both sides. But in general the community members are welcoming and excited about the possibilities of improving their lives.

TSR: What are the biggest challenges the projects face now?

MH: Right now, our big challenge is starting the businesses. The way people in Ghana do business is not necessarily the way we do it. Even after testing out the solutions, we still have to really see how business practices work and see if there is a way to help. Often, it can be very difficult for someone in Ghana to start a business. If someone there is living on a dollar a day, on the brink of starvation, they don’t have time to spend 24/7 starting a new business. We have to help the communities understand how to create a business at a low risk. There are ways to do that: one option is micro-finance through groups like Grameen Bank.

Also, we can’t just go and then come back and ignore the project. There has to be continued partnership with the community. We have set up a partnership with the Center for Energy the Environment and Sustainable Development (CEESD) in Ghana. It’s run by two faculty members at Kumasi Polytechnic University who did graduate fellowships with Global Resolve. It’s a great partnership because we need local partners for this to work and they can receive some funding from Global Resolve.

TSR: Where do you think this might be in five to ten years?

MH: There are so many problems in the developing world. In the past, there has been over a trillion dollars put forth to solve these problems, mostly through government aid and philanthropy. But what you often find is that this results in a lot of abandoned technology. Maybe a tractor was donated, but it stopped working, and there was no plan or funding set aside for maintenance. People have no choice but to just leave it to rust in the jungle. It could be a result of how the aid is administered. Sometimes the way aid filters down through the governments to the people doesn’t address what people need. It may never actually "trickle down" if there is corruption.

There are a few books I use to illustrate the problem to students. One is Jeffrey Sachs’ The End of Poverty, which suggests a top-down aid approach. Another is Creating a World Without Poverty by Mohammed Yunus, the founder of Grameen Bank. He supports a more bottom-up approach through micro-loans. There is also William Easterly’s White Man’s Burden, which advocates for more village-level interaction, which is primarily what we try to follow. It’s slower because you’re dealing with one community at a time, but if it’s successful, the solutions should propagate out and spread. Additionally, we’re more certain the aid gets to the people who need it. And if we’re smart, we can sit back and listen to the community's needs directly, not force our solutions onto someone else. If we get this gel fuel business off and running, we hope there would be other gel fuel businesses popping up around it.

TSR: How has your thinking about sustainability problems shifted through the course of this research?

MH: For a long time, I thought sustainability meant only environmental sustainability. But now we talk about other aspects like cultural and social sustainability. And economic sustainability—it can’t be a flash in the pan that has big success and then dies. It has to grow rationally and reasonably over a period time. We also want to have sustainability in other areas like education—giving people the opportunity to educate themselves about the business, the technology, the supply chain and so on.

TSR: So you’re really talking about building capacity here.

MH: That’s right—we’re trying to build capacity in the villages. And sometimes building capacity means doing something like providing clean water. The community won’t be able to produce gel fuel, for example, if they are primarily worried about their health. To help bring up the capacity of the village we just had donations from Desert Cross Lutheran Church in Tempe provide about 700 water filters and by holding a benefit concert to collect funds to bring electricity to the village. Sometimes, you have to provide some basic needs before people can start to think about building a business.

TSR: Are there any important skills that are helpful this type of work?

MH: We love diversity. We can’t do this with just engineering or business or sustainability students. We need English majors, film and video, nursing, global health, you name it! Anthropology is especially important since we do a lot of ethnographic work. There are no prerequisites.

TSR: Are there any memorable stories to share from one of your trips to Ghana?

MH: Probably the most memorable time was the first trip I took to Ghana. I went by myself to a small village of 500, called Fawomanye. It was somewhat intimidating since it was my first visit to Africa. When I got there, the villagers held a meeting under the large fig tree near the chief’s house.  When I talked to the chief, it was actually through a "linguist" who then communicated to the chief. I started simply by saying, "I am here from Arizona State and Global Resolve." I told the village that I was there to understand their problems and hopefully provide solutions. They said, "We need two things: clean water and lights at night. We don’t want to have to go to bed when the sun goes down. We want a social life like the rest of the world. And we want our kids to be able to do homework at night." It was an extraordinary experience just being able to connect immediately like that without going through a government or university; we just went straight to the village. That experience helped guide the approach we take now.

Contributor Information:

Mark Henderson is a professor of Engineering at Arizona State University at the Polytechnic campus. He founded the ASU Global Engineering Design Team and also is co-founder of GlobalResolve ( His research has led to over 60 papers and a textbook in computer-aided design and global engineering.

Electric Utilities Could Determine the Success of the Renewable Energy Industry

The renewable energy industry, through its innovation, enthusiasm, and ingenuity, has the potential to transform the nation’s energy landscape from a carbon dioxide-emitting giant to a climate impact mitigating, efficient, and modern generator of electricity. However, without engaging electric utilities, the industry may have difficulty expanding and thriving in a market dominated by fossil fuel generation. The renewable energy industry should form a mutually beneficial partnership with electric utility companies in order to increase its presence and share within the energy market. The importance of creating and maintaining this collaboration not only impacts the energy industry and market, but the living standards of future generations as well.

Transformative pedagogy: Meeting the needs of the digital generation

By Ben Miller Traditional higher education pedagogy, or the approach to instructional design, must now come to terms with the boundless, yet challenging, opportunities made possible through information technology.  Education faces a transformative period in which characteristics of traditional in-person pedagogy interact with those of internet-based, digital learning.  The necessity of this transformation stems from the widening discrepancy between how students prefer to gather information and the pace at which information can be collected outside of traditional classrooms and the satisfaction endemic to the traditional pedagogical approach (Johnson 2005; Tapscott, 2008).  This discussion provides an overview of key characteristics of the contemporary college student, presents suggestions towards optimizing digital pedagogy design, and introduces a financial justification for shifting from traditional pedagogy to online instructional modeling.

The financial benefit of online instructional modeling is one pathway towards long-term survival in the broader discussion of sustainability at institutions of higher education.  As operational costs continue rising, small solutions, including the selective implementation of Course Management Systems (CMS), can realistically defray the financial burden on colleges and universities.  CMS allows academic units to reach more students while mitigating per-student costs.  CMS employment is a small part of the financial sustainability discussion, but this paper argues towards more integration of these systems and the positive tradeoffs of such an initiative against the contemporary higher education landscape, which is characterized by significant demands on enrollment and the high costs of technological integration (Johnstone, 1998).

Duderstadt (2002) suggests the key difference between older generations of students and "the Digital Generation" developed during childhood as "[contemporary] students have spent their early lives immersed in robust, visual, electronic media" and, from this significant formative influence, "today’s students expect – indeed demand – interaction" (p. 61).  In addition to several unique and somewhat misunderstood cognitive development aspects, this early interactive immersion also influences a shift in communicative, informational, and educational preferences.  "Today’s students like to do several things at once – they ‘multitask’…[and] although their attention span appears short…they appear to learn just as effectively as earlier generations" (Duderstadt, 2002, p. 61).  These common contemporary characteristics indicate that students are capable of and accustomed to absorbing relatively massive and diverse quantities of information – a capability that is a potent asset, rather than an inhibiting deficiency (Tapscott, 2008).  Duderstadt (2002) relates these key qualities to current instructional practice asserting that "[digital generation students] learn by experimentation and participation…they embrace interactivity [and] the right to shape and participate in their learning" (p. 62).  From these assertions, it is apparent that the passive nature of traditional pedagogy is increasingly unsatisfying for people engrossed in active knowledge consumption at a constant, daily rate beginning during childhood.

Smith, Salaway, and Caruso (2009) conducted research on undergraduate technology usage in a comprehensive study for the EDUCAUSE Center for Applied Research (pp. 59-80).  These findings elucidate the complex nature of the preferences of the digital generation, describing them as diverse trends that indicate an overriding preference for integrating more technology in pedagogy.  A summary of critical findings from Smith, et al. (2009), follows:

  • In a sample of 30,262 students, 79 percent prefer gathering information through internet searches, a substantially greater percentage than those reporting alternate preferences (p. 61).
  • Preference for internet-based research increases concurrently with self-described levels of skill in employing technology: according to this report 90.2 percent of "very skilled" students prefer using internet searches, while 75.3 percent of "fairly skilled" populations and 60.9 percent of "not at all skilled" populations prefer using internet searches (p. 63).
  • From 2006 to 2009, the percentage of students reporting experience with CMS increased from 79.7 percent to 91.0 percent (p. 69).
  • From 2006 to 2009, the percentage of students reporting a "positive" or "very positive" experience with CMS decreased from 76.1 percent to 63.4 percent while those reporting a "neutral" experience increased from 19.4 percent to 31.7 percent with "negative" experiences reporting within a consistent range of 4.2 percent to 5.8 percent over the same three year period (p. 69).
  • In a sample of 30,324 students, 64.7 percent of students either "strongly disagree" or "disagree" that they prefer to skip in-person meetings if lecture material is available online (p. 72).

A preference for gathering information using internet-based resources is the most compelling finding of this study and is consistent with social research on the cognitive development and preferences of the digital generation (Duderstadt 2002; Tapscott 2008).  Moreover, even a clear majority of students that do not consider themselves skilled in internet-based research prefer this avenue over alternatives.  CMS clearly dominates the online component of contemporary pedagogy.  Ninety-one percent of students have experience with this technology and approximately ninety-five percent of respondents described a non-negative experience with CMS (Smith, et al., 2009, pp. 63-72).  The interplay between simultaneously reported preferences for technology and in-person instruction illustrates the hybrid nature of transformative pedagogy meeting the needs of the digital generation.  The phenomenon of decreasing satisfaction with CMS may be attributable to inflated satisfaction associated with the initial novelty (circa 2006) of integrating technological components into traditional pedagogy.  Although most respondents in this study prefer technologically-integrated pedagogy, it is important to include both in-person and internet-based elements when designing curricula aligned with the needs and preferences of the digital generation.

Creating the infrastructure, interest, and funds necessary for this fundamental shift in pedagogical design is a cultural transformation not easily realized.  The United States Department of Education (2008) compares this transformation to that faced by the business sector during the late 1990s.  As in higher education, major business firms invested in emerging technologies but did not immediately tap into the power of these technologies.  Over the following decade, businesses reaped the benefits of implementing efficient technological systems by redesigning their operational models to take advantage of their investment (p. 2).  Similarly, institutions of higher education must also adopt this approach.  The immediate challenge is to produce measurable outcomes.  The United States Department of Education (2008) claims "the large public investments in educational technology (exceeding 18 billion dollars in the last decade) have not yet produced in the education sector corresponding increases in productivity as measured by academic achievement" (p. 2).  While it is clear that "measures of productivity" must be considered as indicative of productivity resulting from technological integration, it is equally clear the frontier of possibilities is only now being broached.

The University of Alabama (UA)’s Mathematics Technology Learning Center (MTLC) provides a revealing example of the positive impact that transformative, non-traditional pedagogy can have on reducing administrative costs and facilitating measurable learning outcomes.  Moreover, the digital generation students participating in this academic experiment responded more favorably and learned with greater effectiveness than their counterparts, who were subjected to traditional higher education pedagogy.

Initially, the redesign of instructional pedagogy for five undergraduate mathematics courses at UA entirely eliminated in-person lectures in favor of computer-based learning and assessment.  The CMS, known as MyMathLab, allows students to elect using an online text or video instruction, provides automated grading of assessments (for which students are allowed limitless chances to master material before attempting computer-based quizzes), and monitors student participation automatically (Witkowski, 2008, p. 34).  This individualized and flexible pedagogy substantially increased productivity (as measured by student learning outputs).  Moreover, quantifying productivity gains in mathematics is relatively easy considering the finite nature of relevant subject matter.  Witkowski (2008) describes an increase in student success (achieving a C- average, or higher) of 40.4 percent to 59.8 percent from 2000 to 2007: a direct result of employing the MyMathLab CMS.  This percentage peaked at 73.8 percent in 2006 (p. 35).  Since then, UA re-integrated mandatory in-person lectures to supplement the MyMathLab system and many other departments adopted similar strategies to integrate CMS.

The UA-MTLC story contradicts the perception that institutions of higher education have not yet effectively shifted into the technology-based-pedagogy paradigm.  This cogent example of hybrid instructional modeling reflects the pace and informational format preferred by the digital generation.  This initiative corroborates Smith, et al. (2009)’s observation that a majority of students have non-negative experiences with CMS (p. 69).  Further, based on first-hand testimony provided by Witkowski (2008), the student experience with MyMathLab technology was overwhelmingly positive as productivity, measured by passing rates, increased notably (pp. 34-35).  This method of mathematics instruction, enhanced by the simultaneous influences of in-person lectures coupled with CMS technology, illustrates how transformative pedagogy can not only meet the needs of contemporary students, but also provide measurable indicators of productivity necessary to justify the prerequisite financial investment towards refined course design in the future.

Duderstadt (2002) describes the "digital age" as one in which "literacy [in] digital technologies is rapidly becoming an essential skill in a knowledge-driven society" (p. 64).  From this, the role of digital age higher education becomes clear: to hone and foster the abilities of students to employ digital resources in the pursuit of knowledge and interdisciplinary collaboration.  The UA example illustrates the effective use of technology, but more discussion is needed relative to individual student learning styles and preferences.

Adams, Devaney, and Sawyer (2009) offer Adam’s (2007) Recursive Model for Knowledge Development in Virtual Environments to further explain the relationship between pedagogical inputs and learning outputs.  This model relies on three axis of understanding: Knowledge Authority, Teaching Approach, and Knowledge Approach.  The Teaching Approach axis is most relevant to developing CMS in the digital age, as this part of the model "refers to the teaching strategies employed to develop skill sets and foster engagement and creative use of the knowledge" (p. 7).  Within the CMS paradigm, these strategies relate to pedagogy format (i.e. how the information is packaged and transmitted), the pace at which information becomes available to students (an instructor may initially elect to release only foundational concepts, for example), and selection of appropriate assessment tools.  The model argues that knowledge construction is greatly enhanced through refined pedagogy design aimed at establishing contextual relevance for digital generation students.  Smith, et al. (2009) assert that a majority of students prefer to construct knowledge through internet searches, but other formats are also effective and can be more easily integrated into transformative digital age pedagogy (p.61).

The active nature of digital age learning does not mean that one definitive pedagogical design is superior to alternatives.  Digital generation students are not solely described by technological skill levels and preferences.  Learning styles are still diverse as are the categorical areas in which students construct relevance.  Keirsey (1998 and 2001), from Kwan and Fong (eds.) (2005), modeled four student typologies: Artisan, Idealist, Guardian, and Rational.  These relate to knowledge-construction preference respective to each temperament:

  • Artisans prefer "hands-on experience, exploring, experimenting [and] are action-oriented in their learning approaches" (p. 194).
  • Idealists prefer "brainstorming, listening, speaking, interacting with others [and] are people-oriented in their learning approaches" (p. 194).
  • Guardians prefer "manipulating materials, following directions, building on given tasks [and] are details-and facts- oriented in their learning approaches" (p. 194).
  • Rationals prefer "logic, analysis, classifying, and drawing conclusions.  They are concepts-oriented in their learning approaches" (p. 194).

Awareness of these four typologies is critical to developing Teaching Approaches for virtual learning, and CMS is flexible enough to accommodate these learning styles.  For some of the typologies, creating relevance through pedagogical design is straightforward, while meeting the needs of others will require more creativity.  The interactive nature of idealists, for example, can be nurtured through dialogue-based pedagogy.  Current technological tools suited to idealist preferences include discussion boards, real-time chat rooms within virtual classrooms, and video communications.  Guardians are likely to be satisfied with objective systems like the MyMathLab CMS, which provide concept-based learning (through online text and/or video lectures) and remote assessment.  Rationals may prefer learning through slide presentations, podcasts, or text-based conceptual descriptions.  Artisans are the most likely to prefer laboratory-based, in-person instruction in which tactile experience facilitates knowledge construction.  Pedagogical design must evolve to include these different typology-based approaches, as well as combinations of specific typological preferences to increase effectiveness: any lesser effort needlessly disservices digital generation students.  And they are, as described by Duderstadt (2002) "active learners, since they will increasingly demand responsibility for their own learning experiences and outcomes…students will seek less to ‘know about’ and more to ‘know how’" (p. 64).  The transformative pedagogy of the digital age will continue to incorporate a hybrid design, but not out of cost or resource necessity.  It will do so because CMS’s largely untapped potential can satisfy the typological preferences of contemporary students through an evolution in Teacher Approach and technology-enriched course design.

Thus far, this discussion has focused largely on the philosophical factors of transformative pedagogy.  However, the associated costs of computer-based pedagogy represent a factor of significant interest to those involved with CMS planning and expansion.  Abell (2006) describes digital age pedagogy as employing "complex algorithms to cull appropriate student specific content…through synchronization of curricula presented using portable handheld devices…offer[ing] extensive customization and intelligent learning features" (p. 11).  Clearly, a substantial investment in technological development and integration will be required to implement the system described here, but real examples of long-term savings help justify the initial costs.  Witkowski (2008) noted that UA per-student costs in its MATH 100 course decreased by 28 percent when the university began employing MyMathLab CMS in 2001 (p. 37).  In this instance, CMS employment enhanced the financial sustainability of the University of Alabama Mathematics Department through a significant reduction in operational costs.  It is unclear, however, whether these savings can be replicated in more advanced courses requiring specially-skilled instructors.  As introductory courses are generally characterized by high enrollments, savings can be magnified when CMS is applied to these types of courses.  This is a sustainable strategy as reduced costs (even if localized only in introductory course offerings) potentially offset the initial costs of developing and implementing CMS.  Meanwhile, many students will likely discover a more personalized education aligned with their preferences for format, pace, and information consumption.

Bartley and Golek (2004) describe the significance of return on investment (ROI) in justifying the advantages of technology-based learning over traditional instructional models.  ROI is established by determining the positive or negative differential between the costs and benefits of an investment (p. 172).  When benefits (both financial and indirect) exceed costs, institutions gain a more financially sustainable and advantageous position.  CMS technology investments may prove to be immense, encompassing not only purchasing rights to technology and infrastructure development, but also the human resources training needed to make the technology functional and effective.  These costs, however, are easier to quantify than the indirect benefits of transformative pedagogy.  While long-term cost savings in course delivery (as in the UA example) are direct benefits, the indirect benefits of increased student satisfaction, learning, and professional exploration—all common goals of institutions of higher education—must also be considered.  ROI analysis based on realistic assessment of financial inputs versus both tangible and intangible outcomes will determine the speed and extent at which institutions and educators adopt transformative, technology-based pedagogy.

In conclusion, pedagogy design in higher education currently exhibits a hybrid personality in which traditional practices interact with technology on a regular basis for the majority of students.  The highly personalized redesign of digital age pedagogy can unlock the potential of technology for a new digital generation of students and build a foundation for the future.  Moreover, employing CMS is potentially one of the most effective strategies towards the incremental reduction of costs and financial sustainability for institutions of higher education.


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Adams, N. B., Devaney, T. A., & Sawyer, S. G. (2009). Measuring conditions conducive to knowledge development in virtual learning environments: Initial development of a model-based survey. The Journal of Technology, Learning, and Assessment, 1(8), 1-24.

Bartley, S. J., & Golek, J. H. (2004). Evaluating the cost effectiveness of online and face-to-face instruction. Educational Technology & Society, 7(4), 167-175.

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Smith, S. D., Salaway, G., & Caruso, J. B. (2009). The ECAR study of undergraduate students and information technology, 2009. (Volume 6). Retrieved from EDUCAUSE Center for Applied Research website:

Tapscott, Don. (2008). Grown up digital: How the net generation is changing your world. New York: McGraw-Hill

U. S. Department of Education. (2008). Harnessing innovation to support student success: Using technology to personalize education. Retrieved from:

Witkowski, K. (2008). Increasing learning and decreasing costs through technology: The University of Alabama story. Change, March/April (2008), 32-37.

Contributor's Biography:

Ben Miller is currently working towards a Master's Degree in Higher and Post-secondary Education at Arizona State University after completing a Bachelor's Degree in Sports Management from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst in 2008.  He resides permanently in North Attleboro, Massachusetts and commenced graduate studies in Spring 2009.  His research interests include the effects of technology on students, American social traditions, and modern military studies.  He will pursue a career in institutional learning and development and/or continue research at the doctoral level with the objective of joining a university faculty.