One of the major debates in modern education is whether or not online/distance/distributed learning (DL) is cheaper and more efficient than traditional “brick and mortar” education. If it is cheaper, then obviously it becomes a useful option in a neo-liberal world where public education expenditures are shrinking. [In BC, for example, “the proportion of the GDP spent on public education decreased from 3.6% to 3.1%” between 2002–03 and 2007–08.”]
To be honest, I really don’t know if DL is more cost-effective, but I am comforted by the fact that the “experts” aren’t totally sure, either. I came across a recent study from the American Fordham Institute that believes online education is generally cheaper. It concludes that regular schooling, which averages about $10,000 per student in the US, is certainly above the costs of online or blended learning, which ranges “from $5,100 to $7,700 for virtual schools, and $7,600 to $10,200 for the blended version”. Nevertheless, even this study’s pro-DL authors concede that “much better data on both costs and outcomes will be needed for policymakers to reach confident conclusions related to the productivity and efficiency of these promising new models”. The problem, as they admit, is that there are too many models of DL to confidently compare DL to brick and mortar public schools, particularly with comparisons of quality and outcomes. And what about the hidden costs of DL education, in which parents are obliged to pick up the tab formerly assumed by regular schools? The Fordham study doesn’t recognize them.
One thing I can provide is my own experience. I taught at a large, asynchronous DL school for over eight years before moving back into the classroom in September. I arrived in 2003 as the DL school was moving away from traditional paper correspondence education and moving toward online delivery. In those years I came to the following conclusion: online education, if done well, is not significantly cheaper than regular brick and mortar schooling; as such, it is not a panacea to our neo-liberal woes. One major reason it’s not cheaper is that asynchronous education – where students work individually at their own pace - is very inefficient. And the better it is, the more labour-intensive and inefficient it is. In other words, quality = inefficiency. Instead of working with 25 to 30 students per class, a teacher deals with one student at one time; in terms of working with students and marking their assessment as a group, everything is a “one-off”. The Fordham study ignores a very simple reality: you can’t achieve economies of scale. The conversation you have with one student is of little use to another student because she’s working on a completely different assignment, and the essay you’ve just marked was the first of its kind in three months – and it took you a while to remember it! Moreover, each assignment is received, saved, processed, assessed, processed again, recorded, and sent back (with comments) individually. This is great for the student who wants individual attention, and this is where our DL school did (and does) it right. But we can’t pretend this is an ultra-efficient model. [Thank goodness not all of my 200-250 students were working at the same time!]
This inefficiency hit home when we offered a synchronous DL summer school back in the mid-2000′s; students would complete an entire course (with some reductions) in four weeks, one module per week. On one hand it was a great success; our completion rates rivaled brick and mortar schools, and the rates were much better than our mainstream, asynchronous 10 month school. However, aside from the grouping of assignments, the inefficiencies were still there, and try as I might I could never handle more than 20 students at a time. I would work flat out for 8-10 hours a day, and yet I could still only teach 2/3 of a regular classroom load. Translated into an entire year, I could really only handle 130-140 students working at the same time if I wanted to provide a quality educational experience.
I don’t have all the answers, but it strikes me that these inefficiencies need to be part of the calculation of DL costs. If they are – because we truly care about a good education – then we might not see online education as a transformational silver bullet.