Is online education cheaper?

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 argues 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 more labour-intensive and inefficient it is, the better it is. In other words, inefficiency=quality. 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 English 12 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.

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5 Comments to "Is online education cheaper?"

  1. January 29, 2012 - 7:36 pm | Permalink

    Hi Mr. Welch,
    (I would address you with your first name if I would know).
    I think that online education is cheaper and I will explain why I think so.
    I work with educational software for ages K-14, when I would do assessment with a teacher (it was class of SP students). My role was to help to teacher to run the assessment. We spent 15 minutes to prepare all computers, most of students (as I understood later) had behavioral problems, so I wanted to be ready when they will come. They came with their teachers- helpers. Most of my time was for not giving to teachers-helpers to help and ruin the assessment.
    So with online tutoring (not education, but tutoring only) teacher can know about every student, continue to be educator, spending minimal time for administration, which done by computers (that exactly what computers know to do: to gather data and made statistics and reports). I think, it is more efficient and effective and, yes, it is cheap, because with right use of online educational programs you can handle more students in the one year, much more.

  2. January 30, 2012 - 9:17 pm | Permalink

    (this one)

    Bess, with all due respect, you are speaking as a software developer rather than a teacher who has faced budget cuts and no longer has ‘helpers’. The assessment in a typical classroom would be adjusted depending on the learning needs of a child. If there is a visual input or output issue, those need to be accounted for as per the student’s IEP.
    Why is teaching viewed as something that can be reduced to simple set of steps that can be reduced to button pushing? We would not dare create the analogy that law by computer is far cheaper or that patients should determine their own treatment via an interface?
    To create effective software that is on par with gaming is costly. Effective software should monitor misconceptions, branch seamlessly to interventions and return the student to the point of a misconception. At the moment, private companies have the ability to create products on this scale and even then, would have a ‘life’ of 5 years before the interface or the content is out of date for the sophisticated consumers. These environments can only assess items congruent to button pushing it difficult to have students produce sematic evidence of complex thought (at least for now). More importantly, there is a misconception that engaged is equated with staring for prolonged periods at a screen. That is the wrong theory to determine deeper learning. The only evidence is that they are pushing buttons and are quiet. In some circles, that is low level learning. Gaming is on the horizon as the ‘new’ form of learning. For some elements, that may very well be an option. I would like to see more for ‘drills’, pre-assessment, and basic knowledge so that the classroom can be used for more interaction
    Much of the cost that is ‘saved’ is downloaded on teacher who needs to spend their own time and often own money to stay abreast of new technology or software. (Parents will also have to invest to stay current too.) Combing through the ever evolving apps and websites is a full-time job! Technology has its place when used ethically and pedagogically sound.. Technology cannot replace everything that is worthwhile to teach or learn. Technology is a tool used by a teacher.
    Okay. I will stop now

  3. January 30, 2012 - 10:24 pm | Permalink

    Hi guys,
    I think you got me wrong. I do distinguish between tutoring and teaching and I just accepted that the teacher that is equipped with educational tech resources is way more powerful, efficient and have a little time to her/himself.
    I think, I do speak as a teacher. In other country 30 years ago I created and developed the “cards system”, because in my 20s I already understood that I cannot teach whole class. At that time there were not educational computer programs.
    Today the situation is different. Even using educational program is cheaper, it should not be the main reason to use them.

  4. devinder deol's Gravatar devinder deol
    February 19, 2012 - 8:55 am | Permalink

    This post should be required reading for every teacher and administrator out there – especially those who think that teaching online is “easy.” Reality is that the work is exhausting, often-maligned, and like constantly sailing into a headwind.

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