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Calculating the Costs of Online Learning

During the spring and early summer I addressed several different groups of higher education leaders and policymakers—college and university presidents, members of governing and coordinating boards, and state legislators. A common question from all these groups was, "How much d'es distance learning cost?"

The WCET's Technology Costing Methodology (TCM) project has produced a set of tools to help answer that question. These tools, available online at for no charge, include a handbook, case studies from our pilot sites, and a "tabulator" that lets decision makers plug in numbers to test how different choices affect overall costs. I do not want to suggest that these tools provide simple answers, but working with them, several institutions and states have been better able to understand the real costs of using technology to reach students electronically.

Our work with the 18 or so pilot sites in the past year and a half has yielded some interesting ways to think about costs. As pointed out by my colleague and the mastermind behind these tools, Dennis Jones (president of the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems), the single most critical variable influencing the costs of any distance learning program is people. The type of people needed for different activities and the costs to the institution for their time are the most important contributors to any change in the costs of a distance learning program.

Another cost issue is the scale dilemma. Let's say an institution wants to create a course for Web distribution. In most U.S. higher education institutions, typical online course design involves a single faculty member developing a traditional course into a Web-compatible format, working directly with all students in the course, and administering and grading the tests and written assignments. We know that, in general, online students communicate more with their instructors than do students in face-to-face classes. They are more demanding of the instructors' time. The number of students that a faculty member can handle online in a single course is a fairly small. Yet the costs of developing that course are high, and to make up for the high development costs, there needs to be a larger number of students than a single faculty member can serve. Thus, the scale dilemma.

There are two ways out of this dilemma. One way is to use a different development model for online courses. The development team can include senior faculty members who are qualified to design the course and technical support people to help them. The course package would then be managed by people who are trained to be online "teachers," supporting the students' learning, but who do not cost as much as the senior faculty members. Hundreds or thousands of students can then use the well-developed course, which justifies the development costs. This approach has been used for many years by most of the open universities around the world as well as the Annenberg/CPB Projects and consortia like INTELECOM in California that produce telecourses.

The other way out of the dilemma is to have institutional planners accept the high costs of development due to the unique need for a course. If a given course is the only way to attract a desirable group of students, then the cost to produce it is a less important factor in justifying its existence. For example, the students may be in a unique, inaccessible location. They may have unusual, but critical, academic needs. And how else could astronauts receive college credit for studying space p'etry?

About the Author

Sally Johnstone is founding director of the Western Cooperative for Educational Telecommunications (WCET) and serves on advisory groups for state, national, and international organizations to help plan and evaluate eLearning projects.

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