Beginning to understand the costs of online and blended learning

The Fordham Institute is publishing a series of working papers on “Creating Sound Policy for Digital Learning;” its most recent release, “The Costs of Online Learning,” is a valuable contribution to an area of online and blended learning that has been very lacking in good research and analysis. The authors interviewed 50 entrepreneurs, policy experts, and school leaders to understand the various costs associated with traditional, blended, and virtual education. They identified three reasons why schools or districts pursue online learning:

  1. To reduce overall costs
  2. To increase the range of course offerings
  3. To use technology to rethink the traditional teaching and learning model

The primary motivation for pursuing an online or blended learning program will affect the costs. Programs pursuing online learning for cost savings will likely spend less than programs primarily concerned with rethinking the traditional teaching and learning model, however, spending more does not necessarily guarantee outcomes. The authors note, "The cost estimates reflect the current variation in the field. They are not a guarantee of quality, given insufficient data on student outcomes associated with the range of models."

The authors determined that a traditional school costs an average of $10,000 per pupil, a blended learning model costs an average of $8,900 per pupil, and a fully virtual model $6,400 per pupil. The blended models vary by +/-15%, and the virtual models vary by +/-20%, not accounting for outliers in either direction. Significant variances in costs for a particular program may depend on existing technological infrastructure, content acquisition, labor costs, and professional development, among many other factors.

We are concerned that policymakers will focus on what appear to be the bottom line numbers (such as blended models leading to savings of 11% compared to traditional schools) without acknowledging the numerous caveats that appear throughout the paper, demonstrating that there is considerable variance in costs of different schools and various instructional models. In addition, the authors note, "For existing schools, the time and costs required to transition to the use of technology as anything but an “add on” are often too difficult."

A careless reading of the report will lead some policymakers and educators to believe that online and blended should be pursued with cost-savings goals front and center. A closer reading reveals that such an approach will overlook the need for an initial investment of time and resources, leading to poor outcomes. The risk is that some people will believe "we tried online (blended) and it didn't work well,” when in fact the effort will have been poorly implemented and unlikely to succeed from the start.