Apples to Apples please

By MSR. Creative Commons Attribution: http://www.flickr.com/photos/msr/448820990/

It is important to state up front that understanding how K-12 schools are funded is complex. Analyzing how online learning may save money or increase productivity is even more complex.   In January 2012, the US Department of Education released the report entitled, “Understanding the Implications of Online Learning for Educational Productivity (Bakia et al, 2012) that provides further analysis about online learning and K-12 school funding.  I like to keep up with the latest reports and research about online and blended learning – especially reports that have to do with costs and online learning –  since I have done a little writing on that topic myself.

This report does a good job of identifying most of the current research and reports about online learning that are summarized and categorized at the end of the report.  In addition, the authors clearly delineate the types of costs that should be examined in any cost analysis such as identifying all resources involved such as hardware and connectivity costs, teachers time costs, opportunity costs, and looking at all cost parameters if comparing online programs to traditional school programs. Finally, the authors explain that educational productivity may be measured by outcomes such as graduation rates, test scores, student engagement, or school success – factors that are not always measured in dollars. If a student is able to learn (rate of learning) the material in a quicker way, this can be seen as a savings to the overall system.

This report begins in the Executive Summary by stating “Educational systems are under increasing pressure to reduce costs while maintaining or improving outcomes for students. To improve educational productivity many school districts and states are turning to online learning.”   

Unfortunately, the two statements above suggest that online learning in K-12 schools can reduce costs – and adds to the belief by many people that starting an online learning program will reduce costs.  The reality, especially in the short term, is that online or blended learning costs more because any time new technology is implemented, there are additional costs for online content, course management systems, and training for teachers, among other things.  Having established a part time online program and a full time online charter school, I learned firsthand that there needed to be an up front investment of funds to establish the program.  In the report, the authors quote from the 2006 report entitled, “20/20 Costs and Funding of Virtual Schools” which brought together experts in the field of K-12 online learning to discuss the costs to implement an online learning program.  In the 20/20 report, one conclusion was that it costs about $1.6 million to adequately implement an online school program.  Although I think that the costs of developing a part time or full time online program in a school or school district are less today, there are always going to be additional costs in the start up phase for any part time or full time online or blended learning program.

The Bakia report examines the various research and reports that existed regarding K-12 online learning.  They quoted from the US DeptEd Meta-analysis entitled, “Evaluation of evidence-based practices in online learning: A meta-analysis and review of online learning studies (2010)” which concluded that “learning outcomes for purely online instruction were equivalent to those of purely face-to-face instruction” and that “students tended to perform better in blended learning courses than in traditional face-to-face instruction.”  The Bakia report authors explained that in the 2010 analysis, that “only five of the 45 studies included in in the meta-analysis focused on K-12 students, and these five studies looked exclusively at blended online learning programs.”

This report suggests there are several opportunities for online learning to reduce educational costs by:

  • Increasing the rate of learning
  • Reducing total salary costs
  • Reducing facilities costs
  • Realizing economies of scale

The one area that this report and other reports regarding costs for online learning do not address, is how colleges and universities are funded differently than K-12 schools.   Repeatedly, writers examine research done at the university level and apply it to K-12 schools.  For the record, most colleges and universities are funded by students in one course at a time and students are charged tuition to take the course.  In most K-12 school systems, schools receive money per student based on the number of students in attendance (seat time) each day and reported to state departments of education for funding. In most states, the FTE or ADA received by schools goes to the schools and does not follow the student.

In many reports about online learning, there is an examination of the available literature about costs for online learning, which are mostly higher education. Then, the writers generalize the findings to K-12 schools.  The Bakia report does the same when they state that online learning can “reduce total salary costs.”  The rationale for this conclusion is based on university research (Twigg, 2003 and others) and information collected from Florida Gulf Coast University.  The authors suggest that the number of students per teacher can be increased which would then reduce the overall costs. This may work fine at the university level, but it does not work well at most high schools where the funding does not change much regardless of the class sizes.

Future reports regarding costs for online learning at the K-12 level should utilize research conducted at the K-12 level when generalizing about how online learning may reduce costs in K-12 schools (there are many aspects of online learning that can be compared between universities and K-12 schools but cost is not one of them).  Overall, there are so many variables that may cause online learning to cost less or more than face-to-face learning that it may not really be possible to complete a real cost comparison. However, for those who do attempt to complete cost comparisons, please compare apples with apples.

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1 Response to “Apples to Apples please”


  1. 1 mkbnl July 20, 2012 at 12:58 pm

    Well, let’s also acknowledge that the 20/20 report was prepared by a bunch of individuals directly involved with K-12 online learning who had a vested interest in making the argument that virtual schooling needed equal levels of funding.

    Also worth mentioning that the K-12 studies in the US DOE meta-analysis suffered from the fact that the online samples were often skewed in favour of the online cohort. Also worth noting that the report itself states, “despite what appears to be strong support for [online and] blended learning applications, the studies in this meta-analysis do not demonstrate that online learning is superior as a medium” (p. xvii).

    There have also been several more recent reports that have spoke of the fact that K-12 online learning is more cost effective than face-to-face learning – including some from the more neo-liberal organizations that are pushing the privatization of public education through online learning (the Fordham’s report as one example).


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