The cost of online learning and why it matters to Ohio
What does online learning really cost? Can it, in fact, be both better in terms of improving student achievement and overall less expensive than traditional bricks and mortar schools? These fundamental questions are what the Fordham Institute’s new paper, “The Cost of Online Learning”, gamely tries to tackle. In short, the paper shows that online learning has the potential to save education money while also improving the quality of instruction available to students.
The Parthenon Group (the national research firm that helped craft Ohio’s winning Race to the Top application) provided the research. They conducted more than 50 interviews with entrepreneurs, policy experts and school leaders across the country to come up with “an informed set of estimates regarding the cost of virtual and blended schools” across five categories – labor (teacher and administrators), content acquisition, technology and infrastructure, school operations, and student support.
Using these five categories as the basis of comparison the researchers compared a “typical” traditional model (brick and mortar school where instruction is delivered by teachers), a “typical” blended model (students attend brick and mortar schools where they alternate between online and in-person instruction) and a “typical” full virtual model (all instruction takes place online). In blended schools like Carpe Diem, Rocketship, and KIPP Empower, technology is used as a tool to personalize instruction for students who spend part of their time in traditional classroom settings and part of their time learning through varied and personalized forms of digital learning opportunities. In contrasts, virtual models like Florida Virtual School, Connections Academy, and K-12 offer online instruction that students usually take from home via a computer.
The Parthenon researchers show that across the country, on average, a traditional brick and mortar education costs $10,000 a student, a blended model approach costs $8,900 a student, while a fully virtual model costs $6,400 a student. The savings in both blended and fully virtual models are based on the lower labor costs in each. Both blended and fully virtual models save money on labor because they replace costly teachers with less costly technology. This is how industries across America have increased productivity in recent decades while employing fewer people. But such savings are new to education where technology has traditionally been seen as an addition and not a replacement. Or as the researchers note, “From investment banks to grocery stores to vacation planning, big and small businesses have used technology to accomplish more with less, while public education reform has remained frustratingly stagnant.”
But, and this is important, according to the Parthenon researchers, technology in education does not likely mean the end of teaching or the teaching profession. This is a fear expressed by some educators and others in Ohio, but as researchers like Bryan and Emily Hassel document in their report Teachers in the Age of Digital Instruction, technology could very well help make teaching a far more compelling and rewarding profession. Technology in education not only has the potential to save money but also – and far more importantly – improve productivity and increase student achievement by helping teachers become more effective.
The Parthenon team argue, “traditional classroom teachers face extraordinary challenges: often a 30:1 student-teacher ratio, and a classroom full of students with varying educational needs, interests and learning styles.” They continue, “Teaching is multiple jobs rolled into one; schools of the future will likely continue to search for ways that can ease this challenge while boosting instructional effectiveness. Many entrepreneurs are beginning to break down the various elements of a teacher’s day, and look for points of opportunity for technology to take over certain elements, freeing up teacher time to focus in other places, such as more time with students.”
Of course, depending on how much different models – be they fully virtual or blended – invest in things like content and technology and infrastructure it is possible to create digital models that are vastly more expensive than traditional classrooms. Some states and school districts have in fact invested millions in up front development costs, as have some of the country’s largest for-profit providers like K-12 and Connections Academy. Such upfront costs can be amortized over time, but such significant investments explain why some virtual school courses can cost $800 or more per student per year. Further, Paul Hill shows in his recent Fordham paper, School Finance in the Digital-Learning Era, that the cost of entry for high end models combined with the political uncertainty around education innovation creates an “innovation-hostile environment.” Hill worries that even if education “were more open to new ideas, grave uncertainty about whether any K-12 education idea can ever turn a profit limits venture-capital investments.”
In this unsettled and shifting environment the Parthenon team breaks important new ground. But, they acknowledge the limitations of their findings and caution readers “against looking for one simple ‘price tag’ for online learning, or to assume that savings necessarily translates into lower overall costs per pupil.” Despite such caveats, they do a fantastic job of creating research parameters and definitions for a critically important and timely topic. Their contribution is surely going to be the first of many such analyses we are likely to see as more and more students across the country enroll in emerging digital learning opportunities and researchers and policy makers try to better understand what adds value and what doesn’t. Such analysis will begin to offer insights into those programs that offer the highest and lowest returns on investment. This is important as it will allow the school funding conversation to move beyond just talking about how much is spent on various inputs to actually what impacts student learning and at what cost.
The Parthenon findings are especially important for Ohio were there are some 33,000 students currently enrolled in the state’s e-schools, and close to $200 million spent on their education. This sector is growing fast and policy makers working on the state’s Digital Learning Task Force would surely benefit by studying closely the findings from Parthenon, and ultimately weaving them in their recommendations to the General Assembly.
Category: Ohio Policy
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