Recommended Reading: WCET Survey Report and Tony Bates Commentary

WCET released its survey results on the price and costs of online education last week, focusing on US higher education, and it has caused quite a stir due to the headline, first-look analysis. As Inside Higher Ed described in the article “Online Education Costs More, Not Less”:

The myth that online education courses cost less to produce and therefore save students money on tuition doesn’t hold up to scrutiny, a survey of distance education providers found.

While there is value in countering a myth held by many state legislators and policy makers that online education is a surefire way to save money – and the report does shoot down this myth – it is unfortunate that most of the public discussion is based on the oversimplified summary described above and and entirely-justified pushback that online education does not have to cost more.

The report itself tackles the difficult subject of price (what a student pays) and costs (what it takes to produce) of online vs. face-to-face education with much more nuance and information that gets lost in the conversation. In particular, the “demographics” section is laudable as one of the best description of survey respondents and how this response compares to national averages. And there is text noting discrepancies and limitations to the survey results. 

For price, the report notes that three out of four institutions charge students the same tuition for online courses and enrollment, but when you add in course fees, more than half of institutions end up with student paying more for online. For costs, the report deconstructed an online course “into twenty-one components in four categories (preparing, teaching, assessing students, and supporting faculty and students)”. For these components, the overwhelming conclusion of respondents was that online costs the same or more than face-to-face.

I had planned to do my own analysis of this report, including the areas that are leading to such strong discussion in media (see the comments to IHE article), social media (see this Google+ thread) and private WCET discussion threads. But Tony Bates beat me to it, and his post “What counts when you cost online learning?” should be required reading to help understand the survey. Most of my commentary could be titled “What Tony Said”.

Much of the media coverage has focused on the finding that respondents to the survey on which this report is based were by and large of the opinion that distance education costs more than classroom teaching. But you need to read the report more carefully to understand why respondents responded in this way. It all comes down to how you cost distance education or online learning. In particular, you need to understand the context of the report.

After a valuable summary of the report, Tony gets into his commentary.

Unfortunately, though, for methodological reasons, I fear the report has confused rather than clarified the discussion about costs and price. In particular, by focusing on components that are specific to distance education, such as faculty support, the use of technologies, and the cost of state authorization of DE, the report has clearly given the impression that most educators believe that distance education is more expensive. It can be, but it doesn’t have to be.

It is unfortunate that the report has given this impression because you cannot just look at the costs of specific components of distance education without looking also at specific components of face-to-face teaching that are not represented in the costs of distance education, in particular the very substantial ‘sunk’ costs of buildings, parking, etc. There are better ways of measuring the costs of distance education and online programs – see Chapter 7 in Bates and Sangra (2011).

I would add to this analysis two additional sources of confusion:

  • The report conflates online courses and online programs, at one time describing the intent to obtain “information about the real experiences and expenditures of distance education programs and students” while most detailed analysis were at the course level. But ad hoc online courses occurring within a traditional face-to-face program have different economics than fully-online programs where students do not come to campus. And it is at the program level where online education – when accompanied by changes in business model or assumptions – has the greatest potential to reduce overall costs.
  • The report sets up a monolithic online vs. a monolithic face-to-face model, but this ignores the differences between hybrid courses (that often have the same usage of technology and professional development services and reduce usage of physical facilities) and  traditional face-to-face courses. WCET is not the source of this problem, but the question asked reinforces this online vs. face-to-face viewpoint that can be misleading.

Controversies aside, I recommend reading the actual WCET report, with all of its nuance and description and limitations, as well as Tony Bates’ summary post.

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