February 27, 2017

What counts when you cost online learning?

Poulin, R. and Straut, T. (2017) Distance Education Price and Cost Report Boulder CO: WCET

This highly controversial report has generated considerable discussion in WCET’s own Forum, and has received a good deal of media coverage. When you read the report you will see why.

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. 

As always, you should read the report itself, not my summary, especially if you disagree with what’s in my summary.

The context

The context for this report is very political and very American (by which I mean USAnian, i.e. applying specifically to the USA). The report is more about price – what institutions charge students – than it is about cost.

The cost of tuition (the fees students or their parents pay to the institution) continues to increase in the USA way beyond the rate of inflation, and many institutions not only charge the same tuition rates for online or distance education courses, but also add additional fees. In other words, many American institutions increase the price for an online or distance course compared to its face-to-face equivalent.

However, the political perception, especially in state legislatures, is that distance education is cheaper than on-campus teaching, so some states (e.g. Wisconsin and Florida) have introduced legislation or initiatives to reduce the price of online learning courses below that of face-to-face programs.

As the authors note:

Historically, distance education’s mission has been to overcome the barriers of place or time. The mission was not to control costs. In fact, to reach some locations is costly. Distance education should not be held accountable to a mission it was never given.

distance education professionals are caught in a higher education economics ethos that shuns open examination of price and cost…and are expected to answer to a “controlling cost” mission that was not given them in the first place.

It is within this context that WCET decided to do the study in order to challenge some of the assumptions about the price and cost of distance education.


As always, you need to know the methodology in order to interpret the results. The report indeed is very transparent about its methodology, which is not tucked away in an appendix or not discussed at all (which seems to be a practice that is increasing in many so-called ‘studies’ these days), but is front and centre in the report.


The authors provide the following definition:

  • Price – This is the amount of money that is charged to a student for instruction. The components are tuition and fees. In the questions, we will be clear as to which “price” component (tuition, fees, or total price) is being queried. 
  • Cost – This is the amount of money that is spent by the institution to create, offer, and support instruction. 
  • Distance Education – When thinking of “distance education,” we favor the Babson Survey Research Group definition of 80% or more of the course being taught at a distance.


WCET surveyed mainly its own members and members of other distance education consortia. Overall, 197 responded.

We had hoped for more participation in the survey. It is important to note that the responses provided represent only the institutional representatives who answered the survey questions. Even though we provide comparisons between the responding population and the overall higher education population, we do not assert that the results may be generalized to the universe of all institutions of higher education in the U.S. and Canada that offer distance education courses.

What can be said is that the response came mainly from distance education and educational technology professionals, rather than faculty or senior administrators, mainly in public HE institutions.

Main results

I will deal with these very briefly, although the detailed findings are more nuanced.

  1. The price of DE is generally higher than for face-to-face teaching. More than half (54%) of the respondents reported that their institution charged more for distance education courses than for on-campus courses.
  2. A majority of respondents believed that the cost of DE was higher than for face-to-face teaching on certain defined components (e.g. faculty development, technologies, instructional design, assessments, state authorization – a long and complex process of ‘accrediting’ DE courses unique to the USA).
  3. ‘Experts’ in the costs of DE tended to disagree that costs of DE are necessarily higher
  4. The experts also noted that cost discussions are often avoided by higher education leadership and that more could be done to control costs, not just in distance education.

The reports main conclusions

The conclusions were split into recommendations for legislators and institutions:

For legislators

  • focus questions on future costs and in particular the likely impact of investing in buildings vs distance education in terms of the impact of the cost to students
  • provide more incentives for institutions to reduce the price to students
  • don’t be prescriptive but help institutions develop a vision for state higher education that is realistic and shared

For institutions

  • pay as much attention to the cost to students as to the cost to the institution of various delivery methods
  • be more open about costs and track them for all modes of delivery
  • changing the cost structure requires structural changes in how we design and deliver programs; this requires leadership from the senior administration.

My comments on the report

The report is right to draw attention to the creeping costs to students (e.g. price) resulting from institutional policies in the USA. What is also apparent is that there is a large disconnect between institutions and government about the cost of distance education. Many educators believe that DE is more expensive; government thinks it should be cheaper. Somewhere in the middle is a discussion about quality: does cheaper mean worse?

Cherry-picking costs

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).

Making DE cost-effective

While we can develop cost-effective fully online programs, this normally depends on generating new revenues from new students. Offering online courses as an alternative to already existing students on campus, while increasing access and student flexibility, is much more financially risky.

Again, this can be managed cost-effectively, but it depends on having enough students taking both on-campus and online versions of the course, and the use of additional adjunct professors for online courses with more than 30 students. Bringing in new students who you wouldn’t get without the courses being online is the best bet to ensure economic viability. ‘Diluting’ your on-campus students by offering the same course online will add costs unless the numbers can justify it.

What about the costs of blended learning?

One last point. I think we are going to have a period of considerable cost turmoil as we move to blended learning, because this really does add costs unless there are dramatic redesigns, especially of the large first and second year classes. Carol Twigg of the National Centre for Academic Transformation for many years has been able to bring down costs – or more often increase effectiveness for the same cost – for these large lecture classes by using blended learning designs (although there are some criticisms of her costing methodology).

By and large though, while fully online courses can maybe increase enrolments by 10-15% and therefore help pay their way, we will have major cost or academic time problems if we move to nearly all courses being blended, without increased training for faculty, so they can manage without the same level of support provided by instructional designers, etc. that are normally provided for fully online courses (see ‘Are we ready for blended learning?‘).

Moving forward 

I’m glad then that WCET has produced a report that focuses not only on the costs of distance education to institution but also on pricing policies. There is in my view no economic justification for charging more for an online course than a face-to-face course as a matter of principle. You need to do the sums and institutions are very bad at doing this in a way that tracks the cost of activities rather than throwing everything into one bucket then leaking it out at historical rates to different departments.

Institutions need to develop more rigorous methods for tracking the costs of different modes of delivery while also building in a measure of the benefits as well. If the report at least moves institutions towards this, it will have been well worth it.

What students spend on textbooks and how it affects open textbooks

Avoid bookstore line-ups - adopt an online, open textbook Image:  The Saskatoon StarPhoenix

Avoid bookstore line-ups – adopt an online, open textbook
Image: The Saskatoon StarPhoenix

Hill, P. (2015) Bad Data Can Lead To Bad Policy: College students don’t spend $1,200+ on textbooks, e-Literate, November 8

Caulfield, M. (2015) Asking What Students Spend on Textbooks Is the Wrong Question, Hapgood, November 9

Just wanted to draw your attention to two really interesting and useful blog posts about the cost of textbooks.

First thanks to Phil Hill for correcting what I and many other have been saying: that students are spending more than $1,000 a year on textbooks. It turns out that what students are actually spending is around $530 – $640 (all figures in this post are in U.S. dollars and refer to U.S. post-secondary education.) Furthermore, student spending on textbooks has actually declined (slightly) over the last few years (probably as a result of increasing tuition fees – something has to give).

Mike Caulfield however points out that the actual cost of recommended textbooks is over $1,000 a year (or more accurately, between $968 and $1221, depending on the mix of rental and newly purchased books), and that this is the figure that counts, because if students are spending less, then they are putting their studies at risk by not using recommended texts.

For instance, a report by consumer advocacy group U.S. PIRG found that the cost of textbooks has jumped 82% since 2002. As a result, 65% of about 2,000 students say they have opted out of buying (or renting) a required textbook because of the price. According to the survey, 94% of the students who had skipped buying textbooks believed it could hurt their performance in class. Furthermore, 48% of the students said that they had altered which classes they take due to textbook costs, either taking fewer classes or different classes.

More importantly, students and significantly their families do not look at the cost of textbooks in isolation. They also take into account tuition fees and the cost of living, especially if they are studying away from home. So they are likely to consider what they are expected to spend on textbooks rather than what they will actually spend when deciding on post-secondary education. The high cost of textbooks is just another factor that acts as a deterrent for many low income families.

Whether you take the actual expenditure of around $600 a year  per student or the required spending of $1,220, having open textbooks available not only results in very real savings for students, but also will have a more important psychological effect in encouraging some students and parents to consider post-secondary education who might not do so otherwise. Getting the methodology of costing textbooks right is important if we are to measure the success of open textbooks, but whichever way you look at it, open textbooks are the right way to go.

Lastly, if you are encouraging your students to become digitally literate, I suggest that you ask them to read the two posts, which, as well as dealing with an issue in which your students will have a major interest, are paragons of well-researched writing, and above all courteous and respectful in their differences.

The cost of developing an open textbook: $80,000 – $130,000

The main cost of an open textbook is the author's time

The main cost of an open textbook is the author’s time

Open textbooks may be free, but they are not without cost.

So what is the cost of developing an open textbook from scratch?

Answer: a minimum of $80,000, more likely around $130,000.

Here’s how I arrived at the figure, based on my own open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age.

Context and ‘sponsors’

As always in education, the context is important. I wrote the book as an individual, without the very considerable ‘hidden’ support that working in a university or college often provides. However, working as an individual meant that I was able to track most of the costs.

Second, although I was working as an individual, I did have two very valuable external ‘sponsors’:

  • BCcampus: The BC Open Textbook project, that BCcampus manages on behalf of the provincial government, meant that I had a ready-made platform, based on BCcampus’s own version of PressBooks, on which to develop and host the book. Furthermore, I received essential technical support and help from the BCcampus team when developing the book;
  • Contact North/Contact Nord: Contact North is a somewhat similar organization in Ontario to BCcampus in British Columbia. In particular, it provides professional learning opportunities in digital and online learning for faculty and instructors across the 22 colleges and 24 universities in Ontario. CN saw the book as a potentially valuable resource, and provided some financial support for the development of the book, as well as commissioning a French translation of the book (due later in the summer).

I also received a lot of support and feedback from the online learning ‘community of practice’ while writing the book. Without this support, it would have been very difficult for me to produce a high quality online textbook.

How much work for the author?

How much work is there in writing an open textbook? This is one of those ‘length of a piece of string’ questions, but while not clocking every minute, I did keep a track of how much time it took me.

Again, though, context is important. I am a very experienced writer, with 12 commercially published books behind me. I had a pretty good idea what I wanted to write about and quickly developed a structure and plan for the book. A lot of potential content already existed from many of the blog posts I had been writing. Others without such experience will almost certainly need more time.

Figure 1 below gives a breakdown of my time spent writing and editing:

Figure 1: Timeline for writing 'Teaching in a Digital Age'

Figure 1: Timeline for writing ‘Teaching in a Digital Age’

I spent roughly 20 hours a week on writing and editing, over roughly 50 weeks, so 1,000 hours of my time is a pretty reasonable estimate. This works out at roughly six months work over one year.

In reality, of course, in my context this was done for free. However, this would be equal to a minimum of $50,000 in salary for someone working full-time in a college or university, and for a consultant it would be even higher. So I would estimate the opportunity cost of writing this book to be a minimum of $50,000, with probably $75,000 being a more realistic ‘average’ cost for most authors.

It should be noted that:

  • I published first drafts as blog posts, in order to get feedback from the several thousand professionals who follow my blog;
  • I ‘published when ready’: in other words, once a chapter was ready after the above feedback had been incorporated, I published the chapter on the book web site. Thus the book slowly grew between June 2014 to February 2015, which also brought in more feedback;
  • I spent nearly all March, 2015, on a major re-edit of the book, splitting up or re-integrating some chapters, removing redundancies, checking references, and copy editing.

Instructional design/editing

I hired an independent instructional designer/editor to review and advise on the overall structure of the book, each draft chapter, the design of activities and other ‘pedagogical features’, and the actual writing. It was essential to have someone with instructional design experience responsible for providing a second opinion throughout the book. The Centre for Digital Learning at Ryerson University also provided regular and valuable feedback on drafts of chapters on a voluntary basis. These activities to some extent replaced the normal (and valuable) role of an editor from a commercial publisher.

The total cost of this support was $9,000. However, given that I also have a background in instructional design, the costs may be higher for another author, especially in the early stages of designing the book.

Graphics design

I hired a graphic designer, not to do actual graphics, but to advise on the design and layout of the book, and to do a cover for the book. I contracted the designer when the book was two-thirds finished. His input was valuable, but limited to designing frames for imported graphics, and to the design of the book cover. I mainly used graphics imported from other web publications, or designed graphics for the text myself, using Powerpoint. The cost of the graphic designer was in the range of $5,000 – $10,000 (he was on contract to Contact North).

Next time, I would do this differently. In another post I have described the problems of fitting graphics to different versions of the book. I really needed a graphics designer who was familiar with publishing for mobile devices. I should have hired the designer before I started writing the book, and then worked out a way of testing graphics for each version (html, pdf, mobi, etc.) as I wrote the book. In fact, designing for an open textbook requires specialist knowledge, and I’m not even sure that this knowledge or even appropriate software for fitting graphics into different versions exist yet, but it is really important. I suspect though that one would need a minimum of $10,000 to cover the graphics design, probably more, in order to work in the way that is needed.

Copyright clearance

Although recent changes in Canadian law and Supreme Court decisions on copyright have made it much easier to include third-party material without copyright clearance, it is essential in an open textbook to ensure that all materials can be freely reproduced and re-used. Thus while I may be willing to waive my rights, I cannot do it for material where other people own the rights. Thus I had to make sure that all third party material in my book, such as extracts from other written work, and particularly graphics, were:

  • in the public domain, or
  • covered by an appropriate Creative Commons license, or
  • covered by a written permission for use in an open textbook by the copyright owner.

I therefore hired a graduate student from UBC’s School of Library and Information Sciences to trawl through the whole book and ensure that all material was cleared for open publishing. She produced a detailed spreadsheet for each case (about 120 in total), identifying the source of the material and whether rights were cleared or approved for open publishing. This often meant tracking down the original creator of material already freely available on the Web. In the end, we had two refusals (alternatives were found and used), and five cases (all web-based graphics) where the original creator could not be found, but the material was in widespread use on the Internet, and in these five cases I took the risk of reproduction. In all other cases I have cast-iron clearance.

A systematic approach to copyright clearance is really essential for open publication, and there is a real cost in doing this. In this project approximately $5,000 was spent but an average figure would probably be around $7,500. It is money though well spent.

Technical support

As mentioned earlier, BCcampus provided the platform (their own version of Pressbooks, built on WordPress), advised me on how to get started, and provided essential technical support as I developed the book. They offered this service free, because basically I was a ‘marginal’ cost on their own major open textbook project.

There are though a number of alternative platforms, including Pressbooks, for open publishing that are available for free or at reasonably low cost, but someone working with such platforms would have to pay possibly somewhere in the region of $1,000-$2,000 annually for technical support, because things will always go wrong, and in particular hackers will try to corrupt the site.


I used the following for marketing the book:

  • my own blog posts, Twitter feed and LinkedIn network
  • the WCET Frontier’s newsletter
  • Contact North’s worldwide media release
  • book reviews in academic journals (to come).

Each of these helped (or should help) to boost the number of visits to the book web site, but the only real cost is the Contact North media release, at around $10,000, but again an essential cost in getting the book to the right market.

Summary of costs

Figure 2 collects together these costs:

Figure x: Costs for developing Teaching in a Digital Age

Figure 2: Costs for developing an open textbook

I have provided both a minimal cost and a more realistic average cost. All these individual items can be contested, and some of these costs may be hidden or absorbed through clever accountancy, but to offer a high quality open textbook, there is no arguing that there are real and substantial costs.


If original texts are to be developed as open textbooks, we need sustainable business models. These can take several forms:

1. Sponsorship

This was the model used for Teaching in a Digital Age, with the author offering his time free, BCcampus supporting the technical side, and Contact North funding the direct costs of instructional and graphic design, and marketing.

Universities or colleges could also act as sponsors in the same way (and for the same reasons) that they sponsor MOOCs or other open educational resources

2.  Government funding

This is the model used to support the BC Open Textbook project. This would be a very practical way for governments to reduce direct costs to students and to provide a practical implementation of a policy for open education.

3. Crowdsourcing

This may be a way for an author to recover costs. The book would be partly or even wholly published, and potential readers would be asked to donate towards the cost of the book. This however would require some means by which payment could be collected and audited, which would add to the overall cost. This might be a viable model though where there is strong demand for the product, with individual readers donating as little as $10 each, although it might sully the purity of the concept of open-ness, and is a high risk for the author if there is no demand for the book.

4. Other models

One possibility I am considering is using my textbook to raise money to support, for instance, African students wanting but unable to attend university, by having a link to a suitable charity and asking readers to donate $10 to the charity if they download the book.

There are many other possible models and I would like to hear from readers with suggestions.

However, at the end of the day, there are real and substantial costs to developing open textbooks and it is important to be not only aware of this but to be willing to find appropriate means to support open publishing in education.

In my next post, I will answer the question: was it worth it?

Yale University to offer an online master of medical science

Yale University 2

Korn, M. (2015) Yale Will Offer Web-Based Master of Medical Science Degree Wall Street Journal, March 10

This for me is much more significant than the announcement of the first xMOOCs. It is a sign that even the elite Ivy League universities are recognising the validity of online learning for credit, even in the most demanding of subject areas, after ignoring or even denigrating online learning for many years.

However, before you all rush to sign up, note the sticker price: US$83,162 – the same cost as for the on-campus program, which has been limited to 40 students a year. One reason probably for such a high price for an online program is that Yale is contracting 2U Inc to help with the design and delivery of the program.

Another high cost factor is that the program requires hands-on clinical stints at field sites near students and at least three meetings on Yale’s New Haven, Conn., campus for activities such as cadaver dissection. Yale is aiming eventually for about 360 students across both the on-campus and online programs.

Yale’s move reinforces my view that there is still room for major expansion by top research universities into the online professional masters’ market. However, it will be important to price these at a level that makes them attractive to lifelong learners.

So good on Yale for leading the way for other Ivy League institutions. Now let’s hope someone else can do this at a more reasonable tuition fee (which in my view would be in the range of $15,000-$25,000 for the equivalent of a one year master’s program).

A new way to look at the costs of digital media in education

Image: © Ehrenberg, D., AlleyWatch.com, 2013

Image: © Ehrenberg, D., AlleyWatch.com, 2013

I said it was going to be fun looking at the costs of digital media in education, but it wasn’t. When I came to write this section, I thought it would be a breeze. I wrote about this topic as recently as 2005. All I needed to do is tweak it a little to bring it up to date, I thought.

However, there has truly been a revolution in the media available for teaching and learning in the last ten years, and this revolution has completely up-ended many of the assumptions about costs previously made in this field. Most of the research on costs of educational media had been done by people (like myself) working mainly in distance education, because that was where technology was being mainly used for teaching. That has all changed now: media have gone mainstream.

What is really interesting though is how little research there has been done on the costs of new digital media in education (MOOCs are a slight exception). Nevertheless, when I dug into the topic, I came to what struck me at first as an astonishing conclusion: the costs of media don’t matter any more in media selection. Use what suits best your educational purpose, because it’s all low cost now.

Of course, that is a gross over-simplification. Like many other topics in this area, straight comparisons between different media don’t work. What you have to look at are the conditions or factors that influence costs, across all media. That’s what I’ve tried to explore in this section. Remember I’m targeting teachers and instructors, not economists or instructional designers. So here goes, and please, let me have feedback on this (see the end of this rather long post):

9.4.1 A revolution in media

Until as recently as ten years ago, cost was a major discriminator affecting the choice of technology (Hülsmann, 2000, 2003; Rumble, 2001; Bates, 2005). For instance, for educational purposes, audio (lectures, radio, audio-cassettes) was far cheaper than print, which in turn was far cheaper than most forms of computer-based learning, which in turn was far cheaper than video (television, cassettes or video-conferencing). All these media were usually seen as either added costs to regular teaching, or too expensive to use to replace face-to-face teaching, except for purely distance education on a fairly large scale.

However, there have been dramatic reductions in the cost of developing and distributing all kinds of media (except face-to-face teaching) in the last ten years, due to several factors:

  • rapid developments in consumer technologies such as smart phones that enable text, audio and video to be both created and transmitted by end users at low cost
  • compression of digital media, enabling even high bandwidth video or television to be carried over wireless, landlines and the Internet at an economic cost (at least in economically advanced countries)
  • improvements in media software, making it relatively easy for non-professional users to create and distribute all kinds of media
  • increasing amounts of media-based open educational resources, which are already developed learning materials that are free for teachers and students alike to use.

The good news then is that in general, and in principle, cost should no longer be an automatic discriminator in the choice of media. If you are happy to accept this statement at face value, than you can skip the rest of this chapter. Choose the mix of media that best meets your teaching needs, and don’t worry about which medium is likely to cost more. Indeed, a good case could be made that it would now be cheaper to replace face-to-face teaching with purely online learning, if cost was the only consideration.

In practice however costs can vary enormously both between and within media, depending once again on context and design. Since the main cost from a teacher’s perspective is their time, it is important to know what are the ‘drivers’ of cost, that is, what factors are associated with increased costs, depending on the context and the medium being used. These factors are less influenced by new technological developments, and can therefore be seen as ‘foundational’ principles when considering the costs of educational media.

Unfortunately there are many different factors that can influence the actual cost of using media in education, which makes a detailed discussion of costs very complex. As a result, I will try to identify the main cost drivers, then provide a table that provides a simplified guide to how these factors influence the costs of different media, including face-to-face teaching. This guide again should be considered as a heuristic device. So see this chapter as Media Costs 101.

9.4.1 Cost categories

The main cost categories to be considered in using educational media and technologies, and especially blended or online learning, are as follows: Development

These are the costs needed to pull together or create learning materials using particular media or technologies. There are several sub-categories of development costs:

  • production costs: making a video or building a course section in a learning management system. Included in these costs will be the time of specialist staff, such as web designers or audio-visual specialists, as well as any costs in web design or video production
  • your time as an instructor: the work you have to do as part of developing or producing materials.  This will include planning/course design as well as development. Your time is money, and probably the largest single cost in using educational technologies, but more importantly, if you are developing learning materials you are not doing other things, such as research or interacting with students, so there is a real cost, even if it is not expressed in dollar terms.
  • copyright clearance if you are using third party materials such as photos or video clips. Again, this is more likely to be thought of as time rather than money
  • probably the cost of an instructional designer in terms of their time

Development costs are usually fixed or ‘once only’ and are independent of the number of students. Once media are developed, they are usually scalable, in that once produced, they can be used by any number of learners without increased development costs. Using open educational resources can help reduce greatly media development costs. Delivery

This includes the cost of the educational activities needed during offering the course and would include instructional time spent interacting with students, instructional time spent on marking assignments, and would include the time of other staff supporting delivery, such as teaching assistants, adjuncts for additional sections and instructional designers and technical support staff.

Because of the cost of human factors such as instructional time and technical support needed in media-based teaching, delivery costs tend to increase as student numbers increase, and also have to be repeated each time the course is on offer, i.e. they are recurrent. However, increasingly with Internet-based delivery, there is usually a zero direct technology cost in delivery. Maintenance costs

Once materials for a course are created, they need to be maintained. Urls go dead, set readings may go out of print or expire, and more importantly new developments in the subject area may need to be accommodated. Thus once a course is offered, there are ongoing maintenance costs.

Instructional designers and/or media professionals can manage some of the maintenance, but nevertheless teachers or instructors will need to be involved with decisions about content replacement or updating. Maintenance is not usually a major time consumer for a single course, but if an instructor is involved in the design and production of several online courses, maintenance time can build to a significant amount.

Maintenance costs are usually independent of the number of students, but are dependent on the number of courses an instructor is responsible for, and are recurrent each year. Overheads

These include infrastructure or overhead costs, such as the cost of licensing a learning management system, lecture capture technology and servers for video steaming. These are real costs but not ones that can be allocated to a single course but will be shared across a number of courses. Overheads are usually considered to be institutional costs and, although important, probably will not influence a teacher’s decision about which media to use, provided these services are already in place and the institution does not directly charge for such services.

9.4.2 Cost drivers

The primary factors that drive cost are

  • the development/production of materials,
  • the delivery of materials,
  • number of students/scalability
  • the experience of an instructor working with the medium
  • whether the instructor develops materials alone (self-development) or works with professionals

Production of technology-based materials such as a video program, or a Web site, is a fixed cost, in that it is not influenced by how many students take the course. However, production costs can vary depending on the design of the course. Engle (2014) showed that depending on the method of video production, the development costs for a MOOC could vary by a factor of six (the most expensive production method – full studio production – being six times that of an instructor self-recording on a laptop).

Nevertheless, once produced, the cost is independent of the number of students. Thus the more expensive the course to develop, the greater the need to increase student numbers to reduce the average cost per student. (Or put another way, the greater the number of students, the more reason to ensure that high quality production is used, whatever the medium). In the case of MOOCs (which tend to be almost twice as expensive to develop as an online course for credit using a learning management system – University of Ottawa, 2013) the number of learners is so great that the average cost per student is very small. Thus there are opportunities for economies of scale from the development of digital material, provided that student course enrolments can be increased (which may not always be the case). This can be described as the potential for the scalability of a medium.

Similarly, there are costs in teaching the course once the course is developed. These tend to be variable costs, in that they increase as class size increases. If student-teacher interaction, through online discussion forums and assignment marking, is to be kept to a manageable level, then the teacher-student ratio needs to be kept relatively low (for instance, between 1:25 to 1:40, depending on the subject area and the level of the course). The more students, the more time a teacher will need to spend on delivery, or additional contract instructors will need to be hired. Either way, increased student numbers generally will lead to increased costs. xMOOCs are an exception. Their main value proposition is that they do not provide direct learner support, so have zero delivery costs. However, this is probably the reason why such a small proportion of participants successfully complete MOOCs.

There may be benefits then for a teacher or for an institution in spending more money up front for interactive learning materials if this leads to less demand for teacher-student interaction. For instance, a mathematics course might be able to use automated testing and feedback and simulations and diagrams, and pre-designed answers to frequently asked questions, with less or even no time spent on individual assignment marking or communication with the teacher. In this case it may be possible to manage teacher-student ratios as high as 1:200 or more, without significant loss of quality.

Also, experience in using or working with a particular medium or delivery method is important. The first time an instructor uses a particular medium such as podcasting, it takes much longer than subsequent productions or offerings. Some media or technologies though need much more effort to learn to use than others. Thus a related cost driver is whether the instructor works alone (self-development) or works with media professionals. Self-developing materials will usually take longer for an instructor than working with professionals.

There are advantages in teachers and instructors working with media professionals when developing digital media. Media professionals will ensure the development of a quality product, and above all can save teachers or instructors considerable time, for instance through the choice of appropriate software, editing, and storage and streaming of digital materials. Instructional designers can help in suggesting appropriate applications of different media for different learning outcomes. Thus as with all educational design, a team approach is likely to be more effective, and working with other professionals will help control the time teachers and instructors spend on media development.

Lastly, design decisions are critical. Costs are driven by design decisions within a medium. For instance cost drivers are different between lectures and seminars (or lab classes) in face-to-face teaching. Similarly, video can be used just to record talking heads, as in lecture capture, or can be used to exploit the affordances of the medium (see Section 9. 5), such as demonstrating processes or location shooting. Computing has a wide and increasing range of possible designs, including online collaborative learning (OCL), computer-based learning, animations, simulations or virtual worlds. Social media are another group of media that also need to be considered.

Figure 9.4 attempts to capture the complexity of cost factors, focusing mainly on the perspective of a teacher or instructor making decisions. Again, this should be seen as a heuristic device, a way of thinking about the issue. Other factors could be added (such as social media, or maintenance of materials). I have given my own personal ratings for each cell, based on my experience. I have taken conventional teaching as a medium or ‘average’ cost, then ranked cells as to whether there is a higher or lower cost factor for the particular medium. Other readers may well rate the cells differently.

Figure 9. Drivers of cost for educational media

Figure 9.4 Drivers of cost for educational media

Thus although in particular the time it takes to develop and deliver learning using different technologies is likely to influence an instructor’s decision about what technology to use, it is not a simple equation. For instance, developing a good quality online course using a mix of video and text materials may take much more of the instructor’s time to prepare than if the course was offered through classroom teaching. However, the online course may take less time in delivery over several years, because students may be spending more time on task online, and less time in direct interaction with the instructor. Once again, we see that design is a critical factor in how costs are assessed.

In short, from an instructor perspective, time is the critical cost factor. Technologies that take a lot of time to use are less likely to be used than those that are easy to use and thus save time. But once again design decisions can greatly affect how much time teachers or instructors need to spend on any medium, and the ability of teachers and students to create their own educational media is becoming an increasingly important factor.

9.4.3 Issues for consideration

In recent years, university faculty have generally gravitated more to lecture capture for online course delivery, particularly in institutions where online or distance learning is relatively new, because it is ‘simpler’ to do than redesign and create mainly text based materials in learning management systems. Lecture capture also more closely resembles the traditional classroom method. Pedagogically though (depending on the subject area) it may be less effective than an online course using collaborative learning and online discussion forums, as we shall see in Section 9.5. Also, from an institutional perspective lecture capture has a much higher technology cost than a learning management system.

Also, students themselves can now use their own devices to create multimedia materials for project work or for assessment purposes in the form of e-portfolios. Media allow instructors, if they wish, to move a lot of the hard work in teaching and learning from themselves to the students. Media allow students to spend more time on task, and low cost, consumer media such as mobile phones or tablets enable students themselves to create media artefacts, enabling them to demonstrate their learning in concrete ways. This does not mean that instructor ‘presence’ is no longer needed when students are studying online, but it does enable a shift in where and how a teacher or instructor can spend their time in supporting learning.

9.4.4 Questions for consideration

You may be better answering these questions when you have read Section 9.5 on the affordances of media. However, I think you will find it interesting to answer these questions before reading Section 9.5, then compare your answers after you have read Section 9.5

  1. Are concerns about the possible cost/demands on your time influencing your decisions on what media to use? If so in what ways? Has this section on costs changed your mind?
  2. How much time do you spend preparing lectures? Could that time be better spent preparing learning materials, then using the time saved from delivering lectures on interaction with students (online and/or face-to-face)?
  3. What kind of help can you get in your institution from instructional designers and media professionals for media design and development? What media decisions will the answer to this question suggest to you? For instance, if you are in a k-12 school with little or no chance for professional support, what kind of media and design decisions are you likely to make?
  4. To what extent have you explored open educational resources in your subject area? Type in the name of your course or topic + OER into Google  and see what comes up. How would the availability of such free media influence the design of your teaching?
  5. If you were filling in the cells for Figure 9.4, what differences would there be with my entries? Why?
  6. In Figure 9.4, add the following media: e-portfolios (in computing) and add another section under computing: social media. Add blogs, wikis and cMOOCs. How would you fill in the cells for each of these for development, delivery, etc.? Are there other media you would also add?
  7. Do you agree with the statement: It would now be cheaper to replace face-to-face teaching with purely online learning, if cost was the only consideration? What are the implications for your teaching if this is really true? What considerations would still justify face-to-face teaching?


Please! In particular:

  1. Are there more recent publications on the costs of different media (as distinct from online or blended learning in general) that I have missed and should include?
  2. How do you react to Figure 9.4? Is it a helpful way to think of the different conditions or factors that influence costs? If not, what approach would you take to this topic?
  3. How useful are the questions for consideration above (9.4.4) from an instructor’s perspective? Can you suggest better ones?
  4. Do you agree with the following statements:
    1. cost should no longer be an automatic discriminator in the choice of mediaChoose the mix of media that best meets your teaching needs, and don’t worry about which medium is likely to cost more.
    2. It would now be cheaper to replace face-to-face teaching with purely online learning, if cost was the only consideration. 
    3. university faculty have generally gravitated more to lecture capture for online course delivery, particularly in institutions where online or distance learning is relatively new, because it is ‘simpler’ to do than redesign and create mainly text based materials in learning management systems.
    4. Media allow students to spend more time on task, and low cost, consumer media such as mobile phones or tablets enable students themselves to create media artefacts, enabling them to demonstrate their learning in concrete ways. This does not mean that instructor ‘presence’ is no longer needed when students are studying online, but it does enable a shift in where and how a teacher or instructor can spend their time in supporting learning.
  5. Does this approach to the costs of digital media work for you? If not, what would you suggest?

Up next

The pedagogical affordances of different media:

  • text
  • audio
  • video
  • computing
  • social media
  • face-to-face teaching


Bates, A. (2005) Technology, e-Learning and Distance Education London/New York: Routledge

Engle, W. (2104)UBC MOOC Pilot: Design and Delivery Vancouver BC: University of British Columbia

Hülsmann, T. (2000) The Costs of Open Learning: A Handbook Oldenburg: Bibliotheks- und Informationssytem der Universität Oldenburg

Hülsmann, T. (2003) Costs without camouflage: a cost analysis of Oldenburg University’s  two graduate certificate programs offered  as part of the online Master of Distance Education (MDE): a case study, in Bernath, U. and Rubin, E., (eds.) Reflections on Teaching in an Online Program: A Case Study Oldenburg, Germany: Bibliothecks-und Informationssystem der Carl von Ossietsky Universität Oldenburg

Rumble, G. (2001) The Cost and Costing of Networked Learning Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, Volume 5, Issue 2

University of Ottawa (2013)Report of the e-Learning Working Group Ottawa ON: The University of Ottawa