Office of Planning and Budgeting

Online Learning Still Plagued by Uncertainty

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute published an interesting paper recently called Creating Sound Policy for Digital Learning. While primarily focused on the role of technology in K-12 education, the paper provides perspective for higher education as well. This topic is especially important as the economic crisis continues to push universities to produce more with less and, as a result, demands to scale up online learning intensify.

The paper recognizes the hope and possibility that technology will produce productivity gains in education over the long-term, but addresses major questions about quality and cost and emphasizes the need for systematic testing and analysis prior to radically changing today’s teaching model. Among the important points brought up in the paper:

  • We must question not only whether online learning can be less expensive than traditional learning, but, more importantly, whether it can be both less expensive and at least as good (or better) in quality and outcomes. We do not yet have enough data to answer this question.
  • The world of online learning is not monolithic. There are many ways to integrate technology with learning , and each model has very different costs and benefits and downsides.
  • Like with any new model, the start-up costs are very high and require a large up-front  investment.
  • Many assume that online learning will minimize labor costs by reducing a reliance on in-person instruction, but labor costs associated with developing, running, and maintaining sophisticated technology-based programs are themselves very high.
  • Similarly, online learning requires a dependence on expensive equipment (not only individual learning devices for teachers and students, but also servers, storage, and all the needs that accompany the maintenance and management of a large, technology-based enterprise).
  • Because technology changes so frequently, many of these costs are confronted anew on a much more regular basis than in a traditional educational model (e.g. Universities spending millions to wire entire campuses and then very quickly having to switch everything over to WiFi).

Technology has revolutionized how we live and do business in the modern world. This has been true in education as well, but the effect has not yet been as transformative as was hoped for. As education becomes more important in developing the human capital required for the economy of the future, its rising costs have become a bigger target for reform. And while it is clear that technology can and should play a larger role in changing how we educate the students of tomorrow, it is important that neither the tools of education nor the cost of education take precedence over the quality of the education.

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