NEPC Review: The Costs of Online Learning (Thomas B. Fordham Institute, January 2012)
Schools and school systems throughout the nation are increasingly experimenting with using various instructional technologies to improve productivity and decrease costs, but evidence on both the effectiveness and the costs of education technology is limited. A recent report published by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute sets out to describe “the size and range of the critical cost drivers for online schools in comparison to traditional brick-and-mortar schools” (p. 2). The study divides online learning into two broad categories—virtual schools and blended-learning schools—and, based on data from 50 experts, reports that “the average overall per-pupil costs of both models are significantly lower than the $10,000 national average for traditional brick-and-mortar schools” (p. 1). These findings, however, are undermined by a general lack of clarity about the models being studied and problematic data and methods. While the report addresses an important topic, the utility of its cost estimates are limited. Of more value are the qualitative findings about how various cost drivers affect the overall costs of online learning. The study would be more useful if it provided a rigorous analysis of a set of well-defined promising models of online learning as the basis for its cost estimates.