Saturday, March 14, 2009

Carol Twigg's resarch on cost effectiveness of e-learning

Cost analysis model

The first lesson from this research is the obvious, but not often applied, principle that the application of technology in learning will have greatest impact on larger courses.


The results were astounding. With 30 redesigned courses taken by 50,000 students:

·         all 30 reduced costs by 40 percent on average

·         cost saving ranging from 20 percent to 84 percent

·         increased course-completion rates

·         improved retention

·         better student attitudes toward the subject matter

·         increased student satisfaction with the new mode of instruction

·         cost savings of $3.6 million each year

But it was the means to these ends that were interesting. Some clear lessons about the application of technology to learning were learnt.

Cost reductions

Unless the organisation sees e-learning as a fundamental shift in practice, success is unlikely. A good measure for assessing costs is ‘cost per student’. There’s no real mystery as to how this can be improved, by having:

·         reduced costs with fixed number of students

·         fixed costs but increasing student numbers

·         lower drop-out rates and repeat courses

Whatever the strategy, it is clear that cost control or reductions need to be taken seriously. This may be difficult within an institution, due to cultural resistance and other obstacles, but it does have to be taken seriously. A cost, quite simply is a loss. If it can be reduced one should be duty bound to realise that saving, so that the money can be saved, or better spent elsewhere.

One of the most useful findings in this report is the honest appraisal of potential cost reductions. It is clear that people are the most expensive link in the learning chain. If technology can be used to reduce the amount of time faculty spend in teaching, monitoring and assessing students, considerable cost savings are possible.

The most effective cost saving applications of technology were:

·         Online Course-Management Systems

·         Automated Assessment of Exercises, Quizzes, and Tests

·         Online Tutorials

·         Shared Resources

·         Staffing Substitutions

·         Reduced Space Requirements

Online Course-Management Systems

These systems can administer students, classes and content. Many offer collaborative learning software. The cost reductions come from:

·         Reduced time on assignments

·         Reduced time by faculty on marking assessments

·         Reduced photocopying and distribution of course materials

·         Increased efficiencies in monitoring students

Automated Assessment of Exercises, Quizzes, and Tests

E-assessment automates much of the process. Huge savings in time and costs come from the automation of the design, delivery, grading and posting of assessment results. Much more formative assessment also takes place. This type of feedback motivates students reducing drop-out rates.

Online Tutorials

Online content is accessible 24/7, consistent, sustainable and scalable. It reduces the workload on teachers by presenting knowledge prior to the teaching, making teaching easier, as well as being available for reinforcement at any time. This can radically reduce the amount of teaching time on a course, or reduce the need for high-cost faculty staff. A huge range of such material can be made available from simple documents, spreadsheets and models to full blown tutorials and simulations.

Shared Resources

Avoiding duplication of effort is one of the greatest potential cost savings in education. When one gets away from the idea that every teacher is also a course designer, shared effort pays dividends. This proved to be a considerable source of cost savings. Once shared resources are online, huge amounts of time can be saved by both instructors and students.

Staffing Substitutions

Faculty are often the most expensive cost item in any course. By substituting some of the teaching time with lower cost learning assistants, considerable cost savings were achievable. The University of Colorado, SUNY at Buffalo, Virginia Tech, and Penn State all use learning assistants as a major cost-saving device. These LAs also proved more effective, in some cases, dues to their closeness to the audience, course and typical misunderstandings. Another neat variation on this theme is the ‘course assistant’ who handles all non-content queries by students. This can account for up to 90% of actual student queries.

Reduced Space Requirements

An often overlooked cost saving is the reduced need for expensive classrooms and lecture rooms for face-to-face instruction. This is not always easy to realise but Central Florida and others did recoup costs due to reduced space requirements. 


As one would expect, some are saving less than they thought they would, others more. However, the research ‘With regard to cost savings’ was described as ‘an unqualified success’ with the 30 courses are expecting a savings of about $3.6 million annually. Interestingly, the major cause of variation in cost savings was the way in which faculty time was treated. Greater savings were achieved by those who redirected faculty time. Those who simply redirected faculty time to other activities on the course did not achieve anything near these savings. Non-faculty support was another major factor.

In simple terms, quality can be delivered at reduced costs through the appropriate use of technology. What seems to matter is a holistic redesign of the whole course to optimise ALL available resources; the use of faculty, technology and other support staff.

For a more European perspective research from the Centre for Educational Research at the OECD is also worth examining, although it is less focussed with less rigour and therefore has  with lots of ‘jury’s out’ conclusions.

The research is available from "E-learning: The Partnership Challenge", from the OECD, with detailed case studies of 20 post-secondary education institutions from 13 countries. It identifies best practices/innovations, faculty changes and academic trends. This and other reports often ask the wrong questions. They simply look at what is happening, not well structured, well funded research projects which put hypotheses to the test.

Another important point is that the institutions may be slow in using e-learning, but students are not. It is difficult to find a learner who is NOT an e-learner, coming as they do from a generation which has grown up with the internet and Google.

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