The recent report from the Fordham Institute, ‘The Costs of Online Learning’ suggests that full-time virtual classrooms cost an average of $6,400 per pupil, compared with the average cost at traditional schools of $10,000.
The report was in favor of the online school model being pursued and concluded that:
Ultimately, a focus on productivity, with equal and joined emphasis on costs and outcomes, will ensure that all forms of online learning help us to improve outcomes for schoolchildren while working within the financial realities of this economic period.
However, the conclusion that it’s significantly cheaper for students to be educated online is being challenged by the Think Twice think tank review project. The review was produced by the National Education Policy Center and funded by Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice. Jennifer King Rice, a professor at the University of Maryland comments that:
“It is surprising that this report cites no empirical evidence on the costs or effectiveness of the various approaches to online learning,”
The review suggests that the original report suffers credibility problems deriving from the lack of evidence-based approaches utilized:
“Given the growing use of technology in K-12 education as a way to improve student outcomes and decrease costs, policymakers need evidence on how best to invest limited resources. However, the report’s lack of clarity surrounding the models being studied and methodological shortcomings limit its utility,”
The derivation of the original figures quoted in the report is also challenged. While King refers to the use of an estimate from the National Center for Education Statistics’ Digest of Education Statistics as ‘reasonable’ to assess a ballpark figure for the cost of traditional schools, she does note many concerns in its use in a comparison with the costs of online schooling.
First, the national estimate includes schools already using various forms of educational technology, which may bias the figure upwards. Second, the Digest’s average per-pupil expenditure figure includes special education students, English language learners, and other “high cost” student groups who may not be well served by the online learning models included in this analysis.