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Breaking Down the Cost of Virtual Ed.

As a follow-up to my co-blogger Kathleen's post about the story I recently wrote for Education Week about the cost of virtual education, I thought I might take a few minutes to talk about some of the challenges of writing this article as well as some of the information I found that didn't quite make it in.

The first thing I found when I started reporting on this story was that there is no easy answer to the question of how cost-effective virtual education is. It's hard to say, "Yes, online education is cheaper," or "No, it is not." Instead, there are a myriad of factors that go into the equation which make it impossible to give a straightforward answer. Everything from what state you're in to how many students you have to what grade levels those students are in to what classes you'd like to look for—all of those factors and many more play a key role in determining what the cost of online education would be.

One factor that I wanted to mention specifically is the extreme variation in the types of online programs available. The term "online education" refers to such a broad range of services—everything from basically a syllabus posted online with some online modules that requires a parent's supervision and very little contact with a teacher to full-time online programs where teachers and students work very closely together on all subjects—that unless you specify exactly what you're talking about, it's tricky to estimate price.

As some of the folks I spoke with mentioned, some of the savings that come from online ed. are a result of outsourcing what the school would normally have to pay to other places. For example, in an online program that uses a parent-mentor instead of a teacher, there are obvious cost savings. And online classes that make use of computers in students' homes as well as libraries and community centers essentially divert the cost of technology to other places rather than requiring the school to provide it. Of course, some online education programs provide everything—including full-time teachers, all the hardware and software, as well as the infrastructure to support the school—and those programs are obviously going to be more expensive.

Another point I wanted to address is the lack of data available on the cost of online programs. I did speak with Cathy Cavanaugh, who has a report coming out in April that addresses the cost of virtual education, but the data she gave me (which is what I quoted in the story) is based on a fairly small sample size and only takes into consideration part-time online programs, rather than full-time programs. She found that the per-pupil cost of online learning was about $4,300 compared to $9,100 for the per-pupil cost of a traditional classroom. However, it's hard to really stack those numbers against each other since the $9,100 refers to a full-time traditional classroom setting while the $4,300 essentially refers to the part-time online student, multiplied out to reflect a full number of classes. It doesn't, however, include the services that a full-time online program would have to provide, which makes that number lower than what a full-time online program might be per pupil.

Here's a study from 2006 that examines some of those costs, but there really isn't much current data on how much different kinds of online programs cost. That's frustrating to me, as a reporter trying to write about this subject, but I can't imagine how difficult it must be for school administrators trying to get their heads around this complex subject.

At any rate, online education is a subject that we're going to continue to follow closely here at Education Week and Digital Directions, and hopefully we'll be able to sort out some of these difficult issues.

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