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Reviewer Picks Apart E-Learning Costs Report

Jennifer King Rice, an education professor from the University of Maryland, recently published a review of "The Costs of Online Learning" paper released by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute back in January. Rice concludes that while attempting to analyze the costs of online learning versus traditional brick-and-mortar schools is an important goal, because of research and design flaws, the report fails to be a credible source of cost estimates and analysis for online and blended learning environments.

While the report states that it "attempt[s] to estimate average costs ... for online learning as currently practiced in the U.S.," it cites its data for those estimates as interviews with 50 entrepreneurs, policy experts, and school leaders, which Rice deems as insufficient. No information about how those interviewees were selected or what they were asked accompanies the report, she says.

The report also does not address where the data for the cost analysis came from, nor the models or instruments used for the analysis, says Rice. And the report fails to draw on the body of research literature about online learning to help better define terms such as "online learning," "online instruction," and "technology-rich education," nor does it use research to validate the statements the report makes about the use of technology in schools, Rice says.

"The analysis would be much stronger and more useful if it focused on a set of well-defined promising models of online learning instead of relying on a vague set of undisclosed projects as the basis for cost estimates," writes Rice in her review.

In addition, the report divides school costs into five factors (teachers and administrators, content acquisition, technology and infrastructure, school operations, and student support), but does not account for factors such as assessment and accountability or state approval and compliance, says Rice. It also does not take into account costs of education that are passed on to families of students in online learning environments, such as space and equipment, she says.

"The presentation of cost estimates in tidy tables masks the imprecision that results from the research design," says Rice in her critique. "The potential consequence is that the estimates may mislead policymakers, or be misused to advance particular policy agendas."

For more about the costs of online learning, as well as the need for more rigorous and robust research on the field, refer to Education Week's series of special reports about online learning.

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