A group of superintendents and secondary school educators in Massachusetts gathered recently to discuss how online courses might help offset budget cuts. Maryland state officials, meanwhile, say their virtual Advanced Placement classes are a cost-effective way to get high-quality coursework to more students.
And the largest state-sponsored online school in the country, the Florida Virtual School, has long argued that online courses cost less than face-to-face classes—an especially attractive pitch when budgets are tight.
But is e-learning really more cost-effective than traditional, brick-and-mortar schooling?
The debate on that question has acquired new urgency, as schools look for ways to keep or expand their course offerings while also controlling or cutting costs during a recession.
The answer to the question, experts say, depends on what curriculum is used, whether it is a full-time or part-time program, what state you are in, and how many students you need to serve, among other factors.
In the current economic environment, “most districts are not adding a bunch of new services, but thinking about how to preserve services,” says Bill Tucker, the managing director of the Washington-based think tank Education Sector, which has conducted research on the costs of online learning.
Still, some experts caution schools not to see e-learning simply or primarily as a cost-saving tool because quality online learning programs do require significant financial investments.