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The "Promises" of online higher education: Reducing costs

TitleThe "Promises" of online higher education: Reducing costs
Publication TypeReport
Year of Publication2013
Corporate AuthorsCampaign for the Future of Higher Education
Date Published10/2013
Type of WorkCFHE Working Papers
KeywordsMOOC business model, MOOC cost, online course expenses

The notion that MOOCs and other online courses will reduce the costs of providing higher education and the price students pay for it is a key part of the presumed “promise” of online learning. The question of whether these courses can actually deliver on these grand claims has rarely been explored–and for good reason. Legislators offering up MOOCs instead of funding, administrators building the “efficiencies” and “innovation” sections of their résumés with MOOCs, and corporate providers of MOOC-related goods and services are not likely to look hard at the costs of actually developing and offering such courses.

This paper looks at the trend of charging students more for online courses and at developments in MOOCs that also point to increased costs for students desiring actual degree credit. In sum, the push for more online courses has not made higher education cheaper for students. The promise has always been that it will –but that day always seems to be in the future.

A tally of the often-hidden costs of producing high-quality MOOCs and other online courses suggests that these courses are not actually cheaper for colleges and universities either. In fact, if done well, they can even cost more to produce than traditional face-to-face classes.

The evidence on time faculty put into a single MOOC, not to mention the array of technical support, hardware, and software required to put one on, suggests that while some costs may go down in online courses, others go up to offset any purported “savings.” While the public, legislators, and even college administrators assume online courses offer savings because of their “repeatability,” the expanded class size they make possible, and the reduced labor costs that result, the expectation that online classes will be cheaper to offer than traditional face-to-face ones is a pipe dream.

In fact, instead of reduced costs and lowered prices, we can expect even more pressures on colleges to increase tuition to cover the ever-expanding array of costs associated with the rush to go online.

With all that is at stake for the futures of millions of students and for our society, a harder look at the real costs of online higher education is long overdue. At a minimum, there should be more complete accounting by universities of the costs to produce online courses, more comparative data on tuition prices for face-to-face and online credit-bearing courses, and greater openness and transparency about the terms of contracts between public colleges and online providers.


Copyright © 2012, Campaign for the Future of Higher Education

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