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CAUT Bulletin Archives

August 2002

Perspectives on Online Learning

Jeffery Taylor

Dollars, Distance and Online Education: The New Economics of College Teaching and Learning

Martin J. Finkelstein, Carol Frances, Frank I. Jewett & Bernhard W. Scholz, eds. Phoenix, Arizona: American Council on Education and Oryx Press, 2000; 373 pp; hardcover $39.95 US.
The impact of new educational technologies on academic work is a contentious issue on university campuses across Canada. As the November 2001 CAUT conference on online education revealed, there is a range of opinion among faculty union members in Canada and the United States about the impact and meaning of technology in higher education.

Dollars, Distance and Online Education is a collection of articles by U.S.-based researchers, administrators and private consultants that addresses the specific issue of the costs of online and distributed education from a mostly employer or employer-friendly perspective.

What does it cost to deliver an online course? How does the cost of online delivery compare to face-to-face instruction? What do we mean by online delivery? While the contributors to this volume do not provide definitive answers to these questions - and, in some cases only reframe them and refine the methodology of answering them - there is general agreement that online delivery represents a significant reallocation of resources with profound implications for the deployment and organization of academic, professional and support staff labour in universities and colleges.

Judith V. Boettcher, in a useful discussion of the comparative costs of mounting four different kinds of courses on the Web, concludes that a complete "Webcourse" with all course material and interaction online would cost $184,000 to develop. This includes about 360 hours of staff time in a course team consisting of a project manager, academic experts, instructional designers, technical support people, graphical designers, editors and clerical support.

Even a "WebCentric" course, in which about 50 per cent of the course interaction continues to be face-to-face, would cost $74,000 and use 142 hours of staff time to develop.

While Boettcher does not compare the costs of online to face-to-face instruction, other authors in the collection do try to address this thorny question. But, as Dennis Jones and Frank Jewett point out in their article "Procedures for Calculating the Costs of Alternative Modes of Instructional Delivery," it has been impossible to gain a true picture of comparative costs because of the absence of "costing methodologies that make delivery modes explicit and consider the full range of costs associated with each mode so that valid comparisons can be made." (p. 216)

Generally, though, there is agreement in the collection that per-student costs will increase when information technology is used as an adjunct to traditional classroom instruction. And, in the case of pure online delivery, cost savings can only be achieved by substituting capital for labour on a large scale. In other words, cost efficiencies result when resources are reallocated from faculty and other labour to technology and economies of scale are achieved by offering the same course content to hundreds of students.

One study suggests 1,400 annual course enrolments are necessary to achieve cost efficiencies, but even this number may be too low because it does not account for the fact that regular and ongoing revisions are required to keep course material current. (p. 42; p. 274)

The contributors also agree that development of online education has profound implications for faculty. Academic work is being "unbundled" and divided into discrete parts (course team manager, academic expert, webspace designer, tutor/facilitator), workloads are changing as classrooms are always open and students come to expect instant and constant availability, and intellectual property is becoming contested terrain.

In the most faculty-friendly piece in the collection, Christine Maitland, Rachel Hendrickson and Leroy Dubeck provide an overview of the role of faculty and faculty work in a technologically changing environment, including a handy sampling of distance-education contract language from representative U.S. collective agreements.

They conclude that "converting traditional courses to online courses takes time and money," that "institutions need to invest in professional development to train faculty" for distance teaching, and that "students are not shortchanged in the rush to tap into the distance education market." (p. 293)

This collection will be of interest to university and college workers who want to know what administrators are being told about the financial costs and benefits of online education. As those workers and their unions devise strategies to confront employers on these issues, however, they should resist the temptation to be simply reactive.

We should remember that work in distance education universities has been organized for decades on an industrial model that contrasts with the craft model that persists in traditional universities. And, not surprisingly, academic unions in the former institutions - with a mix of traditional faculty, editors, instructional designers and other professional workers - look more like industrial than craft unions.

Labour history suggests the shift in emphasis from craft to industrial unionism in the early 20th century contained both positive and negative elements. As we negotiate our way through what appears to be the decline of craft production in traditional universities, we should think about what kind of post-craft workplaces and unions we want to build.

Jeffery Taylor is president-elect of the Athabasca University Faculty Association and a researcher in the TeleLearning Network of Centres of Excellence.