Online learning: A solution to the budget crisis?

As school systems around the country face severe financial problems, everyone’s talking about what might be cut from budgets. There is one area, however, where spending is likely to increase in many parts of America: online learning.

Proponents say online classes have many benefits, including allowing students to go at their own pace and increasing the number of courses any one school can offer. What is now particularly alluring to school districts, though, is the notion that digital classrooms can also be money-savers, as they typically require fewer personnel.

In New York City, for instance, even as its new school budget is being slashed and some 4,600 teachers face layoffs, the Department of Education is increasing its funding for technology, as part of a general “move toward more online learning,” The New York Times reported recently.

Right now, all but two states offer some form of online learning. Twenty-seven of them are home to full-time virtual schools. In state-run programs alone, 450,000 students were enrolled in online classes last year, according to Stateline. And that’s not counting private digital providers, which are a booming market.

But even as more places seem to be ramping up online offerings, Texas’s Virtual School Network is on the chopping block. The state’s House and Senate budget proposals seek to eliminate over $20 million for the system, according to a recent article by My San Antonio.

One paragraph in the story is worthy of particular attention: It might not be a foregone conclusion that online courses are cheaper than face-to-face alternatives.

San Antonio Independent School District (SAISD) “enrolled 25 students in [an online] driver’s education course last summer. A few opted out during the course for scheduling reasons, and the district considered the pilot program a success, said David Udovich, SAISD’s executive director for secondary initiatives. But the district didn’t see an immediate savings because it assigned a teacher to monitor student progress and it had to make the technology available to students who might not have it at home.”

I’ve talked with officials in several school systems that offer online classes for students to “recover” credit from classes they’ve failed, and many people have told me that to have a high-quality online class, you still need some sort of teacher presence, whether virtual or physical. While this can be done in ways that minimize costs, it’ll still always be more expensive than just having students work their way through courses without support or monitoring.

And at a higher-education conference I attended recently, a presenter from a community college discussed how the institution had begun delivering its math courses in a “mixed mode” — or half in a traditional classroom and half in a computer lab. The program had great results in terms of the percentage of students passing the class, but taking into account all of the components — like computer-lab proctors and tutors — the presenter said the community college didn’t really save any money.

That’s not to say online learning can’t ever, or often, be cheaper than traditional learning in classrooms with teachers. But it’s worth keeping in mind that, in general, the higher a program’s quality, the higher its costs.