Blended Learning | Viewpoint

How Much Does Blended Learning Cost?

In the second installment of their monthly column, blended learning experts Michael B. Horn and Heather Staker address the issue of blended learning costs.

Many public schools are running to implement blended learning out of the belief that it will save them money. In this time of bleak budgets, who can blame them? Schools need to do whatever they can to continue to operate and provide a decent education for their students.

State policymakers are similarly attracted to the notion of blended learning. Many eagerly wonder how much blended learning costs so that they can begin to reap some true savings from their education budgets for the other pressing obligations that are bearing down on state governments.

And then the question arrives. How much does blended learning cost?

And then the answer--it depends--disappoints. Determining the cost of blended learning isn't so simple. There is no single answer.

Many inputs go into the costs behind a blended-learning school: the number of teachers and administrators; their specific salaries; the instructional materials and technologies; student services; and other school operations. The answer of what a particular blended-learning school will cost not only depends on the model implemented, but also the particular state policies in place that determine pay scales and the like (ultimately the "true cost" of public education is a pretty direct function of whatever the government will pay).

In our opinion, the most authoritative report on the costs of blended learning is a paper titled "The Costs of Online Learning." Published by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute as part of its series titled "Creating Sound Policy for Digital Learning," authors Tamara Butler Battaglino, Matt Haldeman, and Eleanor Laurans, all of The Parthenon Group, do a good job of laying out the specific costs of blended learning and presenting a range of scenarios that paints the low, mid-range, and high end of what blended learning might reasonably cost. It's well worth the read.

Their initial framing is critical. They conclude that because it is impossible to put a single price tag on online learning--of which blended learning is one form--the paper "attempts to estimate average costs--and a range of costs--for online learning as currently practiced in the U.S. It's widely believed that online teaching and learning will save money compared with traditional schools, and that may be true under some circumstances. Certainly it's possible. But the choices, trade-offs, quality considerations, and timelines matter enormously."

The paper reaches the conclusion that the costs of blended learning are significantly lower than the $10,000 national average for traditional brick-and-mortar schools. They find that, on average, the costs range from $7,600 to $10,200. But there is wide variation with numbers both higher and lower than those average figures. The authors take care to emphasize that choosing different cost structures mean accepting different trade offs, and that there are key start-up and professional development costs that shouldn't be overlooked.

Our own view is that blended learning will and should help schools--and ultimately the public--save money. But the overriding reason to adopt a blended-learning school isn't because of its cost savings, but instead because of the benefits for students that can result. Ultimately blended learning should help schools and policymakers move our education system to a student-centric one that educates children both more effectively and efficiently. And just as there is no one-size-fits-all way to educate a child, there will be no one-size-fits all way to implement blended learning.

Click here to read Horn and Staker's first column, "Forget About Blended Learning Best Practices."

About the Authors

Michael Horn is co-founder of the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation and co-author of Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns and Choosing College: How to Make Better Learning Decisions throughout Your Life.

Heather Staker is a senior education research fellow at Innosight Institute.