Thursday, August 29, 2013

Costs and Economics of Open and Distance Learning

Greville Rumble's "The Costs and Economics of Open and Distance Learning" (Routledge, 1997) was written in the early days of Internet based education, but is applicable to today's MOOCs. At the time the book was written, Rumble was a planning manager at UK's Open University (OU). This experience shows in the books non-nonsense analysis of the cost of design and delivery of large scale distance education.

Rumble first provides a gentle introduction to budgets, costing, the effect of volume on cost, attribution and activity costing. Academics might ask what any of this has to do with their design and delivery of education, but resources for education are always limited and so it helps to plan for their use.

Rumble then discusses costing the design of courses, comparing traditional face-to-face courses with distance education. While this was written at the dawn of the Internet age, where dial-up modems were new hot technology, the concepts and approach are still relevant. The central point of distance education, including today's MOOCs, are that you need a large number of students to make them cost effective. The materials must be designed carefully, most likely by a team of people and then tested.

Rumble discusses the cost of developing text versus multimedia (audio, video). Open University was conceived as being reliant on broadcast TV, with full professional program making by the BBC. But the point is made that the production quality of the video makes no difference to the educational outcomes. High quality professional video production does not help the students learn any better (although I suggest it may influence their perception of the quality of the course).

Surprisingly, given OU's comprehensive approach to course material design, Rumble suggests that simple conversion of face-to-face courses is cost and educationally effective. This involves conversion of lecture notes into a booklet and recording of lectures on video.

One area Rumble does not explore at length is the cost of assessment. This is a significant part of any course and teaching techniques which use progressive assessment preclude it being simply relegated to an examination at the end.

Academics do not need to know all the detail of costing courses, particularly not the equations presented in this book. But the general principles should be part of the basic training of all of those who design university courses.

Many institutions pioneers of distance education are mentioned by Rumble. Some which caught my attention are Athabasca University (which offers my Green IT course), University College of Southern Queensland, which is now the University of Southern Queensland (I was an online higher education student there last year) and Indira Gandhi Open University (which I was presented with a tie from by Professor Uma Kanjilal, Director of the School of Social Sciences, INGOU on a visit to ANU).

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