Can Online Programs and Digital Tools Help Students Spend Less Money?...

Digital Learning

Can Online Programs and Digital Tools Help Students Spend Less Money? #DLNchat

By Michael Sano     Jun 14, 2018

Can Online Programs and Digital Tools Help Students Spend Less Money? #DLNchat

Even when tuition is free, attending college can be expensive. Many students need to cover the cost of housing, food and family care in addition to their educational expenses. Can online learning and digital tools help learners save money? On Tuesday, June 12 the #DLNchat community got together to dive into how improving digital learning could help institutions pass along savings to students, and how technology might also help reduce indirect costs for college attendance.

One of the larger questions during the chat was about scaling for cost efficiency. A report titled “Making Digital Learning Work” by Arizona State University found that online courses saved institutions up to 50 percent on average credit hour costs, but the study only looked at large-scale efforts. So do programs have to be huge to find savings? Paul Wilson endorsed scalability as a means to make tuition competitive. Others agreed that scaling certainly helps. “Right now, I think we need the economy of scale to cover the investment of content creation and interactions needed to keep a course moving forward, and provide feedback to the students,” Alex Kluge said. Kluge also pointed out that while moving online can be expensive for institutions it allows resources to be redistributed to “situations where more personalized interaction is necessary.”

A few #DLNchat-ters made the case that going online can be cost efficient no matter the size of the effort. Cali Morrison believes that instead of thinking big or small we need to think about right-sized programs. “While upfront costs can be more, I would say that thoughtfully planned, and creating learning objects that can be used in all modalities helps reduce costs without needing to be large scale,” she said. In other words, when institutions can identify costs early and then effectively allocate resources, the awards are evident. Digital learning can support enrollment growth and improved completion rates to lower overall costs for institutions to pass along to students. But how, exactly, have schools seen this play out?

Faculty and administrators at #DLNchat repeatedly shared about successfully saving students money through the use of OER. Based on textbook cost trends from College Board, Morrison estimated that American Public University has saved its undergraduates as much as $5,000 per student over the course of their degree by utilizing OER. Shannon Riggs shared about Oregon State University’s efforts to provide no-cost course materials for general education requirements through its open path program. Alexis McHenry Morton posited that OER can lead to improved performance and indirect savings for students as well: “Students have persisted through initial terms because they don't need to pay exorbitant costs for texts and they're more successful because they're doing the reading.”

Improved student success and retention came up throughout the chat as a conduit for saving students tuition dollars. Riggs shared more about the effort at OSU reduce attrition to reduce costs, reporting success through initial pilots with adaptive courseware. When cost savings help students persist and succeed, they continue to save money by not having to repeat courses and subsequent tuition payments. But even when textbook costs are eliminated and tuition costs are diminished, is that enough?

There are growing efforts to provide free tuition at community colleges around the country, but several folks at #DLNchat argued that free tuition is not sufficient support for learners. Some proposed furthering real savings through virtual solutions, such as VR labs and libraries. The thought is students could save time and money on commuting and more easily afford housing and other everyday needs.

#DLNchat-ters, however, see the biggest savings for students from technology through improved efficiencies. Tina Rettler-Pagel suggested starting small by leveraging tech to reduce fees like those for transcript requests. The ripple effect could be huge. Jennifer Albat shared how new, truncated winter and summer terms being offered online at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville were making an impact for students. Willem Wallinga talked about what he termed “pedagogical efficiency” and provided these examples: “Technology helps provide instant feedback, makes office hours more flexible, and facilitates paths for multiple learning styles.”

There were also strong voices to improve efficiency for credit transfers and incentivizing institutions to accept credits from free offerings that students could use to build degrees. Jill Buban put it this way, “Schools using prior learning assessment models can have a big opportunity to reduce money with MOOCs and other alternative credits.” Murmurs in the chat revealed these types of efforts are growing and some colleges are even making intentional partnerships with alternative providers and employers. Nancy Rubin praised such efforts: “Innovative programs such as this are great models for public-private partnerships.”

But what should the role of employers be in addressing educational costs? Paul Wilson felt that, “Tuition reimbursement is a first line of defense. Corporations may partner with community colleges to define certification programs and underwrite part of those learning tracks.” Whoever is footing the bill, the #DLNchat community agreed the bill can be reduced through technology-enhanced efficiencies and altering practices for transferring units. Kluge summed it up concisely: “Break education into smaller, more affordable, pieces.” Could it really be that simple? Perhaps, but Kluge also issued a warning for us to remember that probably it’s not: “While we endeavor to make education more affordable and accessible, we may in fact make it less accessible to the very audience we most need to reach.”

How do you think digital learning can improve college affordability? Tweet our community with #DLNchat to share your ideas! You can also RSVP for our next chat: How Should Academic Programs Integrate AR/VR into the Curriculum? on Tuesday, July 10 at 1pm PT/ 4pm ET to get reminders beforehand. For other topics, check out our index of past chats. #DLNchat is co-hosted by the Online Learning Consortium, WCET and Tyton Partners.

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