How Do We Equate Investment in On-Line Learning Versus Face-to-Face?

It’s relatively early/late where I am because my jet lag has hit and I’m not quite sure which zone I’m in. This is probably a little rambly but I hope that there’s at least something to drive some thinking or discussion. No doubt, there is an excellent link that I can’t find, which describes all of this, so please send it to me or drop it into the comments!

One of the things I’m thinking about at the moment is how to quantify an equivalent ‘Teaching Dollar’ that reflects what an institution has to spend to support a student. Now, while this used to be based on investment in a bricks-and-mortar campus, a set number of hours and instructional support, we now have an extra dimension as blended learning spreads – the costs required for on-line and mobile components. We can look at a course in terms of course content, number of units contributing to degree progress, hopefully tie this into a quantification of requisite skill and knowledge components and then get a very rough idea of what we’re spending per “knowledge progress unit” in board dollar terms.

What’s the electronic equivalent of a lecture theatre? If I can run an entire course on-line, for n students, should I get the equivalent dollar support value as if they were on campus, using the expensive bricks-and-mortar facilities? If we spend $x on lecture theatres, what do we have to spend on on-line resources to have the equivalent utility in terms of teaching support? In a flipped classroom, where almost all informational review takes place outside of class and class is reserved for face-to-face activities, we can increase the amount of material because it’s far more efficient for someone to read something than it is for us to chalk-and-talk them through it. Do we measure the time that we spent producing electronic materials in terms of how much classroom time we could have saved or do we just draw a line under it and say “Well, this is what we should have been doing?”

On-line initiatives don’t work unless they have enough support, instructor presence, follow-up and quality materials. There are implicit production costs, distribution issues – it all has to be built on a stable platform. To do this properly takes money and time, even if it’s sound investment that constructs a solid base for future expansion. Physical lecture theatres are, while extremely useful, expensive to build, slow to build and they can only be used by one class at a time. We’re still going to allocate an instructor to a course but, as we frequently discuss, some electronic aspects require a producer as well to allow the lecturer to stay focused on teaching (or facilitating learning) while the producer handles some of the other support aspects. Where does the money for that producer come from? The money you save by making better use of your physical resources or the money you save by being able to avoid building a new lecture theatre at all. If we can quantity an equivalent dollar value, somehow, then we can provide a sound case for the right levels of support for on-line and the investment in mobile and, rather than look like we’re spending more money, we may be able to work out if we’re spending more money or whether it’s just in a different form.

I’m mulling on a multi-axis model that identifies the investment in terms of physical infrastructure, production support and electronic resources. With the spread of PDF slides and lecture recordings, we’re already pushing along the electronic resources line but most of this is low investment in production support (and very few people get money for a slide producer). The physical infrastructure investment and use is high right now but it’s shifting. So what I’m looking to do is get some points in three-space that represent several courses and see if I can define a plane (or surface) that represents equivalence along the axes. I have a nasty suspicion that not all of the axes are even on the same scales – at least one of them feels log-based to me.

If we define a point in the space (x,y,z) as (Physical, Production, Electronic) then, assuming that a value of 10 corresponds to “everything in a lecture theatre” for physical (and the equivalent of total commitment on the other axes), then the “new traditional” lecture of physical lectures with slide support and recordings would be (10,0,2) and a high quality on-line course would be (0,10,10). Below is a very sketchy graph that conveys almost no information on this.

Simple 3-Axis model in the most unclear graph ever.

It would be really easy if x+y+z = V, where V was always the same magnitude, but the bounding equation is, on for a maximum value of M in each axis, actually x+y+z <= 3M. Could we even have a concept of negative contribution, to reflect that lack of use of a given facility will have an impact on learning and teaching investment in the rest of our course, or in terms of general awareness?

I suspect that I need a lot more thought and a lot more sleep on this. Come back in a few months. 🙂

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