Why Do Educators Embrace High-Cost Technologies?

Anna C. McFadden, Ph.D.,
George E. Marsh II, Ed.D., and Barrie Jo Price, Ed.D. The University of Alabama College of Education, Wilson Hall
Mailing address: P.O. Box 870302
Tuscaloosa, Alabama, 35487-0302
205-333-9185 (phone)
205-333-8288 (fax)


Web-based instruction (WBI) is a comprehensive set of  instructional  materials available through a browser over the Internet, an intranet, or extranet.  WBI can provide content in hypertext, audio, video files, and other multimedia formats, and include such resources as chat, threaded discussion, e-mail, and hyperlinks.   Many institutions of higher education (IHE) choose expensive distance education options rather than WBI, although WBI is much less expensive and equally effective.  The reasons for selecting a more expensive alternative are related to the world view of college instructors about the teaching-learning process, traditional functions of the university, and an evolutionary process of technology acquisition.  Administrators should carefully weigh the costs of development against the outcomes to contain costs of distance education delivery.


Many recent articles in professional publications and the popular press have reported on the growth of distance education courses in higher education.  There has been very little attention to how decisions are made to develop distance courses or the underlying pressures on administrators who are confronted with critical decisions about course development and implementation. Saba (1999) described a "dynamic model of distance education" said to depict the progression of  technological adoption by institutions of higher education (IHE); the model is summarized as follows:

Efficacy of Distance Education

It is presumed that conventional instruction by the professoriat is the ideal, so any alternative must bear scrutiny.  Despite criticism (Hoague, 1998) that distance education lacks sound educational practice and theory, research shows that distance education programs produce learning outcomes equal to face-to-face instruction (e.g., Russell, 1999; Moore & Thompson, 1990; Beare, 1989).  Russell (1999) reviewed 355 research reports spanning a half century between 1947 and 1999, ranging from radio to various electronic variations, and reported that the experimental group was equivalent to the traditional group in nearly each instance. The evidence is overwhelming that distance education, regardless of the medium, is equivalent to traditional instruction.  Such results are difficult for many to accept.  A new wrinkle is the suggestion that the subsequent performance of distance education students should be examined in other classes (Dominguez & Ridley, 1999), the presumption being that students who do well in distance courses may be suspect and their performance may not hold up in other courses.

The International Data Corporation predicts there will be 2.23 million distance learners by 2002, up from 1 million today.  Concerns about the quality of distance education or, any particular course, should be no different than concerns about the quality of any individual course, textbook or instructor in conventional college instruction.   The medium is not the problem.  Quality is the responsibility of the professor online or in front of a lecture hall.

Cost Effectiveness

How much does a distance education course cost?  Asking this question is like asking a builder, "How much will it cost for you to build me a house?"  The answer is likely to be the same that Boettcher (1999) gives for costs in distance education, "It all depends."  It depends on which method of delivery is used.  Saba (1999) claims that commercial software companies invest an average of $500,000 to develop new courses or re-purpose print-based material for online courses; he also estimates that it requires a minimum of 500 students over a period of 18 months to break even with the investment cost in course development. It is apparent he is not talking about WBI.   The least expensive applications are just as effective as those requiring expensive pre-production, production, post-production, and management support.

To determine a break-even point an administrator can calculate development costs and plot the projected income necessary to recover costs [i.e., cost - the sum of fixed and variable expenses, and price (per unit/enrollment)].   A general formula for calculating break-even revenue is:

Fixed Costs 
1 - (Variable cost per unit/Selling Price per unit)
=   Revenue to Break-Even

 IHEs often do not account for many fixed items in a budget on a daily or hourly basis, such as office equipment, utilities, office space, and so forth.  Variable costs are often easier to track such as hourly wages paid to specialists, contracting for online delivery, new software or equipment for production, and so forth.  Factors that contribute to variable costs can be identified in this table (rented and/or owned):



Web-Based Course
Infrastructure IHE must own or rent television production studios, transmission (e.g. fiber, satellite, microwave), and related equipment) Access to the Internet
Technology Numerous cameras, editing decks, special equipment, uplinking Workstations and server
Personnel Designers, video/camera operators, editors, support personnel, consultants Designers, instructors, webmaster
Support/Maintenance Multiple sources of potential problems needing repair and upkeep at IHE and remote sites Little need at IHE and none at remote site; server may be used for other purposes & and costs can be amortized
Transmission T-1, fiber-optic, satellite, microwave Internet
Administrative Support/Overhead High (i.e., registration, advisement, maintenance schedules, middle management, facilities management Low (i.e., registration, advisement online; server maintenance, few facilities)
Enrollment Projections Fewer students (restricted to specific time and location requirements) More students (unrestricted by time and location demands or time zone restrictions)

Without actually plugging in numbers, it is apparent that development costs of synchronous courses are higher because of variable costs, especially if the course requires television pre-production, production, and post-production costs, extra technical personnel, extra development personnel, TV or satellite time, duplication services, surface mail, faxes, phone calls. There is simply a lot more equipment and/or rental costs and personnel necessary. It also takes longer to recover costs because the number of potential students is restricted in a synchronous course, limited by the number of remote sites that can be used and by time and location requirements that constrains availability to only those students who are able to attend at particular times and locations.

Some costs, such as faculty time, can be considered a redistribution rather than additional costs.  Changing a faculty member's role temporarily to develop courses for WBI may raise costs for the short-term, because of the need for someone else to teach certain existing courses in the faculty member's absence, but these costs can be recovered in the long-term as the professor returns to normal duties.

It is possible to have more students in an asynchronous course, because time and time zone restrictions are not imposed.  If an IHE decides to out-source many of its functions in distance education, careful analysis of these options must be made, including faculty satisfaction and relationships with external, commercial personnel in addition to costs.  Involving external commercial consultants, personnel, and servers creates an entirely new source of potential problems, conflicts, and cost factors.  In many institutions the academic programs are required to funnel their distance education offerings through a special center, such as continuing education, which has the effect of complicating administration and drives up costs.  As distance education becomes more widespread, faculty and administrators will find it more convenient and less expensive to offer their WBI courses directly.  Future battles to contain costs and maintain control of academic courses offered over the Internet may be fought by deans and department heads who see no need for a separate administrative structure to handle WBI courses, reasoning that they may operate as part of existing academic units.


WBI has little or no need for special equipment, studios, support personnel, or real-time transmission of lectures originating from campus. E-mail, threaded discussion, and file sharing provide convenient ways to collaborate and exchange information. Presentation of course content can be done by means of "streaming video and audio," which may be accessed in real-time, and hypertext and computer files can be downloaded.  Compared to the technology, infrastructure, and support necessary for most synchronous systems, the cost differences are enormous.  In their own way, synchronous courses can add to the cost of  education.  The National Commission on the Cost of Higher Education (1998) reported that between 1981 and 1995, tuition at 4-year public colleges and universities increased 234%.  If WBI is used as the distance education model of choice, there should be a net cost savings and no loss in "quality" for lack of a lecture.

If development costs for a web-based course are less than a synchronous course, and if student outcomes are essentially the same, the IHE administrator needs to consider developing web-based courses and avoid more expensive synchronous endeavors.  As Russell (1999) says:

Web-based training presents live content, as fresh as the moment and modified at will, in a structure allowing self-directed, self-paced instruction in any topic. WBT is media-rich training fully capable of evaluation, adaptation, and remediation, all independent of computer platform.
Web-based training is an ideal vehicle for delivering training to individuals anywhere in the world at any time. Advances in computer network technology and improvements in bandwidth will usher in capabilities for unlimited multimedia access. Web browsers that support 3-D virtual reality, animation, interactions, chat and conferencing, and real-time audio and video will offer unparalleled training opportunities. With the tools at hand today, we can craft highly effective WBT to meet the training needs of a diverse population.
In the long term the WWW can be the most efficient and least costly method of distance education delivery.  Administrators might want to consider two questions posed by Russell (1997):
  • Why do professional educators embrace high-cost technologies when low-cost technologies work as well?
  • Why do administration and faculty - despite research results - perceive that distance education technologies, especially those without interaction, are inferior?

If the assumptions and observations above are correct, these questions can be answered in terms of faculty attitudes, expectations, and experiences that form the culture of the university.  Faculty who use distance education gradually become more accepting with time and experience, but the preference for conventional instruction remains high (Taylor & White, 1991).  As long as faculty are incapable of viewing instruction from any other perspective than lecture, WBI will struggle for acceptance, or perhaps it will compete effectively with those institutions that reject it.

Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, Volume II, Number IIII, Winter1999
State University of West Georgia, Distance Education Center
Back to Journal of Distance Learning Administration Contents