“The Hybrid Classroom: How Online Learning Can Cut Costs By 57%” by David LaMartina was first seen on Edcetera.

Last week we discussed Ithaka S+R‘s “Interactive Learning Online at Public Universities: Evidence from Randomized Trials” – an experiment that shows online lectures can be just as effective as in-person teaching for basic subjects. Though educators have been researching digital classes for years, this study is the first to directly compare in-person and online students using the same course content.

To find out just how much money online learning can save, Ithaka also ran cost simulations for three of the six participant campuses. Based on teacher compensations, current costs-per-student, and projected class size increases, these simulations suggest that hybrid models are far more affordable for cash-conscious students and schools alike.

Potential Savings

Digital classes obviously reduce overhead for online schools, but they can also drastically cut costs for brick-and-mortar universities. How? Decreased instructor-led sessions and increased class sizes. Online students met for an hour per week in their discussion sections, while the control groups still attended three or four hours of lectures – many of them headed by expensive, tenured professors. The self-guided nature of computerized learning also allows admins to keep quality high while substantially increasing enrollment.

Ithaka compared the hybrid class to two models of traditional teaching: students taught exclusively in 40-person, professor-led sections, and students taught in both common lectures and smaller, TA-led sections. For the former model, estimated savings ranged from 36% to 57% depending on the universities’ pay rates. For the latter, inherently cheaper model, savings were still about 19%.

Cost cuts were even larger with hypothetically-increased section sizes. Assuming 100-student sections, hybrid classes were 40% to 60% cheaper than the section-only model, and nearly 40% cheaper than the lecture-section model. 100 people may seem like a lot for a single instructor to handle, but Ithaka accounted for increased compensation, as well. Even if the schools in questiondoubled their pay rates for the 100-person hybrid class sections, savings would still approach 60% and 20% compared to the respective traditional models.

Time Efficiency

When asked how much time they devoted to statistics outside of their in-person meetings, hybrid students reported 0.3 hours more per week than the control group. Since they only met for an hour per week, however, that means they averaged 1.7 fewer hours overall. That may not seem like a huge difference, but even a couple of extra hours per week is invaluable for students with heavy course loads. For schools that charge by the credit hour, lower time requirements could also lead to higher enrollments, better completion rates, and greater revenue.

Faculty Concerns

If online lectures are so cost-effective, should teachers fear for their jobs? Ithaka’s researchers don’t believe so. They say that “‘forced reductions’ are not required to save significant amounts of money,” and that current professors will simply be able to handle larger groups of students in the future. It’s a win-win: teachers keep their jobs, and administrators can ramp up enrollment without overtaxing their employees.

In fact, shifting lower-level classes online can ultimately improve the quality of advanced courses at no extra cost. Tenured experts can spend far less time on introductory subjects and devote more effort to advanced classes and graduate-level seminars. The weekly meetings in the hybrid model are the kind usually led by TAs and adjuncts, anyway.

Thinking Long-Term

Unlike class size increases, layoffs, and other immediate measures, moving courses to the cloud won’t produce instant savings. Ithaka made clear in their report that their question wasn’t “how much will institutions save right now by shifting to hybrid learning?” but “under what assumptions will cost savings be realized, over time, by shifting to a hybrid format, and how large are those savings likely to be?” Higher enrollments, labor efficiency, and faculty attrition all figured into their estimations, and those things take time to develop.

More importantly, schools will have to spend time and money upfront to tailor hybrid learning systems to their needs. Space concerns, personnel, and student preferences will be different for every institution, and admins will probably need a few semesters of trial and error before they can significantly reduce costs.

Given the current state of higher education, these risks seem well worth the rewards. In a recent Inside Higher Ed survey, over 15 percent of provosts rated their schools 1 or 2 out of 7 on their abilities to control costs. When tuition is skyrocketing, and demands for quality education are increasing, struggling schools can hardly afford not to give hybrid learning a try.


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