Distance Learning: The Business Case

In an era of increasingly intense budget pressures, departments and organizations are constantly searching for ways to minimize costs while retaining operational capabilities. In the training world, cost pressures have been a primary motivator for the development of distance learning capabilities because anecdotal information appears to indicate distance learning costs less than traditional classroom experiences. Over the next few weeks, we’ll analyze this contention and place it into the context of a larger discussion on the efficacy of distance learning, the importance of instructional design, and the viability of distance learning as a means of transferring information and skills to law enforcement and security professionals. In this short post, we’ll look at the pure cost case for distance learning. We recognize this is only one small component of a larger set of factors that impact learning and design choices, but the cost question is often of great interest to potential adopters of new learning technologies. As such, we’ll start at cost and then move on to analyze the learning case, the administrative case, and the instructor case for integrating distance learning technology into the law enforcement and security training environments.

According to Rumble (2001), fully-developed distance learning systems have six main institutional costs:

1. Developing e-materials

2. Teaching and assessing students online

3. Accessing the website

4. Administering students online

5. Providing the infrastructure and support within which e-education can operate

6. Planning and managing e-education at the macro-level.

Of these institutional costs, material development and teaching/assessing refer to the hours invested by designers and instructors along with the compensation they receive for that work from their institution. Accessing the website, administering students online, and providing infrastructure and support are technical items that enable development, teaching, and assessment to occur. Finally, planning and managing at the macro-level refers to the strategic planning associated with developing, implementing, and updating educational systems and programs. As you read this post, keep in mind that most of the cost amounts we’ll reference include figures calculated by including each of these institutional costs. For Law Enforcement Learning users who do not have to include infrastructure, support, administration, and website access costs because the company handles all of those things, this means per-course and overall cost calculations should show an even greater difference between total in-person costs and online costs.

 A review of available literature suggests online learning is less expensive than traditional classroom learning. In “Face-to-face versus online coursework: A comparison of costs and learning outcomes,” Herman and Banister (2007) studied the implementation of a particular university distance learning course and then compared it to its in-person precursor in an effort to assess the cost and effectiveness of each option. The researchers determined transitioning to an online version of the in-person course would cut costs from $280.53 to a projected $103.60, a decrease of over 63%. Furthermore, a series of course iterations indicated no significant differences in the learning outcomes of online vs. in-person students, leading the researchers to conclude that “by designing the course for online delivery and developing various interactive multimedia modules, the university was able to offer the course at a considerable savings while maintaining quality.”

These findings were validated by a number of different studies at universities, think tanks, and research institutions. Arvan, Ory, Bullock, Burnaska, and Hanson (1998) found costs decreased 100% of the time when asynchronous distance learning networks replaced face-to-face instruction. Similarly, Meyer (2008) researched studies conducted through the National Center for Academic Transformation and documented 30 institutions that received government grants to remake existing in-person courses into distance learning courses. In the process, those 30 institutions reduced costs an average of 37%, with some projects reducing costs by 15% and others by 77%. Furthermore, the institutions generated a savings of $3.1 million per year in operating costs. Finally, the University of Southern Maine’s John Broida followed the revision of an Introductory Psychology course from an in-person course to an online offering and found the transition cut course costs over 48%.

While this is a tiny sample of the large body of research on online education costs, it suggests that distance learning offerings can save institutions (producers) and students (consumers) by leveraging technology and increasing efficiency. According to the Quality, Interoperability, and Standards in E-Learning team, the institutional cost savings from online courses come from five major areas:

1. A reduction in student/teacher time: Distance learning courses allow students to access content even if the instructor is not ‘present’ at the learning interface; this frees up instructor hours and enables instructors to focus on research and other tasks while students learn independently.

2. Replacing labor hours: Online courses require a different division of labor, freeing instructors to focus on developing content and teaching and leaving technical experts to handle administrative and support functions. This saves instructor time and increases efficiency.

3. Economies of scale: Online content is massively scalable and can attract and support larger audiences than in-person courses. This gives institutions the ability to recoup course creation costs and profit from content.

4. Modularization of content: Online interfaces allow content to be repackaged and reused without significant effort; this cannot happen in the traditional classroom setting, and it enables instructors to offer the exact same course over time and reuse material without devoting time and energy to creation.

5. Reduced classroom costs: Online courses do not require the overhead and infrastructure a traditional classroom course needs – no buildings, classrooms, supplies, and other items that come with large sunk costs and maintenance requirements.

When the costs and benefits of online learning, the measures we’ve cited above document significant cost savings. Keep in mind, though, that cost savings vary dramatically based on development specifics – an immersive, avatar-based learning experience will cost far more to design and develop than a more traditional course consisting of videos, documents, and presentations. To determine if online courses will help your department or company replace labor hours, develop economies of scale, modularize content, and reduce classroom time, take a look at the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies WCET’s Technology Costing Methodology (TCM) – it’s designed to help analyze the costs of using technology in instruction and helps you compare distance, blended, and traditional classroom options. When you analyze your current operation methods, take into account infrastructure, salary, travel, technology, and all of the other items that make up your budget. You’ll likely find that distance learning methods will decrease your cost, increase flexibility, and enable you to make better use of instructor time and energy. All of these items are positive, but they are meaningless if distance learning does not allow you to achieve the learning objectives you need to. In our next post in this series, we’ll explore that topic in an effort to establish the effectiveness of distance learning. Look for it soon, and leave comments on this piece below.

The Law Enforcement Learning Team


Arvan, L., Ory, J. C., Bullock, C. D., Burnaska, K. K., and Hanson, M. The SCALE Efficiency Projects, Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks 2 (2), 1998. Available at http://www.aln.org/alnweb/journal/vol2_issue2/arvan2.htm

Herman, T., & Banister, S. (2007). Face-to-face versus online coursework: A comparison of costs and learning outcomes. Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education, 7(4), 318-326.

Meyer, K. PhD. (2008). If Higher Education is a Right, and Distance Education is the Answer, then Who Will Pay? Sloan Consortium, Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, Vol. 12 (1), February. http://www.distanceandaccesstoeducation.org/contents/JALN_v12n1_Meyer.pdf