Digital learning represents wide-open terrain for K-12 education reform. Several states -- Alabama, Arizona, Idaho, Michigan and Minnesota -- require students to take an online course to receive a high school degree. Twenty-seven states have established statewide full-time virtual schools since the first opened in 1997 in Florida, according to a report by the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, an indication of virtual education's growing appeal.

As with all innovations, though, there is always a question of cost for providing such new technologies, especially when states are providing less per-pupil funding.

A study released last week by the Education Center of Excellence at the Parthenon Group (commissioned by the conservative education think tank, the Fordham Institute) suggested that the costs of digital learning could be significantly less than more traditional modes. The authors cautioned that its findings must be interpreted with some caveats: costs vary across digital education platforms and different entities pursue online learning for different reasons (cost-savings versus enhanced offerings, for example).

The results were compiled from interviews with various entrepreneurs, policy experts and school administrators who are involved with digital learning enterprises. "We emphasize that these figures represent at most a helpful starting point," the authors wrote in the introduction.

Using a widely accepted $10,000 per-pupil figure for traditional schooling, based on a U.S. Census Bureau report released last year, the Parthenon study concluded that a blended learning model (integrating technology into a traditional setting) could cost $8,900 per-pupil (plus-or-minus $1,335) and $6,400 for a fully virtual model (plus-or-minus $1,280). Average faculty and administration costs would drop from about $6,700 on average for a traditional learning experience to $5,500 for blended learning and $2,600 for a fully virtual program, providing the bulk of the savings.

Meanwhile, spending on technology would jump from $200 on average for a traditional model to $500 for blended learning and $1,200 for fully digital learning.

When presented with the study's findings, policymakers cautioned against latching onto the idea of cost-savings to drive the expansion of digital learning. Too many questions remain about virtual education -- such as the potential need for the professional development of teachers and procuring quality materials -- for any definitive conclusions about its cost. Instead, groups representing school districts and states stressed the need to find and implement effective programs.

"Decisions about the use of technology should be driven by pedagogy," Ann Flynn, director of education technology at the National School Boards Association (NSBA), told Governing. Cost-savings from digital learning should be a fortunate side effect of a quality program, rather than the primary motivation for pursuing a virtual learning model, she said.

There is also a question of what agency should make the decisions regarding virtual education - the local education agency or the state department of education. From the NSBA's perspective, Flynn said that online learning "should be something school districts can control." However, she acknowledged that, because there is significant disparity between school districts in their ability to provide virtual and blended learning opportunities, so a role exists for states to collaborate with local districts to create statewide digital learning programs. States also have more money available to develop quality programs, Flynn added. "It's difficult for a school district with less than 1,000 kids to produce a robust online learning environment," she said. "Yet that school district should certainly have the ability to do so."

Brad Hull, deputy executive director at the National Association of State Boards of Education echoed most of what Flynn said and agrees that potential savings should be a secondary concern when pursuing education technology. But he also says that state agencies do recognize the potential that investing in digital learning offers educators and students.

"Digital learning is a different type of learning that's necessary in a global society, as we have today," Hull said. "This is the world in which their students will be functioning."


Below is a table with some of the key findings from the Parthenon Group's study, comparing costs for traditional, blended and fully virtual learning models. Dollar figures are per-pupil.

Learning Model Overall Labor Technology
Traditional $10,000 $6,700 $200
Blended $8,900 $5,500 $500
Fully Virtual $6,400 $2,600 $1,200

Source: The Parthenon Group