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How Much Does It Cost to Develop a Distance Learning Course? It All Depends....

By Judith V. Boettcher

When faculty talk about distance learning, more and more questions seem to be converging on issues of budgeting and costing. It is significant to note that the questions are not whether or not one ought to “get into” distance learning—this was the hot topic a year or so ago—questions now are focusing on how much “getting into” distance learning will cost. Here, Judith Boettcher examines some of the main components of the cost of developing distance learning programs.

Not surprisingly, there is no simple answer to the question of how much it will cost in time and money to develop a distance learning program. Lately, some online service companies have been suggesting that an entire virtual campus can go “online” in 90 days, or—if you are really in a hurry—in 60 days. Depending on who you are as an institution, what you want to offer, and how much a campus leader wants to change (or perhaps, shock) a campus, one must acknowledge that this is indeed possible. If one has enough money, or enough time, there is little that is truly not possible. And with some of the new Web applications that are now available, an “outsourced” approach to getting started may indeed be advantageous. But the bottom line is, an institution must carefully define goals, research options, and arrive at realistic cost expectations.

Defining a Virtual Campus

Just as we have defined the different types of Web courses in previous articles, it is useful to think about the different kinds of virtual campuses that are possible. For every vision of distance learning, there is a different design, and each design has different costs. So the question to be answered becomes, “If this is the kind of distance learning program I want to design and build, how much will it cost?”

One highly recommended strategy for budgeting for distance learning is to build different budgets for each phase of a program. One budget is for the initial design and development of a program; the second budget is for the marketing and delivery of a program; the third budget is for the ongoing maintenance of a program.

This type of phase budgeting is difficult to do within the context of our current academic structures. When a faculty member is tasked with the responsibility of teaching a course, that faculty member is responsible for all of the phases of the course: for the design of the course, for the development of that course, for “getting the word” out via the course catalog listings and occasional flyers on campus, and also for the delivery of the course—including testing, assessment, and student interaction.

With distance learning programs, these tasks and phases become “unbundled.” Distance learning programs—at least, most of those offered before the Internet became widely available—often were able to lower costs by taking the highly paid, highly expert research faculty out of the delivery phase of the program. The Open University model is a well-recognized model that assigns faculty experts the responsibility for preparing the course content and packaging it. This is the design and development phase. Then when a student registers for a course, the full package of materials is sent out to students. The cost of the course materials is usually included in the tuition fees. The student then completes the course experience by virtue of interacting with the materials and with a tutor—someone who specializes in the delivery of a course. While the course is being delivered by a tutor, the faculty expert is often working on a new course or on maintaining another course.

Distance in a New Context

The Internet, the Web and the personal computer are creating a new context for the virtual campus—a context that makes it possible to use the on-campus “bundled” design, development, and delivery approach for distance learning courses on the Internet.

A number of campuses across the country have facilitated the creation of a new context in higher education by declaring that all students will be required to have access to their personal information age learning and research and communication tool: the personal computer. By extension, then, our campuses will also change dramatically, as all faculty must also have this tool, and all administrators as well.

The Need for a Business Plan

Let’s return to the point of planning and budgeting for a distance learning program. Planning a distance learning degree program often requires a business plan that anticipates the budgets and personnel needed for the design and development phase as well as for the multiple delivery phases. Many distance learning courses are offered over a number of semesters, for example. Such a plan also needs to address basic infrastructure questions such as the recruiting, marketing, and admissions processes and the support processes of counseling, assessment, and library resources as well as support for the use of the software and hardware. This planning process requires us to answer a number of fundamental questions about the goals and expectations of the program. It helps in structured decision making as well as planning and budgeting.

A key planning point is to answer questions about who we expect our students to be. Let’s make some assumptions for purposes of this example. Let’s assume that you know who your target audience is—that they are students for whom getting to your particular campus is difficult, but not impossible; and that they are working professionals who want to add a specific degree to their resume. And let’s assume a context in which all students have access to the computer. Let’s also assume that students are more sensitive to efficiency issues than to cost issues. These assumptions mean that we can design use of the Web and the computer as one of the primary delivery media, and that we can require access to the Web and a reasonable budget for materials and resources.

Studying the characteristics of the target audience for a distance learning program often can make deciding on one’s choice of media fairly straightforward. If the students are going to be traveling by car for many hours a day, as salespeople often do, the audiotape as a media might be an excellent media choice. If your students are not very techno-literate, or if access for more than limited time periods is problematic, the use of the Web might be restricted to e-mail and simple administrative processes. In real estate, the three most important things are location, location, and location. In planning the media for distance learning programs, the three most important things are lifestyle, lifestyle, and lifestyle.

Our current on-campus courses are often designed around two primary media: classrooms with synchronous lectures and interactions, and books plus other print resources. Most of the emerging Web courses are being designed around two primary media as well: the Web environment and digital resources, and print books and materials. With the Web as a media choice, the Web also provides a panoply of choices for asynchronous mini lectures, libraries and databases of course and reference resources, subscription online resources associated with the print book, and other social and intellectual virtual spaces. Both on-campus and Web courses also use secondary media for personal communication and interaction, such as meetings, phone, and fax.

Keeping Goals in Sight

Before we take the next step of budgeting for a distance learning course, we need to clarify our goals. Is the goal of the distance learning program to deliver a program one time or multiple times? Is the goal to build materials that will be delivered many times within your own institution? Is the goal to build materials that you will license to other institutions for their courses? Is the plan to remove the primary faculty expert from the delivery process and to have the faculty member focus on the design and development, hiring others for the course delivery and student interaction?

Time and Cost Estimates

Let’s first look at two specific questions: (1) How much instructional time makes up a 3-credit course? and (2) How much time does it take to build an hour of learning materials? If we can estimate the number of hours, costs can be figured from that using salary figures of the designers and developers.

Let’s see if we can come up with an estimate for the first question. Let’s assume that the usual on-campus class is 45 hours of lecture (15 weeks at 3 hours a week) and that a good rule of thumb for effective learning is that a student should study about two hours outside of class for every hour in class. This means that the total of all lecture, study experiences, interaction, and assessment of 135 hours (45 times 3) equals a 3-credit course experience. A faculty member generally makes assignments for readings, experiences, and projects for the 90 hours (45 times 2) of outside class time. So, we want to look at the remaining 45 hours of "lecture" or "in-class" time. Assuming everything else remains constant for the 90 hours, then we need to figure how many hours it might take to redesign  the 45 hours of classroom time to the online/Web context.

Based on much anecdotal evidence plus real experience over the last 10-15 years of building computer-based material, we can say with some level of certainty that it can take an average of about 18 hours - of faculty time - to create an hour of instruction that is on the Web. This means that the instruction is pretty much able to be delivered independent of an expert faculty member.

This number can quickly produce an “oh, no” or “that’s impossible” on the part of deans, department chairs, and other administrators. ( Faculty who have done this kind of work either nod sagely, having known this all along, or nod vigorously as if someone finally understands.)

This mixed reaction should be no surprise. The cost consequences are problematic. If we multiply 18 hours times the current 45 hours of class time, that could mean that it would take an investment of 810 hours to move a course to the Web. If we assume some time for startup with learning technology and instruction in teaching and learning in this new environment (and also arranging for any copyright and other issues), we can rapidly approach the 1,000-hour mark for moving a course to the Web—given our current models.

What about the faculty member who is given a semester release time to do this? Is this enough time? The average amount of time in a semester “release time” is only about 180 hours. (Note: This can vary a lot from institution to institution. This particular figure assumes a 15-week teaching semester with a week before and two weeks after for a total of 18 weeks, and averaging about 11 hours per week working on this one course. This results in about 198 hours of a faculty member’s time for a three-credit course. This means that a one-semester release time only provides 25 percent or less of the time that it probably will take to move a course to the Web.

Now you might ask, how are some of the faculty doing this if they have not had any significant time or support. There are probably two answers, if not more. One answer is that they are working many more hours in a week. Faculty have self-reported regularly working 60-80 hours a week while in a transition time for classroom to Web materials. This is usually done out of interest and enthusiasm for what is now possible. The other answer is that the materials that are being produced generally are not being used by other faculty. In other words, the designing/developing faculty member is still in the process. This suggests that the "bundled" strategy is moving from the campus classroom environment to the Web environment. This is okay if that is the goal. We may be evolving to a new form of distance learning in which the percentage of pre-packaged materials is less. At the same time, we may be moving to a new form of campus Web courses in which the Web becomes the classroom. This is probably also good, because this makes the process more affordable.

Since this number of 18 hours for every hour of instruction seems so unbelievable, it is good to know that this number is not unreasonable, given previous studies on the time for development of course materials. Rumble, in The Costs and Economics of Open and Distance Learning (Kogan Page, London, Stirling-USA, 1997), shows the following estimates from J.J. Sparkes in 1984 for the hours of academic effort required to produce one hour of student learning in different media forms (p. 79).

Academic work to produce one hour of student learning

Media Hours of Academic Effort

Lecturing 2-10
Small group teaching 1-10
Videotaped lectures 3-10
Teaching Text ( Book) 50-100*
Broadcast Television 100*
Computer - aided learning 200*
Interactive Video 300*

*Requires support staff as well.

The figure of an average of 18 hours for Web development seems to be just about right with this supporting data. Perhaps we could be even more accurate by providing a range of 5-23 hours. This is a broad range, just as with the range of 2-10 used for lecturing. Certainly, as faculty become more experienced and comfortable with the new Web environment, the number of hours required may go down—as long as the bundled strategy is in place.

Best Use of Technology

On the other hand, if we want to maximize the power of the technology, we may want to design and develop short segments of more complex media. This can often require the skills of expert support staff in addition to significant hours by a faculty member. A very important point not to be overlooked in this data is that these figures reflect the amount of “academic work” required. For complex media such as television, computer simulations, and animation and digital video, additional work is required by support staff.

We can be fairly confident that if the goal is to build materials that can be delivered multiple times and independent of the designing/developing faculty member, then costs will be dramatically higher than for building materials to be delivered in a “bundled” context.

Course templates:

Even for delivering in a bundled context, there are ways to reduce this tremendous time investment on the front end. One strategy is to adopt one or more of the many “course templates” that are currently available. The University of Iowa has a great Web site providing a quick look at many of these templates. Go to the following site ( http://adpsrv1.adp.uiowa.edu/ITS/ISDG.nsf/ ) and follow the links to Papers, and then Web Templates. The top Web templates are listed and reviewed, including a feature list, and often, costs for each.

Adopting materials for the Web: Another way to reduce time and effort is to “adopt” digital materials at the same time that you are adopting a course textbook. Publishers are now making many book/Web/cd adoptions routine. By making more use of these packaged materials, one can move a course to the Web more quickly.

Collaborations and partnerships: Another strategy being used by some institutions is to encourage their faculty to partner with each other or with a faculty member at another institution. While building for a Web course, one often starts developing a database of content that is much more than can be used in one course. By partnering with a faculty or multiple faculty working in the same content area, a larger, richer database of content can be developed more efficiently and with broader use.

So, how much does it cost to develop a distance learning course? It all depends! A special thanks to Carrie Regenstein of Cornell and to Martha Meacham of St. Edward’s University for their well-framed questions and conversations on this issue. And to other readers, let me know if you want more on this topic.

Recommended Books of the Month

Goss, Tracy. The Last Word on Power. A Currency book by Doubleday, NY, 1996.

Rumble, Greville. The Costs and Economics of Open and Distance Learning. Kogan Page, London, Stirling (USA), 1997.

I have two strong recommendations this month. The first is the book by Rumble mentioned above. If you want to know more about budgeting and costing for distance learning, this book is excellent. It is basic, yet comprehensive; it is also very well written.

I would also like to recommend a book by Tracy Goss. At first glance, it is much less practical than the Rumble book, but for those of us who feel as if the paradigms are shifting too quickly, it is not to be missed. I actually discovered this book over a year ago, in February of 1997. I was drawn to it not so much by its title, but by its subtitle, which is "Executive Re-Invention for Leaders Who Must Make the Impossible Happen." I have found that many folks working in the area of distance learning - and by extension, in the larger campus wide change arena - can identify immediately with this. Ms Goss focuses her efforts towards self-enlightenment of leaders who must change and reinvent themselves as they are simultaneously changing and reinventing their organizations in the face of the new contexts.


Revised January 15, 2006
Copyright Judith V. Boettcher, 1997-2010