George Mason University Center Develops Cost Model For Evaluating Results Of Distance Learning

February 2, 2001

FAIRFAX, Va.—The International Center for Applied Studies in Information Technology, a center in George Mason University’s School of Public Policy, has partnered with researchers from the University of Virginia to develop a model that can be used at U.S. universities to deliver an accurate assessment of the costs of distance learning.

Developed under a $400,000 ICASIT grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the model uses data available in a university’s normal accounting system and other administrative sources to compare the costs of distance learning with that of traditional delivery approaches.

Stephen Ruth, director of ICASIT, says the model is a milestone in that it combines the best attributes of two important cost assessment schemes — micro-costing and activity-based costing. “This is very important methodology,” he says. “It is the first model to truly show what distance learning costs. We have found that both micro- and activity-based costing approaches are needed to help institutions examine the complex cost and organizational change issues of implementing new teaching technology.”

To validate the model, Ruth and his research team set up seven college courses offered in the commonwealth of Virginia and evaluated their results in both distance learning and traditional settings. These experiments yielded detailed cost data, on everything from student enrollment to office space utilization, that make it possible to rigorously examine and compare online versus traditional course delivery expenses. John Milam, associate research professor in the University of Virginia’s School of Education, was responsible for the model’s design and integration and has given presentations about the model across the country.

The “GMU Model” is now included in the Flashlight Cost Analysis Handbook, a publication used at many U.S. universities to guide decisions about education expenditures, and the researchers hope to extend their results to regional clusters of universities in Virginia and beyond.

“This is not only a big deal in the world of education costing, but it also is a solid partnership between George Mason University and the University of Virginia that we hope will continue,” says Ruth. “This model has immense potential benefits for universities across the country.”

“The availability of replicable cost models of this type will spark a more rational dialogue about the effects of different approaches to technology-enhanced education,” says George Mason President Alan Merten. “Institutions must be prepared to address the complex issues of opportunity costs, efficient space utilization, shared resources for direct and indirect computing and new types of faculty roles and rewards. Armed with these tools and a vision for knowledge management, colleges and universities are better prepared to compete in the 21st century.”