Making the Case for ODL
Introduction | What is the Difference between Efficiency and Effectiveness | Efficiency | Cost-Effectiveness | Cost-Effectiveness of ODL Institutions | Making the Case for ODL
Making a Case for Open & Distance Learning
Economic arguments about efficiency and cost-effectiveness can have a significant influence on policy makers when deciding whether to support alternative modes of education.
Two principal factors have a bearing on the efficiency of ODL institutions and programmes. The first of these is scale, which refers to the number of students registered with the institution or enrolled for a particular course/programme. As discussed in Unit 2, when student numbers fall below the crossover point, then the average cost per student will be higher when using ODL methods than through conventional approaches. Increasing the scale by enrolling more students has the effect of lowering unit costs and increasing efficiency.
A second important factor is scope, which refers to the number of courses offered. When an ODL institution expands the range or scope of its offerings by developing increasingly specialised courses, each course tends to attract fewer students. As a result, unit costs will be higher and institutional efficiency will decline.
The logic underlying any drive for greater efficiency suggests that ODL institutions should concentrate on a relatively small number of ‘best-selling’ or popular courses and eliminate low-entry courses. However, such a narrow economic perspective may overlook the institution’s mandate to address the broader needs of society. For example, when open schools offer courses in physical science, these tend to attract fewer students than courses in the arts or social sciences, but eliminating physical science courses would undermine government attempts to produce more graduates in the fields of science and technology. Likewise, there may not be enough students to provide an economic justification for offering a course in a minority language, even though the national policy seeks to promote local languages to facilitate reconciliation or social inclusion. Moreover, reducing the scope by offering too limited a range of courses may damage an institution’s prestige and create the popular impression that it is inferior to conventional education.
Rather than focusing exclusively on economic arguments to support the case for ODL, it is important to consider benefits other than low average costs. An increasingly popular approach in assessing the worth of development projects involves attempts to measure the social return on investment. This approach aims to go beyond simply quantifying the monetary returns for a particular project by assessing its value in terms of improved social conditions and public well-being.
Rumble (2001, page 5) has argued that the introduction of ODL can be justified on the basis of improvements in:
- Quantitative Access – by dramatically increasing enrolments in all levels of the education system and providing alternative pathways to further and higher education;
- Equality of Access – by enabling people living in rural communities, those with jobs or family commitments, and those experiencing socio-economic disadvantage to take part in education;
- Quality of Educational Experience – by providing study materials that are frequently of a higher quality than conventional classroom teaching;
- Other Benefits to Students – although little research has been done, studies suggest ODL graduates do benefit by developing higher levels of personal initiative and self-reliance.
The existence of alternative forms of provision may also have what Rumble (1986, page 212) refers to as ‘ripple effects’ on conventional education systems. The quality of teaching in traditional institutions may actually improve as teachers and lecturers borrow best practice models and techniques from ODL sources. In addition, there is a tendency to re-think policies across the education sector as a result of questioning assumptions about educational need, how people learn and the most effective means of meeting these needs.