Creating a Cost Framework for Instructional Technology 
by Alton L. Taylor and Frank A. Schmidtlein

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Common Assumptions About Using Instructional Technologies

The development and use of communications technologies are expanding at unprecedented rates across modern societies with significant and unforeseen consequences. The most visible examples of these technologies are the vast systems for collecting and transmitting data used by businesses and public agencies, the rapid development of the Internet and World-Wide-Web, facsimile transmission, cellular telephones, interactive video systems and global positioning devices. Twigg and Hetrick (1997, p. 4) reported three years ago that 83% of today's college students in the United States use the Internet and 40% use it every day. Looking into the future, they envision a "global learning infrastructure in contrast to the bricks-and-mortar, campus-centric university of today" (p.7). However, Lewis and Wall (1988) point out that, although the pace of technological activity increased between 1978 and 1988, "technology advocates and skeptics alike can point to almost 40 years of obvious discrepancies between promises and practices." Although changes have come even faster in the current decade, there is little or no evidence that discrepancies between promises and practices have disappeared. Overall, the transition to employing information technology-based instruction has been erratic.

There are common assumptions about using instructional technologies appearing in the [higher education? instructional technology?] literature. First is the dire prediction being made about the disastrous consequences institutions will face if they do not quickly and extensively begin to employ instructional technologies. Many people advocating  rapid adoption of these technologies assume that institutions must immediately incorporate new technologies into their instructional programs if these programs are to avoid being supplanted by newly emerging "for profit" and non-profit organizations. Using technology, these authors assume, will reform ineffective current instructional practices (DeLoughry, 1995).

A second impetus for the widespread adoption of instructional technologies assumes that these tools will greatly increase student access to an affordable education. Students, from their homes, offices, or nearby classrooms, will have a broader selection of subjects and majors, be able to schedule their involvement in ways that accommodate their varying commitments, and will be able to access the resources of multiple institutions. There is little doubt that significant increases in distance, or off-campus, learning opportunities are occurring. However, important questions need to be answered about who will benefit most from such programs and about the economics of the enterprise.

Predictions that new technology-based institutions will eliminate or greatly reduce the number of students enrolled in traditional institutions assume that there will be a redistribution of current enrollments among postsecondary education institutions. The predictions also assume that there will be more learners in an information-based economy. Over time, the use of instructional technologies undoubtedly will modify some aspects of pedagogy at traditional institutions, perhaps helping them retain resident students. However, the more extreme views, that new and highly innovative institutions or profit-making organizations using these technologies are likely to displace traditional institutions, do not appear warranted.

An additional assumption that the benefits of these technologies will permit instruction to become better tailored to students' individual educational objectives. Proponents believe that the use of the technologies will facilitate use of new theories of learning, such as concepts of "active learning" and "constructive learning." Massy and Zemsky (1995, p.2) argue that information technology has the potential to offer mass customization, which allows faculty to accommodate individual differences while providing "improved convenience" for both students and faculty. Some authors even predict that books will become passť and that libraries will be radically transformed. [Can you provide one or two  references for this statement?]

A major assumption of those promoting rapid use of instructional technology is that these tools will lead to substantial productivity increases. As yet, only limited direct evidence exists in government data that proves that investments in information technology have substantially raised productivity in many non-information technology industries." [There is no opening quotation mark, so we may have modified the quotation from Berry. The exact quotation needs to be double checked and quotation marks added accordingly.] (John M. Berry, 1998, p. E1).

Costs Associated with the Use of Instructional Technology

Much of the research on the uses and costs of instructional technology by colleges and universities has been anecdotal and does not focus on the full range of costs, although more significant cost studies are now being proposed (e.g. Jewett, personal communication, [add Month Day], 1998; Lawrence, Dey & Heller, 1999, Leach & Smallen, 1998, and Milam, 1999). Cost assessments typically have been limited case studies of one component of the instructional technology system. Past studies frequently have ignored the costs of infrastructure, technical support, training and related activities.

Some of the costs associated with the use of instructional technology include:

National Infrastructure Costs. Many uses of instructional technology are supported by a vast, international system of computers and communications devices linked by cable and satellite transmitters; the "information superhighway." Maintaining and expanding this system clearly has a price. These costs, however, are supported by a number of governmental and private parties and; consequently, these endowments are typically are viewed as "givens" and are not factored into institutional decisions on instructional technology. Yet, someone has to pay the pro-rated portion of these costs that relate to education and, therefore, infrastructure costs should be recognized when analyzing the productivity of instructional technology.

Institutional Infrastructure Costs. Institutions require communications networks and associated equipment to link classrooms, buildings, and dormitories together. Campus networking requires a major institutional commitment and a significant share of institutional resources. Institutional costs include installing cable in old buildings with poured concrete walls that were not designed for such installations. Institutions engaging in distance learning have costs associated with developing, and maintaining the communications infrastructures required to communicate with students at off-campus locations.

Hardware Costs. The costs of computers, printers, and other peripherals have declined at a remarkable rate. However, usage, with virtually every faculty member and student possessing a computer at some institutions (Resmer, Oblinger, Mingle, 1995), probably has not lessened the total investment institutions are making in equipment. Additionally, the incredible rate at which this technology progresses results in personal computers becoming outdated within three years. All too often institutional investments and commitments have been in the form of one-time expenditures on capital acquisitions. This issue of capital replacement of equipment is one of the most serious facing academic computing on virtually every campus in the country. In one survey, Green (1999) reports financing the replacement of aging hardware and software as the third most important information technology challenge for respondents.

Technical Support Costs. Green (1996, 1999) found that providing technical support remains a priority issue facing about one-fourth of the campuses surveyed. However, information about costs for computer support services is typically illusive due to the complexities of accounting for salaries, purchases, maintenance, unexpected repairs, upgrades and the use of outsourcing to provide additional support (Guernsey, 1998). Institutions typically have instructional technology support offices that provide general assistance for technology users and some have specialized facilities, such as rooms equipped for interactive video instruction and conferencing, that have technicians assigned. A full-time technician may be required to operate equipment or make repairs in order to avoid costly delays during instruction. The labor market for persons engaged in technology support services has tended to be very tight, bidding up the costs of recruiting and retaining highly competent staff. In addition, as institutions employ technologies, they frequently reduce numbers of low cost clerical staff only to replace them with more highly paid technical persons. The costs of these higher salaried personnel often are not explicitly recognized when assessing the costs of instructional technology; although the lack of a competent technical support staff is frequently lamented.

Faculty Training and "Opportunity" Costs. Green (1999) reports that faculty efforts to integrate technology into instruction was the single most important technology challenge confronting American colleges and universities. The extent to which faculty are trained to utilize newer instructional technologies appears to vary by discipline and age of the faculty member. Faculty in fields such as physics and engineering were the pioneers in developing many of the current technologies. Thus, their technical training often provides them with the skills needed to utilize technology with a minimum of training. Similarly, younger faculties who have experienced instructional technologies during their educational years may require less training. Nevertheless, for most faculty, considerable training will be required, especially for those who feel challenged by technology in general. The cost of this training is significant.

Student Access and Training Costs. Students incur a variety of costs related to their use of instructional technologies. McCarthy (1998) observes that little has been written regarding information technology's bigger end-user: the college student. Kenneth Green (1998) found that 45.8% of U.S. colleges and Universities rely on student fees as a way to underwrite the cost of using information technology on campus. McCarthy speculates that institutions may impose course fees on students taking courses that involve costly technology, similar to the laboratory fees frequently charged for science classes. Other costs passed on to students include software purchases and the cost of printing documents at campus computer labs. Some institutions require students to purchase their personal computers. Requirements for purchasing computers, technology users' fees, and computer competency requirements will pose a barrier for many students.

Course Design and Development Costs. Designing and developing courses that utilize technology prove expensive. Twigg (1996, p. 20) reported that development cost estimates for courseware are roughly $50,000 per instruction hour, or about three million dollars per course. Some experts believe that savings can offset such costs. Often, the faculty who provide the instruction design courses; however, some institutions employ course designers who train faculty how to teach distance learning classes using technology. The federal government and foundations supply some funds to allay these expenses. Yet, the cost and availability of validated courseware appears likely to constrain expanded use of instructional technology unless the federal government makes a major commitment to provide support.

Administrative and Legal Costs. Although planning, time, and a lack of funding appear to be immediate barriers to utilizing instructional technology, copyright hurdles also present cost problems. DiElsi (1999) asks who owns courseware, the faculty member who developed it or the college where the work was created? Green (1998) reports that roughly a third of research universities report that they have some type of policy addressing faculty-developed intellectual property. Privacy and security issues also entail costs (McCollum, 1998). Methods to limit access to confidential records have long been an issue. Also, efforts and monies expended to prevent and deal with the effects of "viruses" are well publicized. Software to record, track and distribute payments for the use and posting of electronic journals and books is in preliminary stages. Even so, some libraries already use a preliminary form of this tracking software since so many disciplines are simultaneously preparing articles for print and World-Wide-Web distribution (Barnard, 1997, p.33).

Steinbach and Lupo (1998) describe "hidden legal traps" that have cost implications for distance learning programs. These include approvals from accrediting agencies and state higher education boards, complying with intellectual property laws, and obtaining user agreement for use of materials.


The rapid development of instructional technologies, their complexities, and their substantial costs could lead one to conclude that most institutions are engaged in extensive planning to guide their investments in this area. However, Green (1998) reported that just under half of U.S. colleges have a strategic plan for information technology, more than 60% do not have a financial plan and only about 20% have a curriculum plan. The American Association of Higher Education urges institutions to consider devising a strategic plan that addresses the policies and issues, educational tasks and funding plans for information technology (Gilbert, 1995, p.1). The National Commission on the Cost of Higher Education (1998) states that college and university leaders should articulate the results of self-reviews to the campus community and institutional constituents with information on a variety of expenditures including technology. These recommendations for planning highlight a need for thoughtful consideration of technology costs, but such planning  in this rapidly changing environment requires more insights. Without needed research on these issues, the tendency to invest too large a portion of available funds in infrastructure, equipment and software will continue, while far too little will address the other costs noted above; particularly course development, training and technical support.


Barnard, J. (1997) The World Wide Web and Higher Education: The Promise of Virtual Universities and Online Libraries. Educational Technology,  May/June,  30-35.

Berry, John M. (1998, April 16) Not All Figures Compute in a Digital Economy. The Washington Post,  p. E1.

DeLoughry, T.J. (1995, November 24). High-tech Efficiency? Colleges Ask Whether Technology Can Cut Their Costs and Improve Productivity. Chronicle of Higher Education,  p.A17.

DiElsi, John (1999) Successful Budgeting for an Effective Distance Learning Program. College Planning and Management, 2 (4), 14.

Gilbert, S.W. (1995) The Technology 'Revolution': Important Questions About A Work in Progress. Change, March/April, 6-7.

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Guernsey, L. (1998, June 19) Exploring the Future of Electronic Books and Journals: Publishers and Librarians Wrangle Over Issues of Pricing and Intellectual Property. Chronicle of Higher Education,  p. A27.

Guernsey, L. (1998, January 16). Survey of Small Colleges Tracks Their Computing Costs. Chronicle of Higher Education,  p. A27.

*Lawrence, J., Dey, E.L. & Heller, D. (1999) "An Investigation of Technology-Enabled Learning Environments" (a research proposal), Center for the Study of Higher Education, University of Michigan.

*Lewis, R.J. & Wall, M. (1988) "Exploring Obstacles to Uses of Technology in Higher Education." Discussion paper presented at: Technology in Higher Education: A Round Table. Washington, D.C.: The Academy for Educational Development, Inc., Dec. 6-7.

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McCarthy, S. (1998). Information technology and its use in higher education: The effects on students' cost, access and learning productivity. Unpublished paper. Department of Education Policy, Planning and Administration, University of Maryland, College Park, May 4, 1998.

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