Cover: The Cost of School-Based Educational Technology Programs

The Cost of School-Based Educational Technology Programs

Published 1996

by Brent R. Keltner, Randy Ross


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With computer and information technology taking on increasing importance in the American workplace and in American society, educators and policymakers are redoubling their efforts to bring technology into the nation's classrooms. Students will be better prepared for the transition from an industrial to an information age, these individuals believe, if they have exposure and access to technology during their K–12 school years. To successfully implement educational technology programs, decisionmakers need information in three areas: the curricular applications of information technology, the organizational changes required by technology, and the costs of technology programs. Research has been done in the first two areas, but research regarding costs is sparse.

This report helps to fill the gap in research on the costs of educational technology programs in K–12 schools. Using in-depth case studies of eight schools that use technology extensively to facilitate instruction, the study generates comprehensive estimates of what it costs a school to set up a technology program. No attempt was made to assess the effectiveness of the technology programs we investigated. The study's goal was limited to understanding the costs and main causes of cost variation in school-based technology programs. By educational technology programs, we mean the use of computer, network, and multimedia technology to improve classroom-based instruction. Other technologies such as radios, telephones, or copy machines were not included in our analysis. We also tried to separate out, where possible, the costs of technology used for purely administrative purposes.

To develop a comprehensive cost estimate at each site, we gathered information on all technology-related expenditures in six categories—hardware, software, personnel, staff development, infrastructural changes, and materials. Then we amortized expenditures on hardware, software, and initial staff development over a five-year period, and infrastructure costs over a ten-year period. We treated the costs of personnel, materials, and ongoing staff development as annual expenses.

Using this approach, we estimated the cost of educational technology programs at the eight schools to range from a low of $142 per student per year to a high of $490 per student per year. Our analysis suggests that the two most significant determinants of this cost variation are differences in the number of additional personnel per student used to support the technology program and differences in the ratio of computers to students at each site. These two factors account for between 50%–60% of total technology expenditures at the eight schools.

Figure S.1 shows how differences in computer densities and additional personnel cause schools to cluster at different levels of cost per pupil. The three low-cost models have relatively few computers and make limited use of additional personnel. Two of the four high-cost models have very high computer densities, but low levels of personnel support. The other two high-cost models have high computer densities and very high levels of personnel support. The eighth and final education technology model has moderate-to-high levels of both computers and additional personnel.

Figure S.1. Major Causes of Cost Variation

Both software and staff development costs represent relatively small proportions of overall cost. Software expenditures account for less than 10 percent of total technology costs at all schools. The schools have relatively standard software needs and are able to generate economies of scale in the use of expensive software products. At six of the eight schools, staff development costs are under 9 percent of annual technology budgets. Paid, formal staff development tends to be intensive in the first two to three years of implementation. After these initial years, staff development becomes more informal and is often unpaid.

Educators and policymakers who are considering investing in educational technology can benefit from this study. The cost information contained in the text makes it easier for schools to assess the feasibility of implementing their educational technology goals. The technology models outlined in the text provide a quick and easy baseline to develop cost estimates. Federal, state, and school district coordinators of educational technology programs can use the results of the study to evaluate the costs of alternative scale-up scenarios. Public and private parties interested in funding educational programs can use the information in the text to assess the reasonableness of cost estimates provided by schools and districts.

Ultimately, policymakers should seek to understand the relative cost-effectiveness of alternative education technology models. Evaluation of the effectiveness of the eight models that formed the basis for the cost analysis was beyond the scope of this study. However, such evaluations should be included in education's research agenda.

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This report is part of a study by the RAND Critical Technologies Institute (CTI) for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the Office of Technology Policy within the U.S. Department of Education.

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