November/December 2000 // Commentary
Creating a Cost Framework for Instructional Technology
by Alton L. Taylor and Frank A. Schmidtlein
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source ( as: Alton L. Taylor and Frank A. Schmidtlein "Creating a Cost Framework for Instructional Technology" The Technology Source, November/December 2000. Available online at The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

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 and the rapid development of the Internet and World Wide Web, facsimile transmission, cellular telephones, interactive video systems, and global positioning devices. Twigg and Heterick (1997, p. 4) reported three years ago that 83% of college students in the United States use the Internet, and 40% use it every day. Looking into the future, Twigg and Heterick 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 past 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.

Common assumptions about using instructional technologies appear in the higher education literature. First is the dire prediction of the disastrous consequences that 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 emerging for-profit and non-profit organizations. Technology, these authors assume, will reform ineffective current instructional practices (DeLoughry, 1995).

A second impetus for the widespread adoption of instructional technologies is the assumption 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 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 benefits 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 view, that new and highly innovative institutions or profit-making organizations using these technologies are likely to displace traditional institutions, does not appear warranted.

An additional assumption is that the benefits of these technologies will permit instruction to become better tailored to students' individual educational objectives. Proponents believe that technology will facilitate the 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 pass?ɬ© (Barnard, 1997).

A major assumption of those promoting the rapid use of instructional technology is that these tools will lead to substantial productivity increases. However, at least until quite recently, "only limited direct evidence exist[ed] in government data to prove that investments in information technology have substantially raised productivity in many non-information technology industries" (Berry, 1998, p. E1).

Costs Associated with Instructional Technology

Much of the research on the uses and costs of instructional technology by colleges and universities has been anecdotal and has not focused on the full range of costs, although more significant cost studies are now being proposed (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.

The following are some of the costs associated with the use of instructional technology.

National Infrastructure Costs. Many uses of instructional technology are supported by the information superhighway: a vast, international system of computers and communications devices linked by cable and satellite transmitters. Maintaining and expanding this system clearly has a price, but it is supported by a number of governmental and private parties. Consequently, technology endowments typically are viewed as "givens" and are not factored into institutional decisions on instructional technology. However, because someone has to pay the pro-rated portion of costs that relate to education, 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, because at some institutions virtually every faculty member and student possesses a computer (Resmer et al., 1995), the total investment that institutions make in equipment probably has not decreased. Additionally, the incredible rate at which 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 a 1998 survey, Green (1998) reported that financing the replacement of aging hardware and software was the third most important information technology challenge facing respondents.

Technical Support Costs. Green (1996, 1998) also found that providing technical support was a priority issue for approximately one-fourth of the campuses surveyed. Information about the costs of computer support services is typically elusive due to the complexities of accounting for salaries, purchases, maintenance, unexpected repairs, upgrades, and 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—to which special technicians are 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, driving up the costs of recruiting and retaining highly competent staff. In addition, as institutions employ technologies, they frequently reduce the number of low-cost, clerical staff only to replace them with more highly paid technical persons. The costs of higher-salaried personnel often are not explicitly recognized when assessing the costs of instructional technology, although the lack of a competent technical support staff frequently is lamented.

Faculty Training and "Opportunity" Costs. Green (1998) reported 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 pioneers in developing many current technologies. Thus, their technical training often provides them with the skills needed to utilize technology with minimum training. Similarly, younger faculty who have experienced instructional technologies during their educational years may require less training. Nevertheless, for most faculty, considerable training is 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. In the same survey mentioned above, Green (1998) found that 45.8% of U.S. colleges and universities relied on student fees to underwrite the cost of using information technology on campus. McCarthy speculates that institutions may impose fees on students who take courses that involve costly technology, just as laboratory fees frequently are 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 own personal computers. Requirements for purchasing computers, technology users' fees, and computer competency requirements may pose problems for many students.

Course Design and Development Costs. Designing and developing courses that utilize technology can prove expensive. Twigg (1996) reported that development cost estimates for courseware are roughly $50,000 per instruction hour, or about $3 million per course. Some experts believe that savings can offset such costs; for example, the faculty who provide the instruction often also design the courses. Some institutions, however, 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 the 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 the 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? Roughly one-third of the research universities that Green (1998) surveyed two years ago reported that they had some type of policy addressing faculty-developed intellectual property. Privacy and security issues also entail costs (McCullom, 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).

Steinbach and Lupo (1998) describe "hidden legal traps" that have cost implications for distance learning programs. These include gaining approval from accrediting agencies and state higher education boards, complying with intellectual property laws, and obtaining user agreements for 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, as of 1998, just under half of U.S. colleges had a strategic plan for information technology, more than 60% did not have a financial plan, and only about 20% had a curriculum plan (Green, 1998). The American Association of Higher Education has recommended that institutions consider devising a strategic plan that addresses the policies and issues, educational tasks, and funding plans for information technology (Gilbert, 1995). The National Commission on the Cost of Higher Education (1998) has urged college and university leaders to 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 great insight. Without needed research on technology issues, the tendency to invest too large a portion of available funds in infrastructure, equipment, and software will continue, while far too little money will be appropriated for the other costs noted above, particularly course development, training, and technical support.


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