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“Yea” or “Nay”: How a New REL Appalachia Tool Can Help Determine the Real Costs of Supplemental Online Programs

November 2, 2021

SRI International
   Jaunelle Pratt-Williams, Education Researcher, REL Appalachia
   Laura Kassner, Senior Education Researcher, REL Appalachia

For more information on the evidence base behind specific interventions, including online learning programs, visit the What Works Clearinghouse Intervention Reports.

Educators and district leaders often are inundated with advertisements, catalogs, and vendor pitches, offering supplemental online programs to meet a variety of educational needs. Let's say you’ve invested the time to find the right program with a strong evidence base. Can your school, district, or state afford to implement it? Think beyond just the sticker price to all the other required elements for implementation, such as staff time for training and the hardware and infrastructure. This blog will explore why online supplemental learning is on the rise, provide a brief overview of cost-feasibility analysis, and introduce you to a new REL Appalachia tool to help you evaluate the true costs of implementation to support leaders in making cost-informed decisions.

The rise of supplemental online learning programs

Supplemental online learning programs allow students to enroll in online courses in addition to the traditional face-to-face courses offered at their school. These programs can expand the range of courses available to students, such as access to interesting electives and high-level academic courses that may be difficult to offer locally. Practitioners, policymakers, families, and other education stakeholders have been exploring and implementing online learning programs for many years because of the potential for widespread application and benefits for students and families. Supplemental online learning programs can offer increased flexibility to students who have scheduling conflicts in their academic schedule, and to students who may be unable to attend classes in person due to health or behavioral concerns. For students who have failed courses, supplemental online learning programs can provide credit-recovery options.

Cost: Where the rubber meets the road

As decisionmakers consider implementing supplemental online programs, they likely will contemplate two important questions: “What does full implementation cost?” and “Can we afford it?” To inform decisions about any new or expanded initiative, you need information about the resources required to implement it and their associated costs. If you are considering these questions, a cost-feasibility analysis can help you gather and create comprehensive program-cost information to inform the decisionmaking process.

To learn more about four different types of cost analysis and what types of questions they can answer, visit this blog post from REL Appalachia.

A cost-feasibility analysis is a type of economic evaluation that helps the user compile information about the resources and associated costs for program implementation and helps to determine whether implementation is affordable. While cost-feasibility analysis does not provide information on whether a program produces desired outcomes, users can rely on this information to make decisions that balance the need for a program with the resources available.

Introducing the Cost-Feasibility Analysis Toolkit

Cover of Cost Feasibility Toolkit

REL Appalachia recently released a Cost-Feasibility Analysis (CFA) Toolkit to make the process easier. The CFA Toolkit guides users through a four-stage process that yields cost information to support decisionmaking—getting to yea or nay—about implementing such a program. The toolkit includes guidance, helpful resources, and an Excel-based cost-estimation tool that supports users with planning (stage 1), collecting data (stage 2), estimating program costs (stage 3), and determining the feasibility of implementing the supplemental online program (stage 4).

To see a demo of the CFA toolkit in action, check out the materials and recording from our recent REL Appalachia webinar. The 90-minute session included an introduction to the toolkit and interactive breakout groups where participants used the toolkit to explore the cost feasibility of a supplemental online learning program scenario with support from experts.

Related links

The Cost-Feasibility Analysis Toolkit includes additional resources that can support cost analysis and education decisionmaking. We highlight a few below.

  • The Critical Importance of Costs for Education is a resource for learning more about cost analyses and their importance in education decisions. 1 With support from the Regional Educational Laboratory program, Hollands and Levin’s resource provides a succinct but detailed overview of cost analyses.
  • Cost Analysis: A Toolkit from the U.S. Department of Education's Institute of Education Sciences (2020) provides a three-phase approach to the basics of cost analysis for any type of intervention. The toolkit presents information that is accessible and user-friendly for those who are new to the topic, are less experienced with it, or simply want a refresher. This resource may be particularly valuable for IES grant applicants.
  • The Cost Analysis in Practice Project is an initiative funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences to provide free, on-demand tools, guidance, and technical assistance to researchers and practitioners who are planning or conducting economic evaluations to inform the delivery of education to students in the United States.

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Footnotes:

1 Hollands, F. M., & Levin, H. M. (2017). The critical importance of costs for education decisions (REL 2017–274). U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Analytic Technical Assistance and Development. https://ies.ed.gov/ncee/pubs/REL_ 2017274/pdf/REL_2017274.pdf