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NEWSLETTER: VOL V, #2, November 15, 1999

TLT Flashlight Focus Workshop on Making Better Use of Money and Time:

Shining a Flashlight on the Costs of Teaching and Learning with Technology

by Glenda Morgan

In September 1999, I attended a TLT Flashlight Focus Workshop in Indianapolis on the costs of teaching and learning with technology. The workshop was run by Stephen Ehrmann and was based on the premise that cost is a key issue in planning for the use of technology in teaching. In many instances, making use of technology translates into higher expenses, at least some of which are eventually passed on to students. Additionally, because of the way that the real costs of technology are frequently spread across a number of different departments or organizations, conventional accounting methods are not geared toward understanding or elucidating what costs technology contributes to overall expenses. To this end, the workshop focused on developing a new way of accounting for costs by looking at costs in terms of activities rather than in the context of a particular department.

The activity-based costing model is not meant to be a replacement for conventional methods of accounting but a way of more accurately identifying the different factors that contribute to the costs of teaching with technology. In order to do this, Ehrmann and John Milam (1999: 11) of the TLT group argue that one needs to develop a simple economic model, and they suggest the following basic steps:

  1. Identify the question about cost that you want to answer.
  2. Identify what exactly you are producing, for example, a freshman biology class or a distance education course that uses technology.
  3. Identify the various activities that go into producing that output, for example, the skills of an instructional designer, a professor, and administrative and support staff.
  4. Identify the resources that are needed to perform these activities, for example, hardware and software as well as classroom space.
  5. Calculate the total costs so as to arrive at an estimate of how much one particular activity -- such as teaching freshman biology -- costs, what proportion of that cost comes from what factors and hence how different aspects of the course might be "tweaked" in order to control costs.

Representatives from a number of institutions including the Rochester Institute of Technology and Washington State University presented case studies of how they had used activity-based costing to develop a sense of how much their technology-enhanced courses were costing and what the different cost-drivers were.

This latest effort by the TLT group represents a growing concern within the learning technology community about how to understand and perhaps ultimately tame technology costs. Another example of such an effort is the Pew Grant Program in Course Redesign run by the Center for Academic Transformation at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

If anyone at any UW System institution would like to learn more about the TLT Group's efforts to model technology costs, please feel free to contact me.


Stephen C. Ehrmann and John H. Milam Jr. (1999) Flashlight Cost Analysis Handbook: Modeling Resource Use in Teaching and Learning with Technology. Version 1.0 Washington, DC: TLT Group.

Glenda Morgan recently joined OLIT (the Office of Learning and Information Technology at UW System Administration) from the University of Minnesota, where she is completing her PhD dissertation on electronic communications technologies, intellectual property rights, privacy and encryption.