With schools moving instruction online following the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, a discussion has started about whether schools should offer reimbursement for students enrolled in full-time and blended programmes.

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The discourse is often based on the belief that online education is considerably cheaper than traditional face-to-face courses. But is it, really?

What do students say?

MBA participants have long been ready to pay good money for full-time programmes, partly because of the on-campus experience, networking opportunities, and proximity to professors. But following the closure of the campuses for safety reasons, many are seeking compensation, claiming that the value of online education is not as high as that of the traditional experience.

Would you pay USD 75,000 for front-row seats to a Beyoncé concert and be satisfied with a livestream instead”, Kunal Pasrija, MBA at Northwestern University, sums up the mood among some students. “It doesn’t make sense for universities to charge full price while delivering a fundamentally different product than their customers paid for. As an MBA candidate, I’m in school primarily for the social experience and network. I didn’t leave the workforce and pay full price for online classes, which are typically a fraction of the price of full-time programmes for a reason,” Pasrija told the Wall Street Journal (WSJ).

Read: Will Fall Semester 2020 Begin on Campus?

It is worth noting that not all students are unhappy with having to study online. Some point out that they will still receive the same long-term benefits from their education as before. Another argument put forward is that employers won’t reject graduates because they have had to spend one semester studying from home.

Some students realise that schools are in a difficult situation. “Universities across the U.S. are making great efforts to switch to online learning and accommodate students. This is all we can expect in a difficult situation. Most schools aren’t in a position to refund us, anyway. They have significant outstanding costs, including teachers who need to be paid,” Ian Rider, who is studying Political Science at the University of California, Davis (US), told WSJ.

What do schools say?

Business schools have taken various measures to address students’ concerns by extending payment periods. They have, however, so far resisted reducing tuition fees, arguing that their fixed costs are the same, if not higher. The salaries of staff and faculty have not been reduced.

Peter McDonough, general counsel for the American Council on Education, stresses that schools are battling circumstances outside their control and are working overtime to move instruction online. “Faculty and staff are literally working around the clock,” McDonough told Bloomberg. “Schools are doing their best to work their way through it.

Are traditional programmes more expensive?

The answer is yes, in general, traditional programmes are more expensive, yet there are exceptions. Some institutions set the same price for both their online and traditional MBA programmes. A case in point is Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business (US), whose online MBA course costs USD 74,520.

Traditional programmes are generally more expensive because the schools offering them maintain buildings, offer housing and dining facilities to students, pay salaries to staff and faculty, and operate healthcare centres and, in some cases, sports teams. All these costs are to some degree reflected in tuition costs.

So, what about online programmes then?

The real cost of online education

Many people start looking for online programmes assuming that virtual learning will be highly affordable. They are often surprised when they learn that these courses are not exactly free. It is true that by studying online, students don’t need to pay for things like travel and relocation. What they may not realise is that online programmes entail costs that their traditional counterparts do not. “The cost of providing instruction has not decreased; if anything there is an added cost to moving instruction online,” Richard Arum, dean of the School of Education at the University of California, Irvine (US) told CNBC.

Read: What Can Online Learning Experiences Teach Us?

Optimum class size

It is a common misconception that online programmes can accept and serve an unlimited number of participants and thus enjoy an unlimited number of tuition fee payers. Good online courses – those capable of competing with traditional courses – need to offer a high level of student interaction and discussion quality.   

Online teaching does not just involve students watching pre-recorded videos, and the programmes that rely heavily on them are typically not successful. To get good results, online class sizes need to be similar to traditional in-person courses.  

Faculty involvement

Online instruction actually requires teaching staff to work harder. While professors still need to grade papers and initiate and maintain discussions, they also need to adapt their material for online delivery and make it more engaging to keep the attention of participants. This is easier said than done, especially in times of narrowing attention spans. In addition, professors need to make more effort to assess how students are responding and whether they are learning effectively.

Training for online delivery

One of the biggest problems schools faced when transitioning to online delivery amid the Covid-19 outbreak was the necessity to train teaching staff quickly to deliver quality education in the new environment. Training their faculty is essential if schools are keen on maintaining a high standard of teaching.

In addition to mastering the virtual classroom environment – the online platform – professors should be trained to effectively engage students, keep discussion board conversations on topic, and invigilate online exams, among others.

Technical support

Online courses require a higher degree of technical support than traditional programmes. Online platforms are not cheap to build and maintain. This means that for schools which already have physical facilities, offering an online programme incurs additional fixed costs. "To think that you can go from a traditional institution to serving online students as well as they need to be supported without an investment is unrealistic for most of us," Michelle Marks, vice president for Academic Innovation and New Ventures at George Mason University (US), told Times Higher Education.

Ensuring a quality education and learning experience always requires an investment, whatever the format.