Virtual School Meanderings

April 27, 2008

Online Schools Costs Vs. Brick And Mortar?

This was a question posted to one of the NACOL forums:

I am completing a review of literature regarding online costs for one of my doctoral courses. I think I have found most of the articles and reports that identify the cost items. However, I want to create a chart that shows cost items for brick and mortar schools in one column, cost items for online schools in the next column, and the cost items that are the same for both.

Can you take a look at the list below and suggest any other cost items I may have missed?

• Facilities (Buildings and maintenance)
• Security

• Space for offices and computer lab for students.
• Course Management System
• Course Content
• Computer and Internet access for teachers and students
• Communication device for teachers (e.g. cell phone)
• Technology Support (e.g. help desk, course updating, server maintenance)

• Administration
• Teachers
• Student Support (counseling, library)
• Special Education Services
• Professional Development
• Students
• Student Information System
• State Testing
• Textbooks
• Courses and Course Outlines approved by Governing Board
• Access to Computers
• Evaluation of program

Thanks –

Some of the suggestions offered in response on the forums include:

I would add “Transportation” to the Brick and Mortar School column

I’d add energy costs to all three. This variable cost would likely vary greatly between the three.

Additional technology besides computers are commonly used in online schools as well.

Brick and mortar also usually require feeding students as an additional cost not associated with online education. I didn’t know if this was included as a part of the “students” costs.
Extra curricular activities and the facilities to run those may be something else to look into.
Libraries and all of the resources found within them (vs online dictionaries, encyclopedias, streaming videos, etc…).

Both types of schools require web-servers and the appropriate staff to run them (though this may be district or state run) to host their websites and their CMS.

These may be more detail than you are requiring, I just thought they were substantial differences in the schools and in the way they run/cost.

I would like to make several comments with regards to cost comparisons between brick & mortar and Distance Learning:
1. In the state of Arizona, brick & mortar a teacher has a 190 day contract, while a DL teacher has a 254 day contract. DL teachers work 12 months a year; we have a true 365 day calendar.
2. The cost of administering the AIMS (State High Stake Tests) are many times more complicated and very expensive with DL. We spend approximately $150 per student for AIMS in DL and with Brick and mortar a tiny fraction of DL.
3. We have traveling science teachers who conduct wet labs in key location on an on-going basis.
4. ALL of the DL schools in Arizona are spending very large sums of money on curriculum development.

Hope this may of help,

The question I have is what model of online education are you using for the comparison? You use the term online school — are you talking about sync or async programs? Full-time LEA-based or State-wide? Consortium? Private? Each of those will give you a different configuration of components for online schools.

You’ve also got hardware listed for online, but some online schools expect the students to have their own computers and internet. Other online programs will provide the tech, only for those students who don’t have their own. I’m not endorsing those options but pointing out that you’ve got a model in your head for online schools — but you need to make that explicit.

You also apparently have a model for B&M schools that, unlike most every school I know, don’t have any computers or internet access. Then, if you’ve got technology in the B&M school you’ve got all the tech infrastructure, including support, etc.

B&M schools don’t have telephones? You say that’s only for Online Schools.

I think you’d be able to be far more accurate if you take a particular B&M school and compare it to a specific Online School. Might not be so generalizable, but will be more accurate and not so subject to nit picking readers.

wink.gif Hope that helps.

Don’t forget to add to Brick & Mortar:

1. Transportation
2. Support services like cafeteria and free lunches, etc.

i think the remark regarding the fact that you have a particular model in your head is a critical issue:

1) brick space schools have been around for a long time and there is a sound history on which to base some numbers you may have at hand. Fortunately or unfortunately these schools are changing in many ways including adding technology. How that plays out in the near and long term is uncertain for all elements at all P->12 or P-20 levels as more blended programs appear.

Thus, for brick space we may be at a tipping point.

2) online today is basically mapping bricks into clicks and thus is an immature system peppered with experimentation and carpet-bagging for-profits selling courses into both click and brick space programs.

How these evolve is uncertain also. And whether bricks and clicks will merge is unknown.

Thus, as a literature review, it’s a great idea for a paper, perhaps a senior honors thesis or a heavy masters paper or, for a class project. But I get very concerned when one believes that the document should be seen as carrying any significant weight in decision making at any level, including the appropriation of funds for operation of brick or click.

For example, food/transport? How about special education, ESL and other programs which are radically different, just as starters.


I would also offer that in these times of no increases to the state alloted basic ed funding model here in Washington State, our district which has buses that run many, many hundreds of miles per day, is really struggling with fuel costs. Being in a colder clime, likewise for heating costs.

I would athletics, band, clubs, etc. These are an expense for brick and mortar schools. Depending on how the online school is set up e.g. do teachers work at the facility or do they work from home? This would change costs for facilities, energy, etc. Also consider — does the online school receive the same student funding as a regular brick mortar school. Our school receives about 10% of the state per pupil allocation.

I think marketing costs could be written down for both schools. DL schools would likely do more.

yes, one might be tempted to compare bricks and clicks the same way that one compares apples and oranges or a Suzuki Sidekick vs a Lexus SUV

In order to compare costs one needs to adopt ceteris paribus which “ain’t so”

they serve similar yet different functions and to reduce them to a 1:1 equivalence is missing the real differences in what they have to offer which is much more than just the difference between, for example, an immersive school in a synthetic world such as Second Life vs a brick building in our worlds. After all, that is the decision that Cypher made in the movie, The Matrix.

The biggest area of concern from folks seems not to be the cost but the differences in outcomes and experiences. As someone once said, buying a lower priced car that had all the extras was better than buying a more costly vehicle that was the same price but the extras made it more expensive.

Compare a tier 1 ranked public research university against the private universities or any of state university systems with multiple institutions, all in brick space.

Walmart vs Macy’s or j.c. penny sweater vs Polo?

“Cost”, here, is a reductionist way of trying to be “scientific” in order to give the appearance of “objective” rational analysis. It’s a mistake made by those in the social arena which is left over from the wishful thinking of the period of the “Enlightenment” where philosophers thought that they could adopt the methods of the natural sciences to social studies.

Model does make a difference. Sync vs Async makes a difference in space and technology cost. So too, does the difference between running an async program on Open Source platform vs the Enterprise version of Blackboard.

A sync program might be video-conference based with higher cost technologies. what about the sync program that does its delivery via satellite broadcast?

And you should be clear in the description so a reader knows if you’re including hybrid online programs.

I agree that doing this isn’t really helping the field. You can’t do a gross generalization of Online programs, and a comparison of a particular online program to a particular brick and mortar program might imply those are the two best examples of their type.

Which one would you choose, and why?

the project sounds like its an easy research assignment, and it is, but I’m not sure of the value to the field.

You said: “You can’t do a gross generalization of Online programs…”
Cyberschool administrators do not believe they have comparable data. What about f2f schools? The USDOE compares all types of brick and mortar schools without concern as to whether they are urban or rural, rich or poor, minority population or majority, back to basics or open curriculum.
We need to keep in mind that the research indicates there is “no significant difference” between f2f and virtual schools in terms of educational outcomes. What difference does it make where the schools spend their money if the end result is comparable

Are there any things that VHSM readers have to offer to help out Rob?


  1. Thanks, Michael! What I have so far is on my wiki at

    Comment by robdarrow — April 27, 2008 @ 11:36 pm | Reply

  2. […] Online Schools Costs Vs. Brick And Mortar? […]

    Pingback by Statistics For 2010 « Virtual School Meanderings — January 1, 2011 @ 2:04 pm | Reply

  3. […] Online Schools Costs Vs. Brick And Mortar? (2008) […]

    Pingback by Statistics For 2011 « Virtual School Meanderings — January 1, 2012 @ 5:22 pm | Reply

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