The below is a guest post by Julie Evans , CEO of Project Tomorrow

We all know online learning and teaching methods are gaining in popularity. Idaho recently joined Alabama, Florida and Michigan in passing legislation that requires students take a certain number of online classes in order to graduate. In Project Excellence’s 2011 Trends Update, students, parents and teachers are demanding more online coursework with more than 40 percent of students now designating online classes as an “essential” component of their learning experience.

Juxtapose these trends with the fact that districts all over the country are struggling with shrinking budgets, increasing enrollments and an increase in non-traditional students. With the initial investment in online technologies seemingly cost prohibitive, administrators find themselves wrestling with competing priorities as they ask: “What needs to be cut?” and “Where should I invest?” This paradigm is forcing a new way of thinking for district administrators: like CFOs.

Simply following a growing trend is not enough: districts often need to show a financial return on investment (ROI) for new programs or ventures; however, formulating an answer to “Should my school invest in online learning technologies?” takes more than just a spreadsheet. It should include questions that also consider the value of investment (VOI), such as “What are the specific needs of our students, teachers, parents and administrators?”

For example, when the rising number of non-traditional students, students seeking college-level courses and dual enrollment is taken into account, it becomes easier to justify an online communication investment. Or perhaps thinking about the time saved on travel, expenses and instructor fees when using online faculty training programs will justify the initial program investment.

These questions lead to a “New Math for Justifying Online Learning” that focuses on a comprehensive evaluation process that not only leverages ROI and VOI, but also sparks valuable conversation. The New Math offers essential questions administrators should ask to either help justify the cost investments associated with deploying online teaching and learning initiatives or identify that online learning is not something to invest in at this time. While it’s important to be able to justify the investment, it’s just as important to recognize if your school district is not ready for online learning.

We have worked with several administrators across the country, helping them examine their budget with this new strategic approach that not only justifies online learning projects, but also uncovers new opportunities that can increase a district’s value. Take Jefferson County Public Schools, the largest school district in Colorado. Jill Montoya, Jeffco’s online professional development coordinator, was challenged with growing her program as more and more teachers and administrators looked for ways to advance their careers. Unfortunately, as course waiting lists grew, her budget shrank. Using the New Math, Montoya illustrated to the district the increased savings a larger online program could offer, including a reduction in printing costs and teacher fees.  She also outlined a unique opportunity to sell non-required courses to teachers and full training programs to surrounding districts. The result: a self-sustaining program that allows Jeffco to maintain high quality online courses amid budget reductions.

Budgets will continue to be strained and administrators will continue to have to answer for spending….and demand for online learning will continue to grow. The New Math outlines a strategic approach to not only justify online projects and programs, but to also uncover new opportunities for increasing value for districts. Today’s economy dictates that administrators think like educators and CFOs.

The full report, “The New Math for Justifying Online Learning,” is available online.

About Julie Evans
Julie Evans has been the CEO of Project Tomorrow since 1999.   Prior to this position, Evans enjoyed a successful 17-year career in sales and marketing management with Unisys and two education technology startups.  Evans is a graduate of Brown University and serves on the Board of Directors of Project Tomorrow, the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), the TechAmerica Foundation and the Childrens’ First Advisory Council.  She has also served on the Advisory Boards for the 2009 Horizon K-12 Report and the 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012 Horizon Higher Education Reports. Evans is a frequent speaker, writer and commentator on children, education, science and technology issues.  In April 2008, Evans was named as one of the Top Ten Most Influential People in Education Technology over the past 10 years by eSchool News, a leading national education publication.

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