Your Institution Is Paying Millions of Dollars for Course Design (And You Don’t Even Know It)

We’re still moving forward on the Psych mOOC, and we’ve gotten out of the “scattered minutes applied” category of effort to the “full court press”. As we start to tally up the hours everyone on the team is putting into this resource, I can almost feel the reaction to the effort we have put in:

Your team spent how many hours building an online course?

The false assumption behind that question is that cost of course design at colleges is mainly borne in professor salaries, and that these professors generally get the design done on top of teaching, at a cost of maybe 100 hours of work in a year. By this metric, effort that tends more towards 1,000 hours of design time seems extravagant and wasteful. At an average cost of labor of $40 an hour (health care burdened, etc) that’s the difference between a course that costs $4,000 to develop and $40,000.

But, at least for broadly taught intro classes, professor time is not a good metric. The structure of the course, the questions, the test banks, the readings (and now the online practice) are in most cases provided by the textbook company. The sequence is from the textbook, the assessments from the textbook. And while we have the students buy the textbook from our bookstores separately, it’s as much a total cost of the course as professor labor.

So what do those design dollars, billed to our students via textbooks look like? If you imagine a moderately sized institution that sends 250 students a year through an Introductory Psych course, then over the course of, say, three years you’ve had about 750 students buy textbooks. A textbook price of $150 is the norm in Psychology, but lets assume the mix of new and used yields an average price of $110.

Question: How much has your institution just spent on the design of your Psychology course?

Answer:  $82,500.

Let the quibbling begin about my parameters here — but the broad outlines are pretty solid. The course design costs do not show up on our books, but as a system many colleges and universities are incurring huge off-book course design costs — probably hundreds of thousands in a case like Keene State College, and likely millions elsewhere. And yet we sit around and ask ourselves “How could we ever afford to spend 1,000 hours designing an online course? How can that be sustainable?”.

Well, this is how. It begins by owning up to the off-book costs of course design, and then thinking more strategically how we could apply that money…

2 thoughts on “Your Institution Is Paying Millions of Dollars for Course Design (And You Don’t Even Know It)

  1. The reality is that for many course developers, offloading the dev costs to students as textbook prices is the de facto result because finding the funds in budgets is nigh impossible.

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