MOOCs as a K12 Cost Reduction Strategy



Many policymakers are eager to realize the potential cost savings from MOOC-ifying public education. Yet scholars have previously identified methods for reorganizing school systems to gain more efficiency that have been routinely ignored. Granted they will require considerable effort at the federal and state level, as well as within districts and individual schools, however, immediate savings can be attained by rigorous analysis of costs on a per unit basis. Then school funds can be distributed equitably, transparently, and in ways that allow schools additional flexibility. This will allow decentralized school governance models to implement zero-based or per pupil budgeting methods at school sites. These savings efforts should be initiated before schools attempt additional efficiencies like online or blended learning education models. That way savings can offset MOOC infrastructure and production costs with any remainder to be reinvested into meaningful ed tech R&D.

Industrial benchmarking practices will allow districts to reorganize the way they deliver non-educational services more efficiently. This will allow schools to achieve additional labor efficiencies by implementing effective programs already in place in similar districts. The Council of the Great City Schools has analyzed 340 performance indicators and found it possible for districts to save between $50-$100 million annually by bringing their business services, finance, and technology operations in line with best practices.

Schools that exploit modern technologies, using the Internet, digital information systems, and computerized instruction, can transform their core economics and performance. Online schools typically employ about 1 educator for every 35 students, while traditional public schools employ 1 teacher for every 15.8 students.   This suggests that schools can become more productive by using technology to assist with tasks like planning, content presentation, assessment, and reporting; which will free up expensive teacher labor for high yield work like providing one-on-one instruction and personalizing pedagogy. The savings from reduced labor costs could be used for additional investments, like increasing teacher compensation, offering performance pay incentives and making the job more financially attractive to highly qualified teaching candidates.

Further, the online segment could be used for training teachers to be more effective in areas like classroom management, differentiated instruction or standards-based grading. Perhaps online instruction could provide the public education system with differentiated career paths in teaching. Online teachers can choose from multiple roles like advisor, synchronous teacher, synchronous tutor, and asynchronous grader. This would allow teachers to take on more specialized and manageable online roles tailored to their unique skills. Different pay rates and work schedules would allow additional flexibility and build greater efficiencies into the workforce. For instance, instead of having to take leave from teaching, parents of young children may be able to work evening shifts or flexible part-time schedules as asynchronous graders, or as on-line instructors/advisors.


Casserly, M., and Carlson, R. (2011). Managing for results in America’s great city schools: A report of the performance measurement and benchmarking project. Council of the Great City Schools. Washington, DC. Accessed at

Chubb, J. (2010). More productive schools through online learning. Draft conference paper prepared for the American Enterprise Institute and Thomas B. Fordham Institute conference, “A Penny Saved: How Schools and Districts Can Tighten Their Belts While Serving Students Better,” January 11, 2010. Accessed at