This chapter addresses a narrow but vital question: what does distance education cost and how does this compare with the alternatives?
Distance education can be cost-effective, enrolling and teaching students or producing graduates at a lower cost than that of conventional education. It allows economies by avoiding capital investment in buildings and by limiting expenditure on classroom teachers. Whereas each new class of students at a conventional school or college is likely to need an extra classroom and an additional teacher, a distance-education programme can enrol extra students for a modest additional cost: once materials have been written and an administration set up, the cost of teaching one more student —the marginal cost—may be quite modest. In consequence there tends to be a greater difference between average and marginal costs for distance education than for conventional education. In other words distance education makes possible economies of scale that are not possible in conventional education.
At the same time effective distance education makes its own demand for resources. It needs more time to prepare good teaching materials than to prepare a classroom lesson covering the same ground. Distance-teaching institutions need premises and equipment. Distribution, by post or by radio, has to be paid for. Where face-to-face study, or supervised teaching practice, forms part of a distance-education programme, these costs have to be met along with those of producing materials; the costs of the face-to-face elements behave in the same way as those of conventional education, rising inexorably with the number of students.
In comparing costs we need to ask one more question: who has to pay them? The educational manager is likely to be concerned, above all, with the costs that come out of an institutional budget. But students may themselves have to bear significant costs either directly, where they have to pay fees or buy textbooks, or indirectly, where following an educational course takes up time in which they could otherwise be earning. These opportunity costs are of real importance where, for example, teachers enrolled in an upgrading course could, as an alternative, spend their time earning fees for private