Interview with Dr Wolfram Laaser, Academic Director, Fernuniversität Hagen


What is the real economic contribution of eLearning? What indicators are necessary to track the efficiency of courses and programmes? Dr Wolfram Laaser from Fernuniversität Hagen, Germany’s most important distance learning university, has extensive experience in this field.

The economist has been involved with distance education and specifically with instructional design and media development at Hagen since the University’s inception in the mid-1970s. He is a member of several international eLearning boards, including India’s SETRAD, Spain’s RED and Mexico’s Apertura. Dr Laaser has numerous publications on media and evaluation and has carried out courses for distance educators in Europe, Africa, Latin America and Asia. eLA asked him to assess the financial aspects of eLearning endeavours.

eLA: Dr Laaser, do eLearning efforts have to concentrate more on financial issues?

Dr Laaser: The economic perspective is often neglected and is mostly responsible for the failure of projects. The situation is frequently aggravated in case of donor-financed projects because sound business plans are not set up in time or are overly optimistic. One example was the initial concept of the African Virtual University: It was satellite based instead of offering web-based courses and had no localised lectures from Maryland University and other providers.

Another issue is refurbished or used PCs. It is estimated that about half the PCs in Africa are refurbished. However, even if the PCs are donated, the “Total Cost of Ownership” may be considerable. Total Cost of Ownership includes hardware and software, training of staff, maintenance and hidden costs of system breakdowns, etc. These costs, too, have to be budgeted carefully before starting a project.

Furthermore, Africa lacks local content, but localisation is costly and needs pooling of resources. Besides leading to a general dependence on foreign aid, the lack of local content makes pooling of resources difficult because donors often pursue individual interests.

eLA: What lessons can you draw from past experience? What issues do you want to address at eLearning Africa 2008?

Dr Laaser: In my lecture, I look back at the debates about distance education. Distance education was considered a cheap option for mass education. Similarly, more recent attempts have been made to prove that eLearning is as cost-and-learning efficient as face-to-face learning and at a certain scale becomes cheaper. Today these comparisons make less sense because we have mixed systems, and most teaching systems use some eLearning components together with either simultaneous communication tools or face-to-face components and print material. By the way, simultaneous communication like videoconferencing and chatting has very different cost characteristics compared to online course material.

eLA: What is your personal approach regarding cost-efficient eLearning?

Dr Laaser: My proposition is to look at each project individually and not only calculate the cost for hardware and software but also for the complex services related to ICT introduction. Also, eLearning should not be conceptualised isolated from the rest of the educational environment: Print material might be used for the delivery of content and SMS for actual information. ICT is most successful when it leads to cost savings, e.g. savings in travel costs, distribution costs, or production costs. As a first guideline, some online course cost calculators are available on the Internet. However, these calculators often do not consider the varying views of stakeholders, such as students, institutions, teachers and administrators.

eLA: What should higher education institutions put on their agenda to deliver efficient eLearning?

Dr Laaser: It is certainly not satisfactory from an academic point of view just to calculate the cost of a project; we need to understand the actual decision making of stakeholders better. This brings economic theory into the game. What are the preference structures of our students? What are the pricing policies of educational institutions, and how will customers react to them?

Unfortunately, not too much work has been undertaken in this area. I contend we need more research activities to gain a deeper understanding of what is really going on in eLearning.

eLA: Dr Laaser, many thanks for your time.


Session DES36 (Committee Hall 2) on Designing and Delivering eLearning

Friday, May 30th, 2008, 11:15 – 12:45

  • Le Ha Nguyen, Université Paris IX Dauphine, Paris, will speak about “Choosing a Business Model for eLearning – Experiences with a Vietnamese eLearning Website”;
  • Professor Eben Otuteye University of New Brunswick, Canada, will address the topic of “Leveraging the Economics of ICT for Universal Accessibility to Higher Education”; and
  • Dr. Wolfram Laaser, Fernuniversität Hagen, will give some insights into recent studies with his presentation on the “Economics of eLearning – Past Experiences and Future Research Needs”.

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