As I was reading “Next Two Decades of Higher Education: A Developing Countries Perspective” by Pagan Agarwal, I immediately started questioning how certain systems work, especially in developing countries. One of the most talked about topics these days is the expansion of technology and online learning in higher education. Even though it can be extremely controversial, the arguments are generally pretty straightforward: is online learning cost-effective? Are learning outcomes successfully met? Is online learning as academically effective as in-person learning? These are all very tough questions to answer, but they are very common concerns. I would like to look into online learning in developing countries, and see what kind of questions are posed there.

The primary question I have pertains to access. It seems like a lot of people believe that because there is more and more technology these days, that more and more people have access to it. Is that necessarily true? I’m not so sure. Living in a first-world country means I am fairly privileged when it comes to being exposed to all the technology out there. If I live in a third-world country, or even India, for example, do I automatically have that exposure?Like I said, just because it exists, doesn’t mean everyone sees it. Bowen believes that online learning can be produce adequate learning outcomes because there is “Far greater access to the internet, improvements in internet speed, reductions in storage costs, the proliferation of increasingly sophisticated mobile devices, and other advances have combined with changing mindsets.” With all these advancements, everyone surely could benefit from online learning. Okay, yes, maybe in a developed country. I just can’t see the billion people in Africa reading articles on their phones and the billions of people in Asia writing papers on their laptops at the local coffee shops.

Agarwal seems to be on the same page as Bowen, despite living and working in India. He states, “Online platforms and learning will lead to democratization of knowledge and provide near universal access to higher education, even in the remotest areas and to the disadvantaged sections.” I’m just not convinced (okay, to be fair, I am slightly skeptical by nature). How is all that technology getting to the ‘remotest areas’? Is the government doing it? Is the government going to fund an initiative to provide computers and phones and other forms of technology to the poorest sections of the country? We’re talking about millions and millions of people. Perhaps non-profits or large corporations or wealthy HEI’s will help. Maybe. But do you think that they could provide for that many people? Doubtful. If they are able to help anyone, that’s great, and I am certainly not saying that any efforts are futile. I’m just not a fan of blanket statements- oh, online learning will lead to near universal access- let’s be realistic.

Life is different in third-world countries. The way people work and live their day to day lives is unlike anything we would understand here in the United States. Oftentimes, this lifestyle would make it difficult for these people to get an education, even if it were online. I attended an art event a few months ago in which a documentarian chronicled the lives of Indian migrant workers. For a couple months out of the year, the children of the workers are able to attend a local school, but once the crop cycle is over, they have to go somewhere new. These children will probably never get the opportunity to get a comprehensive elementary and secondary education. Maybe, miraculously, some of these workers are given computers and the opportunity for online learning. Maybe a few are able to learn something and leave that life behind; my suspicion, however, is that they are so entrenched in that tough life, that it would be almost impossible for them to escape. Perhaps I digress, but these are the people who everyone overlooks. I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but if India loses a large amount of its workers in one of its major commodities, what happens to the economy? Who produces that commodity?

Anyway, I can’t help but ask questions. All I know is that is is easy to get caught up in these debates, and in my opinion, lose focus on some very important issues. Maybe the plight of the Indian migrant worker isn’t our concern, but maybe it is. If we’re going to study international higher education, I want to know how everyone in the world is affected by it, not just those who are privileged to have access to it.

6 thoughts on “W13- Who Actually Receives Access to Online Learning?

  1. I think the question of access is an interesting one and certainly an issue we have grappled with this semester in terms of who is getting a higher education and at what levels. There is no doubt that socio-economic issues drive access and that technological advancements vis a vis online learning cannot ignore those realities. I do, however, believe that online learning has the ability to be transformative even for those who are remote and without immediate or easy access to the benefits of technology. In my personal experience, the telecom industry in India is an example of how a country like India had land lines for only the privileged few and now sees a mobile devise in the hands of most. I believe online learning can have the same depth of impact in countries like India. Every single person may not have access. But the reach to those who do is greater than ever known before with potential for real impact.

  2. Hi Ben,

    Thank you for your honest post that has touched one of the most sensitive topics about access inequality. I completely agree with you that greater access overall and as mentioned over and over in this week’s reading that overall student enrollment went up exponentially – it doesn’t mean that access to higher education has become easier or fairer. In fact, the access gap actually widens the inequality around the world, especially in the third world countries. This article has an interesting discussion with terrifying facts about growing inequality: . What concerns me, however, is that many try to cover the problem of inequality of access by focusing on overall increase in access. This week’s reading did bring up concerns about issues of inequality and access in Asia and Africa, where most of the enrollment increase has been seen. Yet, the inequality of access for wealthy vs poor is a huge problem in many other countries around the world, including the United States and United Kingdom, where the government funding has decreased a lot in the last couple of decades, while the prices of the higher education grew exponentially. I think the answer to the question of who is really getting the access to higher education is obvious, what I’m questioning here is – what are governments going to do to shrink these access inequality gaps?


  3. I for one am pro online learning. It takes discipline, but with a creative professor, holistic learning can take place. For all the classes I have taken online, only one of them was a joke. The others, about 7 of them, educated me more than some of my classroom learning. I think learning depends on the Professor, not the means by which one teaches.
    I also remember a time when I could not imagine a photo being sent through the phone, or actually owning my own computer. Although we do not live in a third world, technology took time to catch on and become affordable. Could this happen in third world countries? Maybe not for everyone to own their own products, but the thought of a central technology center, which many higher education institutions have, is a possibility. Not everyone in the United States owns a computer, but they all should have access through our free library system.
    Your thoughts are well written about commodities in India. Perhaps technology will help with that too. Whether Higher Education reaches all parts of the world, will be a real challenge, but the fact that the discussion is there is a start.
    Thank you.

  4. I am in agreement with Deb’s responses to your discussion of online learning and access. (Although personally I prefer a face to face classroom experience). Technology will never reach everyone, but as time goes on it will continue to be more widespread and more affordable. I think online learning can be the update of the correspondence course of days past, providing the opportunity for learning and credentials for those without a local institution. Your post brings up concerns of international access in remote locations, but I think about the remote locations in the US. In a previous course I studied the higher education system in Hawaii. Some islands did not have their own degree granting institutions, and regular inter island travel isn’t feasible. Residents not wanting to relocate to a different island would need to rely on local learning centers affiliated with universities, and distance learning. The option of higher education online provides residents with so many more options. Will everyone have the wifi/ethernet and equipment needed to pursue studies? No, but some may and this is important.

  5. I’m going to miss these Ben Levine posts! Very interesting insight, and while I agree with a lot of what you said, I think the “online revolution” is more about the potential of online learning, rather than the current state of online learning. I agree with you that if we look at the state of the world today, it is unlikely that online learning really will reach the most remote corners of the world. Maybe it never will — but in the decades to come I believe it will certainly reach more people than it does today. Will that be the same quality as in-person education? That is impossible to say. But it will be something, and that something is a start. I was shocked to read the statistic that currently, only 1% of the world’s population has access to higher education. With the right investments in technology and infrastructure, online learning can be a start towards closing the huge global higher education access gap. The challenge will be in finding out who will be making that investment (governments, HEIs, non-profits, etc). So, while I agree with you that the current state of online education is not doing much to increase global access to higher education, the resources could be there if relevant parties cared to make the investment.

  6. I spoke about the same thing in my blog post this week also! So yes, I definitely agree that online learning appears to have this assumption that it will be effective and obtainable everywhere. And of course the answer is no, under-developed rural areas don’t have the infrastructure to support internet access. However, I am very optimistic that in a few years the internet will rise to be a necessity of life and that governments and NGO’s will try to improve the quality of life in this direction, by extending internet and computer access to all. Not only does online learning have access issues, but issues like retention and engagement are major as well. For example, with MOOC’s, on average, only half the students who sign ups finish the course. This is very frightening, and if all internationalized courses were MOOC-style, what would happen to enrollment? As I alluded to in my post, these technologies are still very new to everyone, the world really needs time to get use to online learning before it becomes a permanent fixture in higher education.

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