W13- Who Actually Receives Access to Online Learning?

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.