A Pandemic of a Different Kind: Quality Online Education

Anyone with an interest in education (hopefully that’s all of us!) and its relation to socioeconomic systems should watch the Netflix series ‘Daughters of Destiny.’ A poignant, heartfelt documentary, it follows the lives of five girls from impoverished families in India who are given the opportunity to receive a high-quality online education through attendance at a boarding school dedicated to uplifting those from the lowest ‘caste’.

The documentary explores the challenges faced by these young women as they straddle both the world of privileged online education and the world of burden and expectation as the sole saviors. Through their newfound role in the communities and their schooling, they are expected to take responsibility for the upliftment of their families, and communities out of privation and severe hardship. As they leave school and enter the economic world of work, it is incredible to consider what different destiny would have awaited these students were it not for the opportunity of a quality online education.

In summary: with access to a good online education, not only can the individual succeed and flourish, but they can be part of the upliftment process of their communities.

One of the reasons I joined Construct was a keen internal alignment with the company vision:

“One day everyone will have the opportunity to attain a meaningful online education through superior online programs.”

In the physical implementation of this mission, it is undeniable that the prevalence of online learning has allowed people from all corners of the globe to access high-quality online education without sacrificing the finances (and carbon emissions) required to travel long distances to attend residential classrooms.

Ensuring Access to Quality Online Education: Addressing Global Inequalities

But there is another angle that is important to consider: as the EdTech industry continues to prosper, what is our duty in ensuring that on the back of our international successes, we are not inadvertently contributing to the exacerbation of another kind of global pandemic – the increase in educational inequality?

We do not need to travel as far as India to witness how the advent of the COVID-19 era widened an already chasmic divide in inequality in education.

In terms of both school and university education, as classrooms closed their doors to move online, not all students have been affected equally. Whilst the privileged few have become accustomed to studying in the quiet privacy of their own room, on their own laptop in an ergonomic chair and with unlimited fast fiber access, many students were not given the opportunity, tools, or access needed to keep on learning during the pandemic. The move to distance learning has highlighted the problems faced every day by students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds: lack of internet at home, lack of resources, lack of parental guidance, crowded living conditions, uncertainty around food, and uncertainty around housing.

Students from low-income families are more likely to be excluded from online distance learning because of an inability to afford sufficient internet or devices. When educational institutions first closed due to the pandemic, the widespread lack of internet access needed for remote study was laid bare. In South Africa, only 22% of households have a computer, and 10% have an internet connection. By contrast, students from wealthier communities with computer access have been able to continue their education, particularly through remote learning provided by better-resourced schools.

Then, of course, there are additional disparities in equality of education by the move to online learning, such as:

  • Computer literacy – particularly a challenge for those who already faced barriers to education, but also affects learners intergenerationally, ie, older/elderly students.
  • Inequalities based on gender – for example, in some countries, girls face multiple forms of discrimination in accessing education before the COVID-19 pandemic, and then face additional discriminatory barriers to continuing formal education from a distance. Girls who may be expected to take on greater housework burdens, are less likely to have access to the internet than boys, and sometimes face greater constraints on their interactions with others due to societal or familial restraints.
  • Cultural and language barriers
  • Physical and mental disabilities that may have not been catered for with online learning.

Why Does it Matter?

Without quality online education, students are hampered from reaching their full potential to gain the skills they need to fully and equally participate in society and exercise their rights. Lost educational opportunities lower economic prospects and render those without education susceptible to greater risk of poverty, violence, child labor and crime. The cost is high. The consequences of not providing adequate access to quality online education to everyone reach much further than the individual, but to the whole of society, the economy, and our own business.

Inclusive, good-quality online education is a foundation for dynamic and equitable societies.

Why is The Solution?

Like most highly complex issues, there isn’t one simple solution to closing the Digital Divide – this is a systemic problem and will only be achieved through the actions of many players. There is a requirement for the governments, businesses, and societies of nations with high educational inequality to recognize and utilize resources to combat contributory factors: access to food, access to affordable data, provision of safe spaces to learn, adjustments made for those with disabilities, access to necessary computer equipment, elimination of gender-based discrimination and/or violence in the home, etc.

Whilst those in the business of Online Learning have experienced an unprecedented boom during the Covid era, the industry is still acclimatizing to this growth and many organizations are rightly focused on setting themselves up for financial stability and longevity in what has been a precarious time worldwide. However, being a part of the solution does not have to mean giving away resources as a charitable cause (although if you can, then, fantastic!).

There are small steps in the right direction that those in the EdTech space can make – especially those businesses with a large workforce footprint in developing nations. Some places from which to start are:

  1. Awareness
    Recognize that educational inequality exists globally, in particular in developing countries, and consider the impact that online learning may have. How can you better advocate constructive solutions?
  2. Tailor course design where applicable to aid those who may be at a disadvantage.
    Consider factors such as:
    • What kind of tutor guide or training might be required to identify the challenges faced by some learners in their programs;
    • how student help desks might be accessed;
    • channels to recognize, approach or assist students who are struggling;
    • clear instructions for those less acclimatized to technology
    • translation, audio, or subtitle options for students of different languages
    • relevance of material to the target audience (for example, consider learner culture, the prior standard of education, etc.) and;
    • accessibility for those students with disabilities.
  3. Adopt technology
    EdTech companies can consider approaches that may enable those in infrastructure-challenged environments to access online learning. For example, the micro-cloud learning environment is a completely self-contained but cloud-enabled e-Learning environment that allows students and teachers access to cloud-based learning management systems, curriculum, content, and resources – even when the school or university has no connectivity or power.
  4. Partnerships
    This is something that Construct and other EdTech providers are already really great at, and there are so many wonderful opportunities to use this skill for good. For example:
    • Government: an investigation into curriculum-aligned content and software that schools and universities can buy could unlock real growth in the industry, whilst simultaneously giving us leverage to improve educational equality through intentional course design.
    • Private Sector: already closely associated with the EdTech industry, particular efforts can be made to partner with large corporations with an excess of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) funding. From a fiscal perspective, these organizations are keen to allocate resources each year for reputational, BEE, and tax purposes. Those in the business of online learning are in a prime position to vie as chosen providers through the ability to design and bring to life exceptional courses specifically for learners who would otherwise not be able to afford the course or be excluded otherwise (I have seen such partnerships in action, and the potential is incredible!).

In conclusion, ‘Doing the right thing’ in reducing inequality is not only crucial for a prosperous society but can be directly beneficial to the bottom line of EdTech organizations. There are opportunities to be gained through the formation of solid and enduring partnerships while making our name as transformational leaders in the fight against educational inequality.

We have an opportunity to rethink and revamp the educational sector, and in doing so, we should all aspire to the Construct value: “One day everyone will have the opportunity to attain a meaningful online education through superior online programs.”

This blog post is made available by the author for educational purposes only and to provide general information. All views expressed are the author’s own and do not represent the opinions of any entity whatsoever, to which they have been, are now, or will be affiliated. If you have a specific problem related to this topic and need advice, contact Construct Education directly.

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