Post-secondary institutions and policy-makers at all levels tend to see online learning as a response to inequality in education, with the potential to improve access to learning for those who cannot attend campus.
Although online learning may be the equalizer for many students, the reality is different when all aspects of inequality are considered. In some cases, online learning actually makes the divide greater.
Barriers to Equity
There is no doubt that some students are greatly transformed by being able to access learning through online learning — as anyone who has taught online will tell you. Online learning, especially when there is no other means of learning, can change a person’s socio-economic trajectory.
But in order to achieve true equality, students who are underrepresented in higher education must have access to both learning and to the supports they need to succeed.
And is online learning really focused on underserved learners in post-secondary systems?
Online learning is not a strategy that will transform the status of many whose access to education is restricted or constrained. This is because: (a) socio-economic status and access to learning are connected to structural issues in society: poverty, social disadvantage, gender and race and not just accessibility of learning; and (b) access itself is an insufficient basis for social transformation; differential supports and greater personalization of learning is needed to facilitate completion.
Here are the main barriers to equity in online learning:
Socio-economic status: A 2015 study of MOOC takers for 68 edX courses offered by Harvard or MIT showed that most students live in neighbourhoods where the median income is 38% higher than average American neighbourhoods. Among young people who register for a HarvardX course, those with a college-educated parent have nearly twice the odds of finishing the course compared to students whose parents did not complete college. At exactly the ages where online learning could offer a new pathway into higher education, already affluent students are more likely to enrol in a course and succeed.
Cost: In Canada, 45.5% of the population accesses university by age 21. By comparison, only 25.2% of youth from low-income households do so, and first-generation youth enrol at a rate of 25.7%. Young people with disabilities participate at a rate of 22.1%.
A related reason is that for-credit learning, at least in a North American context, is an expensive proposition. A three-credit undergraduate course in a typical Canadian college costs about $520. At university, it’s about $450 - $730, and a three-credit graduate course can cost between $1,500 and $2,000. Fees vary by field of study and the costs to students of their education, especially in universities, has risen by 40% over the past decade.
Concern about debt: About half of post-secondary students use debt financing to finance their studies, especially those pursuing professional programs. Typical debt loads for a degree are around $26,700, varying by type of degree. College students owe less – on average $14,500. Student debt contributes to the precarity of many individuals and families. In 2018, one in six insolvencies in Ontario was attributed to student debt. Many graduates of both colleges and universities (approximately 31%) are making using of the Government of Canada’s repayment assistance program to extend the period of their student loans. Online learning reduces these costs (accommodation, travel, related expenses), but remains a significant cost challenge for many.
Lack of parental involvement: A more recent 2020 study from the Open University of the Philippines also suggests that a combination of socio-economic status and high levels of parental involvement and support are key components for student completion: the higher the socio-economic status, the more likely a person was to both register and complete.
Lack of support: A PhD study completed at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania in 2020 suggested that students from a lower socio-economic status required significantly higher levels of support (learning supports, technology supports, tutoring) than those from a higher socio-economic status, who were more than able to manage and complete their learning remotely.
Poor access to technology and appropriate workspace: In Canada, just 47% of rural communities have appropriate broadband (50/10 BPS), which means that 53% of Canadians find online learning a technological challenge. There is a real digital divide, and that is before the issue of affordability of digital services and technology is examined.
Various studies during the pandemic suggest that students from lower socio-economic status groups have poorer access to broadband, technologies, quiet spaces in which to work and social and emotional supports than those from a higher socio-economic status. This leads to the conclusion that there is a “greater loss of learning for the vulnerable populations, and an aggravation of the existing disparity between demographics”.
Evidence from a range of studies also suggests that students from higher socio-economic backgrounds access education resources differently from others. They have a greater sense of entitlement, can access resources easily and have the means to more fully leverage these resources. There are also gender differences (males access resources more frequently than females) and racial differences.
Despite the fact that more students secured a college or university qualification in 2020-2021 than in 1990-1991, social and economic inequality is worsening.
Poverty has been rising in Canada since 2000. Currently, 4.9 million live in poverty, with the average earnings of those on low incomes falling by 20% during this time. Statistics Canada shows that education is a factor for income. College diploma and certificate graduates have an ability to increase their earnings over a five-year period by about 35%. First degree holders can boost theirs by 43% and Masters / PhD holders (who start at higher salaries) by between 38% and 46%. There is, however, a significant difference in earnings between those with qualifications in different fields. Graduates in some fields enjoy a 40-60% premium over others. A higher education is beneficial to basic income, although women consistently earn less than men.
- 21% of single mothers and 7% of single fathers in Canada raise their children while living in poverty.
- 1.3 million children live in poverty — 1 in 5 Canadian children.
- Income inequality is growing. In its January 2020 report, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives said that Canada’s 100 most affluent CEOs earned salaries in 2018 that averaged 227 times that of their lowest-paid workers, and that by 10 a.m. on January 2, 2020, they would make as much money as the average Canadian worker would make all year. Their salaries have risen significantly since then.
- Canada’s wealthiest 10% own 56.4% of all wealth in Canada ($5.829 trillion) – twice as much as the bottom 80%.
- Household debt levels are now 170% of household income, and many families have few cash reserves to deal with sudden and unexpected events.
Opportunities to Bridge the Gap
Open, distance and flexible learning (ODFL) is a very helpful response to the equity challenge. By removing barriers such as academic admission requirements and distance, and by creating more flexible learning systems (e.g. more frequent admission points, acceptance of credit transfer, prior learning assessment), more people can access higher education. This was the rationale for the foundation of the Open University in the UK (1969) and for the creation of Athabasca University (1972), The Open Learning Institute of British Columbia (1978) and Université Téluq (1971), and many other open and distance universities around the world.
With the delivery of online learning, beginning in 1993-1994, more people could get an education if they had access to the Internet, appropriate end-user devices and skills. Although uptake began slowly, by 2018 (before the pandemic), registrations in online learning were growing faster than conventional registrations. 83% of Canadian post-secondary institutions offered credit courses online and 18% of post-secondary students were taking at least one credit course that was fully online as part of their program of studies — representing 1,357,000 course registrations. That number has ballooned since. Ontario alone has more than 42,000 online courses from its universities and colleges.
As a result of the pandemic, growth is accelerating. Worldwide, 32 million new registrations occurred in 2020 for Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) from just four key providers, making 2020 the best year for growth in the history of MOOCs. Some 650,000 Canadians registered for one or more courses. MOOC providers also expanded their offer of micro-credentials and degrees — a key source of their revenues and reputation.
This growth is occurring despite the ongoing challenges many experience with access to affordable and appropriate broadband and the technologies required to be successful learners.
But with much more to do to leverage education as a vehicle for social and economic equality, online learning is just one part of the puzzle. And treating the challenge as being about individuals and their learning and career journey rather than a structural challenge requiring a different kind of intervention doesn’t work. Colleges and universities cannot secure greater equity by working with one student at a time, no matter how effective their work with that person is. Greater change at a macro level is essential to achieving lasting equality in higher education.