The concept of traditional education has changed radically within the last couple of years. Being physically present in a classroom isn’t the only learning option anymore, not with the rise of the internet and new technologies, at least. Nowadays, we all have access to a quality education whenever and wherever we want, as long as we have access to a computer. Definitely not an over-exaggeration if we say that we are now entering a new era- the revolution of online education!
Long before the pandemic, universities around the world were offering massive open online courses as a supplement to face to face teaching and learning. Now, as online courses become more central to university teaching, it will be important to rigorously assess the impact of this change. We already know that this educational revolution presents significant risks. Before the pandemic, countries were making good progress towards ensuring that by 2030 students would at least complete a primary education, defined as the years between pre and secondary education. That was one of the few United Nations Sustainable Development Goals potentially within reach. That might no longer be the case, a prospect that should worry us all.
As of this week, a staggering 850 million children and young adults, half of those enrolled in schools, colleges and universities worldwide are not in education or training because of COVID-19, according to the UN science and education organization UNESCO. The agency is also tracking closures of colleges up to secondary level daily and although universities are reopening in many places, they remain closed in 52 countries.
The majority affected are in the southern half of the globe, encompassing many low and middle-income countries. That means that students there are much less likely to be taking part in the online revolution. Internet penetration in this hemisphere is low, and some 360 million young people do not have access, according to the International Telecommunications Union. Many countries are using terrestrial television and radio to broadcast lessons as a lower-cost alternative to broadband.
Meanwhile, by increasing the flexibility of access to higher education, and with online learning as an alternative delivery method, the opportunity of higher education is being made available to more and more people from various backgrounds. In addition to this there are the arguments with regard to accessibility of technology, or lack of it concerning the financially less well off members of society. Much of the following work appears to form a link between the lack of accessibility and the creation of a new social divide.
In universities, the transition to online education is enabling institutions to reach out to students from underserved areas and under-represented communities. The pandemic will force a large number of institutions to remain closed further too, and online learning will substitute for the real thing. Having considered the increased opportunities that online learning can offer to students, such opportunities are based on the assumption students have, or can easily gain access to the technology requirements, and that all students are competent with the software provided.
If online education is to continue, which is a new way of life, the 'new normal', to develop and benefit students and staff, it is wrong to discriminate against the less well off, both intellectually and financially. Perhaps for the future both the for-profit organisations or the traditional non-profit institutions may have to consider offering equipment rental as an added option. Until which time only those students available to fund the costs will be able to experience the full advantages that IT based education has to offer.