By Nina Hood

With the mass shift to online and distance learning, both in New Zealand and around the world, a spotlight has been shone on the inequalities that exist within education.

With the mass shift to online and distance learning, both in New Zealand and around the world, a spotlight has been shone on the inequalities that exist within education. Perhaps the most immediately apparent embodiment of this inequality is those students who do not have access to a device or internet connection at home to enable them to engage with online learning opportunities; a phenomenon commonly referred to as the digital divide. While access to a device and the internet is a very tangible (and real) representation of the inequalities that exist within education and society more broadly, it belies a much deeper set of issues affecting equity in educational. The digital divide is just one part of a much larger learning divide.

The digital divide is no longer conceived of as a single divide expressed in binary terms between those with access to technology and those without. Rather a more nuanced and multifaceted view has been adopted, which is concerned not just with inequalities of access but increasingly the inequalities of participation and outcomes resulting from the ways in which technology is used. This does not downplay the importance of access. The current situation has demonstrated that access is without doubt an essential first step. However, it should not be viewed as the end destination. It is now widely recognised that the cultural and social capital required to locate, evaluate and exploit information and learn successfully using digital technologies are not distributed evenly or equally throughout society. That is, certain people are able to leverage and take greater advantage of online education and learning opportunities than others.

The persistent inequalities of participation and outcomes that exist in online learning have been well researched in relation to MOOCs – massive, open, online courses – and they provide a useful case study for exploring the different facets of the digital divide and their broader implications for educational equity. MOOCs have been positioned as a disruptive and democratising force in education, with their unique characteristics challenging traditional learning and educational parameters. Essentially, they are online courses (primarily offered in the higher education and professional learning space) which allow anyone with a device and internet connection to participate. Their open nature – meaning that they are free of charge (for at least a basic version, with many courses charging a fee for certification) and do not have any pre-requisites such as a high school diploma – creates a low barrier to access.

While there has been considerable attention paid to ‘equality of access’ in MOOCs and other forms of online learning, there has been too little consideration given to the equally important need to ensure learners experience ‘equality of participation’ and ‘equality of outcomes’. While online learning opens up educational opportunities to a far greater range of people, the ability to engage effectively with the educational opportunities on offer is not universal. The number and potential diversity of learners, in terms of background, geography, motivation, previous experience and ability to learn, pose substantial challenges for MOOC designers and facilitators. The ability to design learning pathways and opportunities that provide the variety in supports and scaffolds for the diversity of learners is a substantial challenge. The corollary is that the outcomes of a particular learning experience will differ considerably depending on the student and his or her ability to learn.

Many of the same issues influencing equity in offline, in-person learning continue to exist in the online space. The ability of an individual to engage in any learning opportunities, be they in person or online, is influenced significantly by their existing knowledge base and whether they possess the learning skills and social and emotional competencies to enable them to learn effectively. To date, education systems have not done a good enough job of addressing the inequality of social and educational capital students bring with them into ‘traditional’ offline learning contexts and in the online setting, this often is compounded by additional factors.

While the designs of online learning opportunities are diverse, and in many instances have become much more sophisticated in recent years, many are still designed and configured to best suit those learners who already have the social and educational capital to engage effectively with the learning opportunities presented. Most require higher levels of autonomy and self-motivation than in-person learning. They require learners to be able to effectively self-regulate their learning, including structuring their time, determining their specific learning needs, and working in ways that will enable them to achieve their desired outcomes.

As numerous commentators have pointed out in recent weeks, this does have the potential to promote student agency and to provide students with greater responsibility for and control over their learning. However, it is essential that we also recognise that certain learners will need much more support in order to be able to do this than others. Research has demonstrated that in a majority of cases, the learners who are best able to navigate the learning experience in online courses are those that already have considerable learning experience and have the necessary skills, knowledge and dispositions to be able to regulate and drive their own learning.

This becomes particularly problematic as, in many instances, online contexts offer less of the traditional structures that support learners to build the necessary learning dispositions and behaviours to participate effectively. The positioning of learning and education as a social endeavour, while possible to achieve online, is more challenging. The relational aspect of teaching and learning, which is so fundamental in the classroom setting, remains equally as important online but typically much more challenging to achieve.

Equality of participation and outcomes in online learning are further challenged by online learning experiences frequently being conceptualised as decontextualised learning experiences. Too often, little thought is given to the environments and spaces inhabited by individual learners. Learning and resultant knowledge construction exist within and are enabled in part through an individual’s participation within their physical context, as well as through interactions and engagement with the resources (material and human) available in that context. That is, online learning is inextricably linked to a learner’s offline environment.

The current situation, with the physical closure of university and school campuses and the shift to online teaching, has highlighted the impact that offline environments have on learning in online and distance learning. While online provision facilitates continued access to and engagement in education, it can expose marked differences in individuals’ learning environments. Do students have a suitable space at home to learn? What other factors are they having to compete with in order to engage in their learning? For school-aged students, what capacity do their parents have to support their learning? Do they have access to books and other materials and activities to further enrich their education?

None of the above is written with the intention of rejecting or discouraging online learning as one way to approach education. Rather, it suggests that a cautionary approach, which avoids undue hype or rhetoric about the emancipatory potential of technology or suggests that technology will, of itself, solve entrenched educational inequality. There certainly is an opportunity at present to rethink how formal education (think schools and universities) currently is structured and to consider other models and approaches. However, such reform must be firmly embedded within a clear understanding of how people learn and the principles of instructional design that promote effective learning. Conceptualising the digital divide as less about physical access to devices (although this admittedly is still a considerable concern) and more about the ability to effectively access and engage in learning opportunities. It focuses the discussion primarily on issues of teaching and learning, and how to best structure these in online settings to drive equality of participation and outcomes. It is only by positioning access to technology as the first step of a broader learning divide, that we can start to truly address the persistent educational inequities that continue to exist in our society.

For more information on COVID-19, head to the Ministry of Health website.

Nina Hood is a Senior Lecturer at the Faculty of Education and Social Work, The University of Auckland, and specialises in the role that digital technologies can play in supporting and enhancing education. She is the founder of The Education Hub, a not-for-profit that bridges the gap between research and practice in education. 

Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in this article reflect the author’s views and not necessarily the views of The Big Q. 

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