How Does Online Learning Affect Educational Inequality?

By Yana Yelina
June 03, 2021

Education is one of the key factors in overcoming social and economic inequality. This is especially true in developing countries, where many children are forced to choose between continuing their education and joining the workforce from an early age. Poor access to qualified schooling further contributes to educational inequality. Millions of children worldwide have limited access to schools with professional tutors and up-to-date learning materials.

The situation worsened significantly under coronavirus-related measures, such as widespread school closures, social distancing in class, and postponed exams.

Can off-the-shelf and custom eLearning solutions become the silver bullet against educational inequality? Let’s examine the typical challenges that stand in the way of adopting online education.

Challenges Involved with Switching to Online Education: the Digital Divide

Despite widespread digitization, it would be a grave mistake to take internet access for granted. Even in the U.S., the wealthiest country in the world, thousands of families, especially low-income families and the inhabitants of rural areas, don’t have broadband internet access.

A stable internet connection is crucial for providing the child with necessary learning materials — including visual media — and allows teachers to monitor the process. The inability to establish such communication is detrimental to learning and results in children falling behind their peers.

One way around this are mobile-optimized learning programs that do not require a robust internet connection. However, not that many courses are available on mobile, and not all mobile-optimized courses are truly equivalent to full-scale counterparts. Besides, replacing regular learning materials with palm-sized versions brings along concerns about lowered engagement and adverse health effects.

In families with several school-aged children, each of them requires access to a computer, a tablet, or a smartphone to follow the online learning program in full. This is another problem for the parents to tackle, either by splashing out on multiple devices or by making sure the children share the available device. Needless to say, neither option is appealing to low-income families.

Personal Learning Space

In the classroom, teachers are responsible for instilling an atmosphere conducive to learning. When children switch to online learning programs, they quickly discover that the same setting is hard to recreate at home. Even students who have rooms of their own to do homework and attend video lectures (a privilege of its own) have to deal with multiple distractions.

As a result, the level of engagement in online learning is lower and children with weaker self-discipline or children in troubled households come under significant pressure.

Help from Adults

Parents need to help their children set up a smooth and safe online learning process. But not all parents are digitally savvy enough to assist. On the other side of the screen, teachers need to wield solid digital skills to steer their virtual classrooms, employ the full potential of interactive tools, and prevent cheating.

To successfully implement an online training program, the school administration has to focus on preparing the adults, not children, to handle massive changes in tools and strategies.

Language Barriers

Every online learning initiative must take into account the languages spoken by students and their parents, and tailor any applications and materials accordingly to ensure equal conditions for all. This applies in particular to countries with a large number of immigrants and countries where “small” indigenous languages are used by communities on par with the “big” official language.

The COVID-19 Effect

UNESCO Assistant Director-General for Education Stefania Giannini referred to the COVID-19 crisis as an “unprecedented educational disruption” that poses “a real threat to learning continuity.” Pandemic-containing measures led to school closures in as many as 191 countries, impacting over 60% of the world’s student population — at least 1.5 billion students.
In most affected countries, in-person classes were replaced by remote learning to comply with strict social distancing regulations. All educational activities moved from classrooms to online teaching platforms, often outfitted with videoconferencing, digital libraries, and interactive tools.

Battling Inequality in Online Education

Experts insist that if left unaddressed, inequality in online learning will deepen the educational inequality in the real world, with educational systems in every country already suffering the consequences of coronavirus-related lockdowns and restrictions.

A coordinated effort is required from various sectors to provide families with online learning solutions that get children as close as possible to real-life schooling experience. And we’ve already seen examples of such coordination.

Some districts around the U.S. have been sending devices to students who don’t have them, including students in public housing, disabled students, and multilingual students. In Charleston, South Carolina, district authorities tackled existing disparities in internet access by strengthening Wi-Fi signals at schools and deploying specialized Wi-Fi buses.

Ideally, transitioning to online learning should involve a holistic approach with measures that cover internet and hardware access, affordability, accessibility, skills training, and other important factors.

Yana Yelina is a Technology Copywriter at Oxagile, a full-cycle software development company. You can find her publications in online publications like TechNative, Young Upstarts, DEVOPSdigest, Learning Solutions, and on Oxagile’s blog.

Featured Image: Andres Urena, Unsplash.


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