Lessons from Global Distance Learning Programs and the Digital Divide

I decided this week to take a more sociological approach to the essential question. Earlier in this course, we examined the growing emphasis on open education and how that impacts the “traditional” view of education. We have also learned about the pedagogical approaches that are missing but very much needed in open education and distance learning course design. For me, a major piece of this puzzle, is the issue of access and the digital divide that continues to affect major groups of people and communities.

We know that technology has played a major role in expanding distance learning programs not just in the U.S. but across the world. However, the digital divide continues to create disparity between those who have the means and access to advanced communication technologies and those who do not. The contrast in use of technology between developed and developing countries is evident in the distance learning programs within each country and also demonstrates a cultural value placed on education (Moore & Kearsley, 2011).

The United States (and other developed countries) also struggles with disparity among its states and groups of citizens with respect to their means and access to communication technologies. While a remote Alaskan student might have means to buy a smartphone or tablet, it does not mean much without an adequate infrastructure to support the advanced mobile communication technologies. In comparison, an urban student living in San Francisco, among the most advanced technology companies in the world and city-wide access to wifi, might struggle with meeting basic needs and not have the means to buy a smartphone or tablet.

For these two American students in very different settings, while distance education in the U.S. is becoming more advanced and “available” through the latest technology; the issue is whether distance education can be available to them if the infrastructure and basic needs are not met. Distance learning in the U.S. (like many other services and systems) assumes that the learner (or consumer) has the means to access the course, and is focused on using the best practices and most appropriate and effective technology to deliver relevant content. So while in theory, distance learning and open education, can level the playing field and make education accessible to many, it will still exclude many other groups and communities.

From this week’s reading, I wanted to highlight three (3) lessons learned that distinguish the distance learning programs in other countries:

  1. The number of students graduating from distance learning programs is rivaling those that attend physical campuses.   And the number of programs, extensions, networks, learning centers, etc. continues to grow as demand increases. Efforts towards equity in access to education can also be seen in learning networks that bring together a blending of methods and resources (content experts, online and on-location activities) to serve small and remote communities, distance education programs at existing major universities, similar to those in the U.S. (Moore & Kearsley, 2011).
  1. Many countries (and their cultures) place a very high value on education, which is evident in the national policies, resources, and emphasis placed on distance education that can increase access for more citizens to obtain a formal education. The investment in education of its citizens, can be an indicator of a country’s value on education and its awareness of the societal, cultural, and economical impact and benefits of educated citizens. I would also argue that the practice of using any technology means available, despite how dated they may seem, is also an indicator of a willingness by a country and by its people to do whatever it takes to gain an education.

The Indira Gandhi National Open University is a great example of India’s commitment to education with “a mature and sophisticated distance education system, employing the full range of technologies, including simple technology where appropriate, as in much of rural India, as well as world-class cutting-edge technologies in urban areas.” (Moore & Kearsley, p. 260). Going back to the first point about numbers, this university system, has about 3 million students, while also contributing to distance education in India through support and training in the field.

Another example would be South Africa; as part of its political shift towards democracy, distance education focused on adult learners became an important tool in the efforts to bring about equality and equity to the people (Moore & Kearsley, 2011). The emphasis and support in producing “Designing and Delivering Distance Education: Quality Criteria and Case Studies from South Africa” (p. 258) also demonstrates a commitment to best practices in distance education.

  1. Targeted programs can have a major impact through distance education; the PROFORMACAO project was aimed at training elementary teachers from rural communities in Brazil (Moore & Kearsley, 2011). The project was a major collaboration of the public and private sectors to develop the course design and materials, to provide much needed training for over 30,000 teachers. This project implemented a cost-effective online system that did not need a physical, permanent infrastructure to be successful.

Looking back at the best practices (Boettcher, 2013) that I wrote about last week, some thoughts about global distance learning programs come up for me. Most importantly, it’s clear that technology is the major driving force in how distance learning is supported, developed, and conducted across global distance learning programs. A supportive course community may or may not exist online, particularly in the programs for small or remote communities with limited access and means to technology. Expectations of communication and time needed for tasks seems a bit more flexible when the technology is less advanced and it literally takes more time for communication and materials to be sent or exchanged. Flexible grouping and synchronous or asynchronous activities also seem to be driven by the technology and infrastructure that supports each program; if technology and time impact communication, flexible grouping might be assumed or just something that happens more organically. In a more “formal” distance learning program, it might need to be more emphasized than in mostly asynchronous courses or the remote learning centers that support learners on-site. In all the programs, provision of resources and relevant materials is dependent on the technology available as well as the accessibility and means by which students have access. Efforts and accommodations are made to meet learners where they are at with whatever means are available, practical, or accessible.

Here in the U.S., arguments about the digital divide focus on race or access, while others attribute the disparity to more cultural factors. According to Steele-Carlin (2000),

 “Many people, however, question whether a digital divide fueled by ethnic, geographic, societal, or economic factors exists. The major issue, say the digital dissenters, is not a lack of access to technology but a lack of interest in technology. The educational system does not adequately address that lack of interest, they say.”

This line of reasoning, argues that programs and organizations exist to assist schools and individuals to access technology but that the effort is not made or interest is not shown by these schools and individuals. It’s the same reason why so many scholarships go unclaimed every year, it requires awareness, time, and commitment or effort.

Another increasing trend in schools is Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) which has many advantages – students get to use a device they are familiar with and can take their learning home with them and the school does not have to bear the costs of providing the latest technology (Harvey, 2014). Some of the disadvantages include different platforms, software, versions, liability, and again access. Not all students have a device to bring nor do they have the means to lease one.

Let’s forget the national and global digital divide and just look at Alaska; even within this state, there is a major disparity in access to basic reliable internet connection not just for students but for teachers as well. So while a handful of larger communities in Alaska blaze the tech trail in distance education (like Givercraft!), what are the implications for the rest of the state? I suspect many Alaskans are already doing it, using whatever limited connections they have at great personal cost, leaving home to pursue education elsewhere (again at great personal cost), or simply they are unable to take distance education courses. Another alternative, going back to paper/mail correspondence courses (yes, they do still exist); I found one through Seattle Central College, although there are some courses that require you to take the exams on campus or to find your own test administrator! Check out the Correspondence Handbook, complete with instructions for mailing in your assignments. So while the distance learning programs should theoretically cater to learners of all ages in this state, the reality is that many smaller (and not even that remote) communities cannot participate in these programs, unless the communications infrastructure improves to not just good enough, but to adequately support the web technologies being used in distance learning programs today.


Boettcher, J.V. (2013).  Ten Best Practices for Teaching Online:  Quick Guide for New Online faculty.  Designing for Learning.  Retrieved from: http://www.designingforlearning.info/services/writing/ecoach/tenbest.html

Harvey, B. 2014. Bridging the Digital Divide in Classrooms. Education Week Teacher, Editorial Projects in Education. Retrieved from: http://www.edweek.org/tm/articles/2014/07/02/ctq-harvey-digital.html

Moore, M.G. and Kearsley, G. (2011).  Distance Education: A Systems View of Online Learning.  Cengage Textbook.

Seattle Central College Correspondence Course Overview. Retrieved from: http://seattlecentral.edu/distance/correspondence/index.php

Seattle Central College Correspondence Handbook. Retrieved from: http://seattlecentral.edu/corres/Handbook.pdf

Steele-Carlin, S. 2000. Caught in the Digital Divide. Education World. Retrieved from: http://www.educationworld.com/a_tech/tech041.shtml

2 thoughts on “Lessons from Global Distance Learning Programs and the Digital Divide

  1. I so agree about the digital divide. You can see it hear in Alaska. When you live in a village, as I do internet is so expensive for so little bandwidth. So my students do not have internet at home they can just watch streaming videos on. Also schools do not always have fast connections. We are always working on making our internet better and keep it going. Doing distance becomes an ongoing struggle. The network was so bad on Monday, before some major work needed done on it that my class could not hear my audio and whiteboards would not load, so class was basically not functioning. I think about flipped classrooms and at ASTE this year I heard about flipped in, schools who do flipped, but in the classroom. This is because their population of students do not have access to technology at home. I also think technology can widen our divide among the poor and rich. If we have such a heavy dependance on technology, maybe the rich will be the only ones to have it. Now saying all this I think distance programs and using the three items you highlight shows lots of promise a group of students.


  2. Online distance learning has increased in availability from the first time I attended my first online course. Based on my own observation, there are more postsecondary level schools offering degrees by the means of online distance learning courses than when I started my first online course. In addition, the most interesting part of the increasing expansion of online distance learning is the public education expansion of online distance learning. As you stated, “Efforts towards equity in access to education can also be seen in learning networks that bring together a blending of methods and resources (content experts, online and on-location activities) […]. For instance, the high school my daughter attended offered variety of honors academic online courses. The technology tools she used mostly were computer, Internet, cell phones, iPad, Twitters, and all different tools from Google. All of these tools definitely helped my achieve her learning goals.


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