Inequality and Open Education

When I signed up for the ONL course I did it with because (a) I wanted to learn more about online teaching and (b) that I thought it might be useful in the future. The two objectives have already been fulfilled, since the future has arrived a lot earlier than I thought it would.

In this short reflective blog post I want to reflect, again, on digital literacy. I know this was last week’s topic, but I think it is important to consider it also when we discuss open education and inequality. Particularly since this have had direct relevance for my personal work this week. A colleague was unable to make and upload videos for a course, so I had to both record and upload the videos instead. This was a swift reminder that not only some students, but also some teachers, have difficulties adjusting to the technical realities of online teaching.

Last week I also had the privilege to attend a conference on digital learning at Linnaeus University. At this conference I was introduced to the MOOC concept, something I had vaguely heard of but never fully understood. The description of the MOOCs sounded fascinating––thousands of students taking a single course, many of them for free! But as the presenters pointed out, having thousands of students makes it practically impossible to have one-on-one consultation with each student. While the free MOOCs at a first stage sounds like a great way to address inequality, lack of digital literacy can be an obstacle for many. As Kaveh Waddell, a journalist, described it:

But a bevy of recent research has shown that online learning has largely fallen short of that goal (reducing inequality). The same factors that have held back low-income or minority students in physical classrooms also plague virtual ones. Studies have found that online-learning resources had trouble attracting low-income students—or, in the case of school-age children, their parents—and that those who did participate in online classes performed more poorly than their peers.

There are perhaps several reasons for this. If I may reflect based on my own experiences, I would argue that the students who were able to navigate the academic campus environment before are to a great extent able to do so also in an online environment. There is thus a risk that students who lacks previous experience in academia and does not have the networks that can help them navigate this new environment risks falling behind since the support structure is not there: there are perhaps few clarifications from the teachers, little guidance from administrators, and no direct assistance from librarians. MOOCs and other large-scale learning environments are without a doubt an interesting and necessary development for academic knowledge to spread further than it has previously did. Measures should be taken to tackle digital inequalities so that it can reach even further.  

3 reaktioner till “Inequality and Open Education

  1. Thanks for another interesting blog post Joel. What you touch upon in this blog is partially about what I tried to add to our mind-map over the weekend, about the consequences of broad recruitment. In your blog, you mention the risk of students who lacks previous experience in academia and who do not necessarily have the networks needed to ‘move around’ in higher education. With broad recruitment – which is a very good aim to have – we have to be better prepared to assist students who, for instance, lack the social and cultural capital to cope with uni studies, and perhaps especially not so online. Navigating online can be extremely difficult, more difficult than on campus. We need to offer much better structures and help for these students, so that we don’t lose them before they even had the chance of getting started for real.


  2. A very valid point Joel. The sad fact is that the people who could benefit most from open education don’t know it exists or don’t know what to do with it. What is happening in many countries is that local learning centres, libraries and communities are offering support to learners. This is relevant even in countries like Sweden where despite many initiatives the socio-economic demographics of the student population is still very unbalanced. Many new student groups are afraid of higher education, don’t think they are clever enough and easily drop out if something is unclear. We need to offer them different types of support (scaffolding) to help them get started.



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