Online learning should make education open to all. So, why hasn’t it happened?
It is naive to think a device and an internet connection are all that's needed to break down entrenched social and physical barriers facing our most marginalised learners
The hurried shift to online learning, necessitated by the Covid 19 pandemic, has held up the mirror to education and many of us don’t like what we see. Photograph: iStock
The internet brought us access to almost the entire body of human knowledge, a previously unimaginable ability to connect, share and collaborate. It was inevitable that this would transform the educational landscape, creating a linguistically and culturally diverse learning environment. Fundamentally this environment would of course be open to all, so why hasn’t this occurred?
Marginalised groups including individuals with disabilities, family carers and those from low income families are persistently under-represented in our higher education institutions.
While this certainly raises questions in relation to equality, it also invites us to consider the calibre of discourse in our learning communities. The absence of these groups removes experiences and perspectives with the potential to enrich and challenge the status quo. If educational cohorts embody a distorted representation of society, how can they prepare students to contribute to and improve their own communities?
Any lingering hopes that technology might yet provide a remedy to this situation have surely been extinguished by the shift to online learning, necessitated by the Covid 19 pandemic.
For many this heralded a dystopian glimpse into the future of education. As teachers broadcast material to passive student viewers, we are reminded not of the interactive potential of the internet, but of an older technology, the television.
When framed by a screen the mark of consumerism on this process is hard to deny. Consequently, this has led many to decry the rise of online learning as anathema to meaningful education, impeding relationships and thwarting creativity.
But technology is neither plague nor panacea. It is an amplifier. In light of this, what does online learning teach us about values at the heart of education in our society and how can its potential be harnessed to fulfil its promise of a diverse and equitable education system?
While online learning has been thrust to the top of the educational agenda in recent months, many institutions such as my own - IT Sligo - have been exploring these questions for over a decade.
More than half of the institute’s students are online learners. The development of its online offering has opened the college to an entirely new cohort. The majority of these are mature learners, many of whom are managing their studies around work and family responsibilities. As such, they bring a range of new experiences, perspectives and expectations into the classroom.
The potential of online learning as a force for inclusion has also been observed by Trinity College Dublin’s Ability Co-op. Students interviewed regarding the emergency shift to online described a newfound ability to fit education around their own requirements. Learners with physical disabilities or issues relating to anxiety no longer missed out on lectures if they were unable to attend campus.
Students with hearing impairments or conditions such as Asperger’s, dyspraxia or dyslexia described the benefits of the facility to pause and rewind lectures, as well as the provision of material in a variety of media forms. The advantages reported were numerous and diverse, but they all shared a common theme: flexibility.
This invites us to question the rigidity of traditional learning environments and who it serves. While creative use of technology can support new relationships and interactions, it cannot create them.
This is demonstrated by the Quality and Qualifications Ireland evaluation which outlines the disproportionate hardship experienced by students from marginalised communities and those with disabilities during the pandemic, primarily due to lack of support and a feeling of isolation.
As such, it would be naive to think that a device and an internet connection are all that is required to break down entrenched social and physical barriers. To truly broaden access and allow for meaningful diversity, educational institutions must reach beyond the silos of their own organisations to create supported pathways for marginalised learners.
IT Sligo’s “higher education for all” project , for example, has involved collaborating with advocacy groups including Family Carers Ireland and Disability Federation Ireland to create online courses for learners who find it difficult to attend campus for a range of reasons.
In this way, these organisations have begun to reimagine curricula, removing barriers and embedding supports as an inherent part of the students’ educational and social journey.
Often termed “universal design for learning”, this approach is also a foundational principle of UCD’s “university for all” initiative and is fundamental to the meaningful reform of both our online and physical learning environments. It is only with these core values established that students can be empowered to fully contribute to their educational community.
The hurried shift to online learning, necessitated by the Covid 19 pandemic, has held up the mirror to education and many of us don’t like what we see. The internet has given us an unprecedented ability to connect, share and collaborate, but it cannot instil these values where they do not exist.
While a convenient scapegoat, the focus on technology during a pandemic is a distraction from the fundamental failings well enshrined in our educational processes. Technology does have the potential to facilitate a truly diverse and equitable education system, but we must first be willing to create one.
Dr Ellen McCabe is an instructional designer and contributor to IT Sligo’s “higher education for all” project.