Online education: can we bridge the digital divide?

Some people could be left behind in the digital revolution in higher education. Divide image from www.shutterstock.com

FUTURE OF HIGHER EDUCATION: We continue our series on the rise of online and blended learning and how free online courses are set to transform the higher education sector. Today, Tim Pitman writes on who has access to this online education revolution.


Online learning divides opinion like few other issues in the world of higher education.

But regardless of whether you think this is a good or bad thing, there is no escaping the fact it is here to stay.

Despite claims about the democratisation of education through free online university courses and open educational resources, some potential students are being left on the wrong side of the digital divide.

Learners need not only the physical connections to the internet and appropriate hardware, but also the familiarity with technology to make online learning work.

Universities and governments need to do more to improve access to these resources or risk leaving some of the most disadvantaged students behind.

Uneven connections

Australians are connecting more and more. In the ten years between 1998 and 2008, home internet access increased dramatically - and it’s still climbing.

But the increase is not equally distributed. In households without children, access has gone from fewer than one in five households to three in five. But in households with children it has risen even higher - almost four in five.

The new generation of students is more connected than the Baby Boomer generation. But even within this generation, there are huge differences in the quality of access.

Those with parents in the top 20% of income earners will almost certainly have the internet at home. But if parental income is in the bottom 20%, almost half won’t. They may still have access at school or universities but this is not the same as having consistent access.

Indigenous students, for example, are relatively well connected (69% usage) but are much more reliant on using computers at school than other groups. They don’t enjoy the consistent access required to make the most of online educational opportunities.

Digital division

There is no escaping the fact there is a digital divide. The government has recognised this and is trying to develop e-learning strategies, particularly in vocational education and training, for groups like Indigenous students, people with a disability and the unemployed.

But there are many other groups, including rural and remote learners, isolated metropolitan learners and people with poor English literacy skills that also require assistance.

Every group requires a different approach. Steps are already being taken to address diverse needs but it is already easy to see where mistakes could be made.

A common goal is good, a common strategy is not. Indigenous communities, for example, require a more nuanced approach than simple a one-size-fits-all policy. Indigenous people are no more homogeneous than anyone else.

The same is true for the other target groups.

All our digital eggs in one basket

Governments must be wary of being locked into one delivery mode. When the government made the commitment to give a “laptop for every child” it actually meant laptops for schools – a place children spend less and less of their learning time.

Governments and universities must understand that online learning needs to omnipresent, preferably 24/7 and available on as many devices as possible, to meet the diverse geographical, cultural and resource needs of our students.

Government has got it right with the National Broadband Network: it provides the essential service of fast, widespread broadband access and leaves it to individual users and/or organisations to decide how best to exploit it for their own needs.

Flexible learning demands that governments and educational institutions at all levels engage directly with target communities, giving them the required resources, yet allowing the freedom them to use the resources to meet specific needs.

A right to online learning?

Online learning can address some forms of educational inequity, but it can also perpetuate others.

We risk repeating the mistakes of the past and perpetuating educational inequity. Like access to private schooling, online learning comes with a cost barrier. Those who can afford smarter technology, better and faster connectivity and 24-hour access will benefit while those who can’t, will not enjoy the same quality of access.

We have to decide, as a society, whether high-quality online learning is a privilege or a fundamental right.


The series will conclude later this month with a panel discussion in Canberra co-hosted with the Office for Learning and Teaching and involving the Minister for Tertiary Education, Chris Evans.

Leave your comments, join the discussion on twitter.com/conversationEDU,facebook.com/conversationEDU.


This is part six of our series on the Future of Higher Education. You can read other instalments by clicking the links below:

Part one: Online opportunities: digital innovation or death through regulation?, Jane Den Hollander

Part two: MOOCs and exercise bikes – more in common than you’d think, Phillip Dawson & Robert Nelson

Part three: How Australian universities can play in the MOOCs market, David Sadler

Part four: MOOC and you’re out of a job: uni business models in danger, Mark Gregory

Part five: Radical rethink: how to design university courses in the online, Paul Wappett