Digital Education for Whom?

[1028 words]

I’m wondering whom digital education might serve and whom it might serve particularly well.

As we think about the many characteristics, preferences, filters, socially constructed ideas, and comfort levels of learners with respect to different kinds of processes, tools and approaches, it ought to become clear that digital education is not for everyone. Or not equally appropriate for everyone. Indeed, I’d say more broadly that education generally — in the sense of formal education, with specific, socially-approved, institutionally-determined goals and methods — is not for everyone. Given how, in the United States, indeed through much of the world, we organize and execute instances of education, schooling, and programmatic, verified learning, it seems unlikely that each system will necessarily be effective for each learner. That applies to face-to-face education. That applies to digital education.

So questions need ought to be asked of digital education: Why? To what purpose? For whom? How are the modalities, channels of communication and collaboration optimized and targeted for the intended learners? What are the pedagogical or andragogical approaches? Of course, the answers will depend on which institution or community is answering the questions and which particular content is the topic of the teaching, or which outcomes are intended for the particular unit, course or learning mechanism.

In short, a plethora of questions must be answered before one can begin to consider the fundamental question of my blog post. And that, in and of itself, is quite an education.

When we say “digital education,” it does not necessarily refer exclusively to formal programs that certify particular kinds of learning through the issuing of diplomas. (In this case, we are talking about the acquisition of academically determined disciplinary knowledge, along with particular kinds of discipline-oriented skills development certified by progress through a relatively rigid formal curriculum of general education content and a sequence of specialization course.) Yet “digital education” can also refer to self-directed and informal education enacted through digital and connected resources. It can refer to supplementary or complementary activities that are associated with but distinct from formal education (for example, “extracurricular learning,” or experiential learning, internships, participation in clubs, leadership roles played, etc._) It can refer to affinity learning. It can refer to community based learning. Or “continuing education.” Or job training. Or not-for-credit lifelong learning activities. Or… a plethora of other options. So how we answer the baseline questions depends on the kind of digital education that we mean.

Here, I will talk about formal education, particularly postsecondary education in the United States. There are a number of “digital initiatives” in the realm of undergraduate postsecondary education. The question that I will ask is about those courses, those programs. So… whom are they intended to serve? I’m thinking, for example, of the low-cost “Global Freshman Academy” offered by Arizona State University via edX.org, or open courses (offered under an arrangement that allows students to earn up to a year’s worth of college credit at no cost) on modernstates.org.

So whom do those open courses serve? My guess is that it’s folks who are already relatively privileged — first world — and benefiting from a number of social and educational advantages. Even though they might not be as socially and economically affluent and resourced as others in their own society, they are highly prosperous and thriving abundantly in comparison to most other human inhabitants of this planet. So when we talk about digital education and the promise of open education mediated by OERs and MOOCs and such, let us not kid ourselves by believing that it truly will serve most people. That’s patently untrue. Relatively few outside of developed and developing countries have access to high-speed internet, via hard wiring or wifi. Relatively few individuals or communities outside of the affluent West and East can afford to invest in computer technology and distribution systems that would permit widespread exploitation of the “open” and “free” digital tools that are available for learning. Few outside of those zones have access to education that would set them up for success in digital learning. Few have any level of digital literacy at all. These individuals are not likely to be able to complete a U.S. or European undergraduate curriculum. I’m not even sure that the most motivated learner who gets free internet access will be able to learn successfully without some help and guidance.

Now, it is true that even in poor communities that lack infrastructure, learners can figure a lot out for themselves (as per Sugata Mitra’s “Hole in the Wall” project, see https://www.edutopia.org/blog/self-organized-learning-sugata-mitra or experiences associated with initiatives like One Laptop Per Child, see http://one.laptop.org/). But how often do such moments of opportunity and communal learning occur. Alas, it seems that many of the promises made about the liberating power of digital education and the likelihood of spreading learning throughout the globe are relatively hollow, because project like Mitra’s and OLPC’s are rare. The vast majority of the poor and underserved of this world will gain very little benefit from digital education. There is a deep problem of inequity that DE will not solve. There is a fundamental educational gap that high-quality information, good software, even if that software is free, and super educational programming offered by edX, Coursera, futurelearn or FUN.fr are not going to solve.

So… who is digital education for? At the moment, it looks like it’s mostly for an audience of mostly affluent folks. It might work best for the least affluent citizens within the most affluent nations. Yet, it serves the global affluent. The global impoverished, the illiterate, the vastly underserved populations that make up a large part of humanity are unlikely to derive much benefit. Digital education and the promises that have been made about its impact seem less and less impressive the more one looks at the world as a whole, with a focus on serving the vastly underserved. DE just does not do the job. What is more, it cannot do the job without a lot of changes happening first.

I’d love to hear alternative perspectives. Better yet, I’d love to work to prove that my vision of the present and the near-term future of digital education is inaccurate or overdrawn.