Online learning holds great promise — but mostly for the well-off

A girl and a computer

It’s easy to be hopeful about online learning; a world where anyone — regardless of income, race, or gender — is able to access the same high-quality instruction. Some have imagined that it could truly democratize education. Perhaps even reduce inequality, break down barriers, and give kids from poorer neighborhoods a shot at on-demand lessons

That’s all a wonderful dream, but according to Mimi Ito, a cultural anthropologist at the University of California Irvine, it’s just that: a dream.

“Often, when we think of the open Internet and resources being freely available, we assume it has a democratizing function. That anybody can access this stuff, it’s free and open, so therefore it must be more equitable. The sad fact is that we know historically, that when you provide fancier technology, it actually increases inequity.”

Through her research, Ito has found that new technology has the tendency to give students who are already highly educated and come from wealthier backgrounds "superpowers." It separates people into two groups: Those who can easily access new technology and new ways of learning, and those who can’t.

As much as it might seem that every single person on Earth has a smartphone, and is staring at it instead of talking to you like a normal human being, that’s actually not the case. “The cost of having an all-you-can-eat data plan on a smartphone is actually quite prohibitive, and because smartphones tend to be individually based rather than household based, that becomes even more exclusionary for teens who are much less likely to have their own device and data plan than a parent.” 

So for disadvantaged kids who have spotty access to the Internet, they aren’t able to fully engage with learning and cultural opportunities that their peers can easily access.

But even if every student was given a smartphone, a laptop, an iPad, and a lightning-fast Internet connection, that might not be enough to realize the promise of online education. Ito believes it’s about context. One solution might lie in having kids talk with experts — who can show them what to do with the technology — at libraries or community centers. Or there could be more apps and programs that don’t presume every student is from a middle- or upper-class background.

She says this lack of both access and context causes disadvantaged kids to seriously miss out, especially with regards to the self-directed online learning that the Internet offers up. Right now, there are vibrant communities of kids making fan art, learning to program with Minecraft, and using social media to participate in the political process. These are opportunities that less wealthy kids might not have access to.

Still, even with all this inequality, Ito says there is a ray of hope about the future of online learning. “The sector around around educational technology is very progressive and quite aware of these issues, and is grappling with them in a serious way.” Though, she does acknowledge, there’s a long way to go

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