How Technology Could (and Could Not) Extend Access

Access and Inclusion May 09, 2017

Editor’s note: This article is part of a series on how to combat inequalities in participation in higher education.

The scale of the challenges where extending access to higher education is concerned looks overwhelming. In sub-Saharan Africa for example, the current higher education enrolment ratio for is 8% but the goal is to increase participation to 50% by 2063. While India is looking to add around 14 million university places in less than 15 years. In the developed world while enrolment is much higher participation inequalities between social groups are endemic. New technologies have to be the part of any strategies to widen access. They offer the opportunity to reach millions of learners quickly at relatively low cost to both students and governments but also to deliver HE differently. However, putting existing or new courses online will not be enough to extend access to HE to those for whom their social background make HE progression a hope rather than expectation. The evidence available thus far suggests that those who are participating in much of online learning are those who already have qualifications, and thus may already have entered or be well on the way to HE.

For technology to really have an impact on access to HE, it will need to be used in ways that build on what is already known about the challenges that different groups face and as part of more holistic strategies that look at providing learning environments which can open up HE for all. Recent work looking at the efficacy of technological innovations in education by Pearson and SRI International emphasised that: ‘It’s rarely possible to disentangle the impact of a learning technology from the effectiveness of the overall instructional system in which it is embedded’.

Examples of nesting technological innovation in more holistic strategies to extend educational access exist. In South Asia, men are 62 per cent more likely to own a digital device than women and more than 1.7 billion women in low- and middle-income countries do not own mobile phones or a digital device. Women’s participation in schooling is lower than men’s and there is the view that understanding how to use technology is less relevant to them. In Bangladesh top down attempts to extend access to technology have had mixed success, however projects which are more effective are small scale and community based. The EDGE project was set up to give adolescent girls from marginalised communities access to digital devices, so they can inform themselves about issues relating to health and human rights, and learn English and other skills that may help them get jobs. The project, has directly reached around 7,000 girls across seven divisions in Bangladesh since 2012.

Kepler University in Rwanda combines online content with locally trained teachers. It aims to tap into the increasing amount of high quality content available globally whilst also understanding that students from Rwanda require face to face support in their own local context. Kepler is also working with relatively small numbers of students to ensure as far as possible that they graduate with the strongest possible degrees. Finally, Kepler is also offering low cost and affordable HE.

While smaller, nested approaches are important there is also roles for larger trans-national provision in really extending access to HE equitably. The best example of an organisation that is attempting to utilise online technology to open up HE provision is the University of the People (UoP). The UoP has over 6000 students from 194 countries pursuing tuition fee free online degrees. As with the Kepler model, the learning approach is a blended one where extensive use is made of student advisors and mentors to try and avoid the high levels of non-completion which have become associated with MOOCs.

To be effective in widening access to HE, technology must be simultaneously moulded to existing contexts, yet also at the same time challenge and change. The best way to do this may be to think micro rather than macro. HE expansion and innovation should be based extending an increasing number of smaller, distinct but connected units – rather than through the idea of a mass course or experience. These units may be as small as one-to one online interaction through the University of the People for example, or as is happening with some of the most innovative schools in San Francisco, through a variety of different buildings converted from shops, churches or factories that hold tens or hundreds of learners as opposed to the thousands that attend the huge campuses found in Europe and North America. There will be further challenges here. The most prominent will be how to avoid new forms of stratification and the micro technologically driven HE model being seen as a second rate alternative to the more traditional macro model. The way to address this to ensure that there can be no compromise on standards and quality in the introduction of technology.

Confronting these challenges is unavoidable and necessary. Reaching the millions or hundreds of millions of new students cannot be achieved through doing more of the same. This requires though technology working in context, through a networked micro approach that builds on what already exists and works.