Hands of a guy on laptop keyboard

Who is learning online?

Published on 13 December 2017
Updated on 05 April 2024

If you are reading this blog, you probably have at least a few things in common with me. Obviously, you can read and write. In English. You have access to an Internet connection, probably from your own smartphone or computer. You probably have electricity at home, and a fridge containing food for your next meal. You’ve probably finished high school, and quite likely you also have a university degree. It’s very possible that your life has been much more difficult than mine; nonetheless, you have ended up here, reading this blog.

You probably have less in common with Alex. He’s an 18-year-old Roma boy, born in a village near Bucharest, one of eight siblings. His parents didn’t send him to school. When he was twelve, his talent for football was discovered, and he moved to Bucharest for training. He enrolled in a ‘second chance’ programme at school and made good progress up to the eighth grade, as well as playing football. He reads fairly well, but mechanically: he has trouble understanding the content of what he reads. Recently, he and his girlfriend moved to a village near Bucharest, and he dropped out of school. He hopes to find some kind of work.

Maria’s life is also quite different from ours. She is 42 years old and lives in a one-room apartment in one of the poorest areas of Bucharest. She has electricity, except for when the company cuts off the entire block due to some people not paying their bills. In the winter, she uses the gas stove to heat her apartment. She is a single mother; her husband moved to the UK for work, but hasn’t sent any money home and hasn’t been in touch for months. She makes a living cleaning homes. As a child, she finished four years of school, so she knows how to read, but it’s not easy for her.

Both Alex and Maria own a smartphone and have Internet access. But the idea of online learning would sound quite strange to them, even though more education could help them increase their employment options and improve their lives.

Exclusion from the benefits offered by technology

It’s easy for us to accept the idea that online learning is increasing access to education, because we hear this from the providers of online courses, and we see our friends learning online. And it is true: people like us have more access to education now. But we already had access to education.

For people like Alex and Maria, however, technology has not made much difference to their access to education. Alex and Maria are not imaginary characters, although their names have been changed; they are real people that I know. And they are not isolated examples: almost everyone around them faces the same or bigger problems. They are illiterate. Most of them are unemployed and struggling to feed and clothe their families. Many are addicted to drugs. And it’s important to remember that this is Romania, an EU country (albeit one where 37% of the population are at risk of poverty or social exclusion, according to EU statistics). As bad as their situation may be, there are millions of people in the world living in worse conditions.

Why are people like Alex and Maria unlikely to learn online, even though they have Internet access?

  • Although they are not illiterate, reading is not easy for them, let alone writing.

  • Neither of them speaks English, and few online courses are available in Romanian. [The school system assumes that parents who want their kids to learn English will pay for private instruction; those who learn English only at school rarely gain a working knowledge of the language.]

  • Both of them need glasses for reading. [A few years ago, about 40 children from Maria’s neighborhood had their vision tested. For all of them, it was the first time, and about one third of them needed glasses.]

  • They live in single-room apartments; everyone in the family lives, eats, sleeps, and watches TV in the same room. There is no separate or quiet space for learning.

  • They have no disposable income to pay for education.

  • Perhaps most importantly, in the environment where they live, the idea of learning for self-improvement or pleasure is unusual. Most people use the Internet only for social media and entertainment. [Interestingly, a 2016-2017 survey of undergraduate students at the University of Tirana in Albania discovered that 28.8% of students use the Internet for academic learning five or more hours per week; while 84.5% of them use social networks every day. So even among university students, in some places at least, the Internet is seen more as a source of entertainment than education].

Can online learning do something for poor and marginalised people?

Can online learning offer something useful to poor and marginalised people? There are some positive ideas and examples:

  • boys working on tablet - online learningAt the elementary school level, computers could be used effectively to support learning in schools in poor, rural, and marginalised neighborhoods, so that children start to see computers and the Internet as tools for learning as well as entertainment. One simple example: children attending a weekend programme in Maria’s neighborhood in Bucharest are using simple apps and online games to build basic math skills. Similar apps could be developed in local languages to help with learning to read. 
  • Online learning could help reduce the disparities in quality between urban and rural schools. For example, the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA), the Internet Society (ISOC) Asia-Pacific Bureau, and COMSATS Internet Services Limited are providing online interactive remote education to 6th grade students in a rural school, to supplement their local classes.
  • Online learning can be used to help specific marginalised groups build skills in order to eventually access university-level education. For example, the NGO Kiron helps refugees and asylum seekers use online courses as a bridge to continue or begin studying at a university-level.With any project aimed to close this gap, it’s important to make sure that delivery lives up to promises, and to analyse whether the people benefitting are those who actually need it most.

In education and in other fields, technology has the potential to increase access. But it also has the potential to widen the gap between the wealthy, and the poor and excluded. It will take actual efforts, and innovative approaches, to make sure the second does not happen. We need to stop listening to the hype and think about who is being left behind, or simply entertained, by technology.

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