Equitable access to education

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This post originally appeared here on 25th May 2015 under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0.

This is a quick thumbs-up to Christer’s blog post here: http://www.goopen.no/?p=1505, citing Mark Surman:

During his keynote the first day at eLearning Africa, Mark Surman from the Mozilla foundation showed a survey with predictions that within 2025 nearly five billion people all over the world will be online. Most of the new users will be in developing countries.

Internet connectivity is no doubt important. However, the UNESCO Education for All Global Monitoring Report 2013/14 makes it clear that the need for quality education is greatest for children in rural areas, children in low-income households, and female children in particular.

Is the internet that those estimated five billion people will have access to by 2025 going to be for these vulnerable groups? I doubt it. Instead, it will reach the wealthier, urban-dwelling, predominantly male parts of the population. That’s ok – but let’s bear in mind that these  groups are already doing relatively well, and let’s not confuse that internet access with equitable internet access for all, including internet access for rural-dwelling, poorer, and female children.

But is it equitable?

I wasn’t at eLA 2015, and haven’t read the rest of Mark Surman’s talk, so this is absolutely no reflection on him or his talk at all. However, in general, there is a trend that proclaims MOOCs, online eLearning etc., as ‘equitable access to information’ (or even education).  In many scenarios at least the ‘access to information’ may be the case: however, for Africa, and the rural poor, the” equitable” bit is emphatically not the case. Internet access, and online eLearning platforms, do not reach those most in need of education (rural-dwellers/ the poor/girls), nor their teachers.

Of course, internet access is becoming more widespread. That’s great, but it does not mean that it’s affordable, and that people have devices to use it. It’s the same as electricity: just because electricity runs to your rural resource centre, it doesn’t mean that you have money to pay the meter. Of course, having a cable to the centre is better than not having a cable, but if you can’t pay, the net effect is the same: no electricity.

Information vs. education

Finally, let’s not confuse ‘access to information’ with ‘access to education’. I fully endorse offline access to information, and wished I had more time to contribute to this. However, as much as giving access to Wikipedia offline is desirable, it’s only the first step. The education research literature shows very clearly that resource-based interventions (be it more books, toilets, computers, even more teachers) have limited impact, unless teacher professional development is undertaken at the same time. Yes, that’s right: in development settings, the education research literature shows very clearly that resource-based interventions have limited impact, unless teacher professional development is undertaken at the same time. Teacher professional development is absolutely pivotal.

One could go a step further, and say that actually there is a disconnect between the ‘technologist’ and the ‘educationalist’ camps, that’s highly regrettable (but arguably has been there for probably a decade). This disconnect means that technologists are building solutions that have much more impact if they were informed by education research; it also means that educationalists are drawing on technology solutions that could have much more impact if they were informed by our latest technological insights.

I also think that there’s a disconnect between those advocating open licensing (the open source / Creative Commons / OER community), and educationalists: take, as an example, the almost complete absence of discussion of ‘open’ in the Global Monitoring reports (see WEF and Open).

A suggestion

To close: access to the internet is important, access to information is important, and offline resources are important. But without teacher professional development for the teachers serving the most disadvantaged populations, these are not going to have much educational impact for those populations, and will thus not serve the Sustainable Development Goals, and the vision for an equitable planet.

It would be absolutely fantastic if we could work more across communities, to actually achieve the most effective, sustainable, and scalable development outcomes.

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Dr Björn Haßler is the founding director of Open Development & Education.
For more details see https://opendeved.net/team/bjoern-hassler/.

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