The digital revolution can be put to use in allowing education to reach every household without any discrimination.

Whither E-learning, to Digital divide or to Digital Inclusion?

The unequal spread of technology is often blamed for creating a digital divide between those enjoying affordances of technology and others devoid of its benefits. E-learning is also accused of the same fault. But, is it true? Most certainly, not!

Inclusiveness and democratization of opportunities for all has been a long cherished goal of education. In fact, inclusiveness is the very essence of education. Conventional education, unfortunately, has failed to realize this so far. The brick-and-mortar institutional education is an inheritance from the age of privileges and elitism, and it has not changed much since. And, why is that? It’s mainly because of resource constraint and many other institutional limitations, which mandates discrimination on grounds of affordability, eligibility, and so on. Such educational structure is inevitably built on denial rather than acceptance, whatsoever it claims in-principle otherwise.

Existing System: Exclusive and Exclusionary

The prevalent system has most likely contributed in increasing social stratification through exclusion. The limited number of seats in the academic institutions and insistence on conforming to rigid rules applicable to all leads to either exclusion at the entry level or dropping out later.

The inability of these institutions to cater to the needs of people with disabilities, be it physical or learning disability, is a testimony to the fact that conventional education has failed to achieve the egalitarian vision of a humane society. The needs of learners from marginalized sections, learners suffering from prolonged health issues or chronic diseases, first-generation learners, and transgender individuals have been amply compromised by the present system.

Institutionalized approach, rigid and insulated.

Education is seen as a means to achieve empowerment and vertical social mobility. There are many such cases where individuals, from weaker/marginalized sections, who could have done well given the opportunity, could not fit in the existing structure.  Our institutions have thus failed us in this. Hence, it’s the time to re-plan, re-direct, and re-form with the help of technology which has a potential for a better tomorrow.

Technology, a Solution as Ever

Digital technology has itself become a debatable issue with regard to creating digital divide for those who cannot access technology. This debate is not only wrong but misleading also. Technology itself can’t be blamed for creating a divide or deprivation. In past few decades, all of us has been a witness to the rapid and unprecedented changes brought about by technology, most of them bridging a divide rather than accentuating it. Only technology has the potential to address a problem without judging between masses and classes.

For example, our personal digital assistant, GPS on our smartphones, internet and World Wide Web, e-commerce, online marketplaces, mobile applications for grocery and vegetables, cloud-based syncing of our digital devices and data, ticket bookings, social networking and communication, listening to our favorite music etc. are all technological developments of recent times which nobody imagined about 50 years back! Can you imagine such advances being disabling, or creating a divide in other words?

Technology has a tendency of becoming a mass tool and is thus a great enabler. It is the ease of usage, convenience, accessibility and affordability that make people adopt it. Technology per se does not create the divide. But when technology doesn’t reach all people equally, just like any other resource, it causes a divide, which is totally another debate. 

Smartphones and internet penetration is rapidly enabling people to access technology. Thrust on removing digital divide through government initiatives and policy execution can make technology available to all. This in turn can be utilized as a vehicle for education to reach to the doorstep of every individual. While techno-enthusiasts are hopeful of a digital inclusion via e-learning and online education, the techno-skeptics emphasize on the adverse effects of early exposure of digital devices and Internet to the younger generation.

It is true that all the information available on internet is not safe or correct and that the smartphones are so engaging that people are getting addicted to it. Is technology again blameworthy? This question raises many other issues relating to social, moral, and ethical concerns. Lack of proper education and awareness, weakening social structure and no technology orientation of the users for its legitimate and appropriate use are some of the many reasons why people are becoming a victim of wrong usage of technology.

Harnessing Digital Revolution for Education’s Sake

Technology is a by-product of human intellect meant to make our task easier and convenient. Can we forgo the advantages of technology in education just because we can control everything except ourselves? The answer has to be a straight ‘NO’ and it can be reiterated here that only right education is the remedy for all our social problems. The digital revolution can be put to use in allowing education to reach every household without any discrimination. The current scenario can be transformed from digital divide to digital inclusion of all people alike if we decide to put to use our digital intelligence.

E-learning, ushering in the direction of overall inclusiveness through digital inclusion.

Let’s check out how e-learning can pioneer a digital-inclusion movement all around the world:

  • Democratization of Education: By providing anywhere, anytime learning opportunity, online learning can help achieve the goal of democratization. The rigidity of conventional education could not make it accessible to all. That’s not the case with online education which is highly flexible in its approach and provides umpteen occasions to a learner to learn at his pace. Technology does not discriminate on basis of any genetic or personal disposition of learners but may positively facilitate learning and personalize it as per the needs of a learner. Thus, equity, equality, and quality, which are all pillars for democratizing education, can be achieved through online learning.
  • Universal Access: The traditional education system hardly takes into account the learner’s life reality and circumstances and views the transmission of teaching-learning as an isolated activity. As a result, people with disabilities, medical issues and with other socio-economic factors are either not able to access or find it difficult to cope with the available modus-operandi, highly suitable to the regular learners but blatantly irrelevant to those with different needs. Online learning environments, on the other hand, built on the universal access principle, are helpful for those with disabilities and convenient for regular learners too. Also, the employment of assisted learning technologies like speech-to-text, and text-to-speech, talking calculators, electronic worksheets, phonetic assistant etc. enhance the ability of learners with disabilities to learn at par with the regular learners.
  • Inclusiveness: Individuals are different but the hallmark of a productive society is to accept individual differences without any discrimination of age, sex, caste, religion, language, economic status, or attributes with which a person is born. Discrimination acts as a barrier in holistic development of an individual and is detrimental to the overall progress of a nation. Online education opens its doors for everyone alike and provides adaptive learning environment with the help of technology. Transparency and clarity are the two key features which avoid any kind of discrimination in an Online learning environment. Unlike in physical settings, people are not judged on the basis of their superficial characteristics and everyone gets opportunity to participate without any fear or hesitation.
  • Flexibility and Freedom: Online learning gives more flexibility and freedom to the learners. Learner can control and monitor their own learning. They can learn according to their pace and style. When the learners own the responsibility of their learning, they become more exploratory, participative and get involved in lateral and divergent thinking. Learning then becomes more meaningful and contextual giving more satisfaction to the learner.    
  • Economy of Scale: The cost of establishing such number of neighborhood schools and colleges which can reach to all the potential learners is much more than that involved in providing everyone with access to internet connection and affordable smartphone. Also, online education can accommodate much more number of learners than the face-to-face mode of education. Thus, online learning functions on economy of scale and can provide affordable education to everyone. The sky-rocketing costs of sought-after courses under conventional education system is possible only for the affluent individuals. In future, online education may be able to impart these courses with very less cost involved. 
  • Valuing Individuals: The advancements in technology can assist in tracking, monitoring, responding and improving of an individual’s learning. Artificial Intelligence (AI), big data & data analytics, machine learning (ML), robotics can personalize an individual’s experience by offering alternate learning pathways and guiding just-in-time to fill in the gaps in learning. Thus, the impetus lies on individuals and their constructive learning. When individuals get valued, they are not the ones who progress alone; It’s the nation that develops and prospers.
  • Lifelong Opportunity: Life without opportunities has no meaning. In order to be able to avail opportunity to learn, develop and progress in this 21st century of digital age, its pertinent to up-skill and reskill oneself according to the need of time. Online learning offers this incentive of being able to learn at any point of life perpetuating the concept of lifelong and life-wide learning.
  • Ease and Comfort: Online courses can be accessed at the comfort of your home and that makes it absolutely endearing. Home is the most comfortable place in the whole world. Not going out somewhere else for accessing education is an empowerment in itself. It also prevents one from the time and effort one expends in going to a place of learning. Also, the online education makes learning engaging, immersive and enjoyable with the help of latest technologies such as augmented reality (AR), gamification, wearable devices, facial recognition, simulated and virtual learning environment. This takes away the boredom and burden associated with traditional forms of learning.
  • Increased Participation in One’s Own learning: Online learning environment (OLE) offers mush scope for participation, collaboration, reflection and development of other metacognitive faculties with the help of online learning tools like discussion forums, chat, email, blog, and wikis along with social networking media like WhatsApp, facebook, Twitter and Instagram. The social media has enabled people to showcase their talent, express their opinions, share pictures and videos, engage in citizen journalism, etc. This power of social media can also be leveraged positively in online education. 
  • True Empowerment: The vision of education to empower people so that they may control their life and also contribute effectively to the development of nation and the world seems achievable with the technological advancements. The digital technology led online education can democratize education, bring in inclusiveness, make learning enjoyable, help in developing metacognitive skills and actualize lifelong learning. All these endowments can certainly lead to empowerment of people as they become more capable to take charge of their life. They become more equipped to face the challenges of life.

As said by Nelson Mandela, education is the most powerful tool you can use to change the world. Likewise, technology can become the most effective vehicle for facilitation of education in the society. Technology led education or online education to be precise can realize the long standing goals of education at a much faster pace. It is the change in perspective which is needed the most to see the glass as half empty or half full. That is to say, we can blame technology as creating digital divide among people or can leverage it to bring digital inclusion.

Rikisha Bhaumik

    Rikisha Bhaumik is Honorary Associate Editor at Courseware World and has over 5 years of active association with the field of e-learning along with 10 years of active and continued association with school education. She is adept at experimenting with innovative tools and technologies in school education and her direct involvement with learners and pedagogy has given her an augmented insight into the scope of e-learning in school education. Her writing repertoire mainly consists of detailed and research-based articles on various e-learning concepts and trends.

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    Rikisha Bhaumik