Online learning and the digital divide

The Classroom 01

The Classroom 01 by Missoula Public Library, on Flickr

As part of my professional development at work, I’ve started an 8-week course on the basics of teaching. It’s aimed at postgraduate researchers who may need to take on teaching responsibilities. I asked to go on it as well because, being new to teaching in higher education, I thought I could use a few pointers!

I’m two weeks in, and it’s been great so far – I’m definitely going to blog some of my key learning points in the coming weeks. However that is not what this blog post is going to be about. I just wanted to note a couple of thoughts about a group exercise from the last session.

This week’s session was on teaching small groups, and took us through various techniques and group activities. For one exercise, we were given a statement for the whole group to debate. The statement was:

“By the year 2020, 90% of teaching should be carried out using new technology (e.g. VLEs, videos, online multimedia, social media).”*

I found this statement, and the ensuing discussion, really interesting and I thought worthy of a blog post! I had some pretty strong opinions on this, so wanted to get my thoughts down while they’re still fresh in my mind.

Immediately before this debate, we had been split into three smaller groups, each coming up with arguments for the merits of a different teaching/learning style – dependent (i.e. teacher-led and supervised), independent (i.e. solo work), and inter-dependent (i.e. group work). Having come up with our arguments for each, each group had to then swap members with the others so we could each report back on our arguments for each style. Unsurprisingly, most of us felt a combination of styles was best, although we had varying opinions on where the balance should be.

So we were all surprised by a statement that advocated the vast majority of teaching to be independent. Although there could be some elements of dependent and inter-dependent learning delivered online, using these channels for 90% of the time would put much more responsibility on the students to be independent learners.

The majority of us disagreed with the statement instinctively, but the discussion did bring about a more nuanced view. We had a really good discussion about it, more than I could report here, but here’s the main points we arrived at:


  • Widening access – more virtual learning would be good for distance learners and people who wanted to fit their studies around work or caring responsibilities
  • Widening geographic access – students from around the country, and around the world, could attend the University without necessarily having to move here
  • It would appeal to more self-motivated students, who could set their own pace of learning.
  • Could be a financial advantage for the University – less investment needed in the physical campus (although more investment needed in technical infrastructure, which could of course outweigh this), and many more students could enroll.


  • Disadvantages students who do not learn well independently, not to mention those with disabilities, learning difficulties, etc.
  • Vulnerable to academic fraud, impersonation, plagiarism, etc.
  • Most of us felt the quality of learning would suffer, as there would be little opportunity to support students individually and pick up on any problems or misunderstandings.
  • If the quality of learning suffers, this will harm the University’s reputation.
  • Students at many institutions already complain they don’t get enough time with their lecturers – this will surely make that worse!

My immediate thought, which I raised in the discussion, was: what about the digital divide? In the UK, seven million people have never used the internet. While it is true that few of these are in the 16-24 age range that could be assumed to make up the majority of new university applicants, we surely can’t ignore mature students? Age is no barrier to learning: my grandpa got his PhD aged 70. Added to that the fact that those who do not or cannot access the internet are likely to be from socially and economically disadvantaged groups, and the suggestion that 90% of teaching should be delivered online looks seriously discriminatory.

Not everyone agreed with me on this point: most seemed surprised that the number of people who had never accessed the internet was so high, and I think there were some sceptically-raised eyebrows. One person suggested that this problem would go away by itself, as if there was a serious drive to make the majority of HE delivered online, there would be an incentive for the government to ensure the whole country had access to the internet. I pointed out that a) this isn’t the case with the current drive to make all government services digital by default; and b) simply having access isn’t going to solve the problem – having the skills to navigate online is also a significant barrier.

I’m not sure I really got my point across – the discussion quickly turned back to the problems of fraud and of catering for people who learn better in groups or with face-to-face instruction – but I’m glad I made it. I think this is key as, with regards to the statement we were debating, while I don’t think 90% of learning should be delivered through online technologies, I can easily see that they could. I don’t know if we’ll see this by 2020 (as I kept reminding myself, that’s only 5 years away – it still sounds like the distant future to me!), but I think there are advantages to universities of pursuing this kind of strategy, that may seem attractive to pursue (particularly in the current economic climate) regardless of the detrimental effect on students.

While I agree that new technologies are beneficial for enabling distance learning, and greater flexibility for those with other responsibilities, I don’t agree that they should make up the bulk of HE learning. I think the disadvantages to those without online access, or the skills to navigate online, outweigh the potential benefits. I don’t want to see HE close off any further to people without the privilege of being able to pay for internet access, and having the time and support to learn the skills they need to make use of it.


* I should note that it wasn’t suggested that this is the current strategy for our University! It was just provided as a talking point and thought experiment – I don’t think we were meant to infer that this was actually the plan.


5 comments on “Online learning and the digital divide

  1. I went to university because I wanted to know what it felt like to be taught well, by someone who knew how to teach. I didn’t experience this at school and so I thought I would find this at university. Fortunately I did find a tutor who opened my mind, encouraged me to think and enabled me to believe in myself and believe in my ability to reason and work things out for myself. This empowerment cannot be achieved through digital learning alone. Sometimes it is not the content which is important but the person who teaches it. This requires face to face communication, interaction with someone you like, respect and inspiration. I firmly believe as human beings we are inspired psychologically by others we meet. It would be devastating for students to have reduced contact with the people who have the ability to turn the lights on in their minds.

    • Thank you for your comment. Yes, I completely agree – face-to-face interaction is such an important part of learning. It’s also important for developing social skills, which is also a purpose of higher education!

  2. Thanks for your post Laura. Will be really interesting to read your future ones on the key learning points from your course. Always good to learn new tips!

  3. On a similar theme (and with shameless self-promotion) I recently had an article published on the digital divide and online journal access in Tanzania, East Africa: http://jitp.commons.gc.cuny.edu/teaching-online-journals-in-tanzania-knowledge-production-and-the-digital-divide/

  4. […] Online Learning and the Digital Divide: As this post discusses, learning will continue to be moved online in the future. What does this have to do with libraries? Well, the digital divide is still immense, meaning that there are still large numbers of people who do not have access to the Internet in their own homes nor laptops to access Wi-Fi in public places. Libraries are an essential lifeline, letting children and college students complete their homework, patrons to apply for jobs, and everyone to file their taxes or apply for veterans’ benefits and much more. In today’s connected world, many people would not survive without the library providing computers and Internet access. […]

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