Is online higher education really accessible?

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For the past two decades, the development of online learning has reached a tipping point in terms of the number of its offerings. Most universities and higher education (HE) institutions now offer programmes and courses online and embrace diverse online learning practices, such as blended courses and massive open online courses (MOOCs). The number of online courses, including those freely available, is continually growing, making HE more accessible and open to the public—particularly to adult learners with multiple barriers to taking face-to-face courses (e.g., financial, geographical, educational barriers, and diverse social responsibilities). The rapidly increasing number of adult learners in online HE contexts has further blurred the conceptual boundary between traditional education and non-traditional education (or formal learning and life-long learning). As a consequence, online learning has become part of the mainstream of HE, both at the discursive and operational levels.

The popularity of online learning in HE has brought about multiple claims about online HE, which are often untested (or self-referential and rhetorical). For example, claims about the accessibility of online HE, often presented with popular ideas of “24/7 access to the Internet” or “anyone, anywhere, anytime access to learning” are prevailing in the current HE contexts. However, the multiplicity of online learning practices and contexts has made it extremely difficult to effectively test those claims and subsequently, made it impossible to draw out a comprehensive understanding of the nature of online HE. Such claims are often made based on common-sense understadnings about the nature of online communications and the Internet; that is, the Internet is considered as an open platform to which anyone, from anywhere, at any time can access. However, adult learners’ everyday access to online HE is bounded, or restricted, by their local and real-life conditions—which exist outside formal online HE environments. Therefore, providing initial and one-time access to HE is not the same as making HE truly accessible. In other words, it is not possible to argue that online HE is accessible and open or free to anyone, from anywhere, at any time without carefully examing learners’ local conditions.

One distance teacher at online HE institution says:

“Some students are struggling, they have to struggle to get the time, they are single mothers with children and earning for a living. And sometimes, they need some recognition from us just how hard it is to become a student and to fulfil those requirements.” (Lee, 2019, p. 30)

That is, to make online HE authentically accessible to individual adult learners, HE institutions and higher educators should move their pedagogical focus—away from providing open access to university education to certain learner groups—to continuously enabling those learners to have accessible and successful learning experiences in their everyday lives. Most educators in current HE contexts, regardless of their educational backgrounds and pedagogical preferences, are now becoming involved in online HE in one way or another. Yet, their pedagogical beliefs and practices around online HE are often arbitrarily constructed simply based on common-sense knowledge about the nature of online HE (and adult learners in many cases). Such a limited understanding of online HE deprives higher educators of meaningful opportunities to become reflective online educators and practitioners, who may enable their learners to have authentic and transformative, often life-changing, learning experiences through participating in HE.

We have therefore reached a timely moment to rethink and reimagine online learning in HE. Online learning is no longer an add-on to HE practice but sits at the core of HE policies and business models. Persistent concerns and criticisms about the poor quality of many online HE provisions and the sluggishly growing number of good examples in the field make the task of re-conceptualising online HE more important and urgent than ever. This will be prolonged agenda for all higher educators, regardless of social and technological changes—as long as social and educational agenda for improving equality and quality of HE exists.

Interested in reading more discussions on the issue?

Lee, K. (2019). Rewriting a history of open universities: (Hi)stories of distance teachers. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 20(4), 1-12.

Lee, K., & Bligh, B. (2019). The four different narratives about online international students: A critical literature review. Distance Education.

Lee, K., Choi, H., & Cho, Y. H. (2019). Becoming a competent self: A developmental process of adult distance learning. The Internet and Higher Education, 41, 25-33.

Lee, K. (2017). Rethinking the accessibility of online higher education: A historical review. The Internet and Higher Education, 33, 15-23.

Kyungmee Lee is a Lecturer in Technology Enhanced Learning in the Department of Educational Research at Lancaster University.

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