Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Are poor students excluded from online education?

Can peer-peer support compensate for disadvantages?
Corey Davis, director of online learning at Our Lady of the Lake University, was interviewed recently on the Chronicle of Higher Education's Tech Therapy podcast. Davis says the discussion of MOOCs and other online courses often fails to consider minority (poor) students and the obstacles they face.

Davis addresses two general issues -- lack of access to technology and poor preparation in terms of both technical proficiency and conception of education.

He has addressed the technology access problem by developing an online course for Latino oil workers, who only have access to mobile phones, not computers with broadband connections. Presumably those workers also have poor computer/Internet skills and do not have an academically-oriented background.

The problems he addresses are very real, and his effort valuable, but there are a couple of problems with the mobile, low tech approach.

Let's imagine the same course, developed twice -- once for delivery on a broadband-connected computer and once for delivery on a 4G cell phone. Which will be the most frustrating and confusing? Taking the course using the computer will be simpler, faster and less frustrating than using the phone. If we restrict this to a 3G phone, the gap will be wider and if we restrict it to a 2G phone (most common among poor people world wide) it will be impossible to deliver the same course.

The people Davis wishes to support need and deserve the broadband/computer version.

The second problem has to do with attitudes toward and expectations about education. Someone raised in a family that values education and has learned to learn effectively has an advantage regardless of technology access or skill.

One solution to this problem would be monitoring and mentoring students who are doing poorly, but that is expensive and does not scale to MOOC proportions. Might a course on how to take a course help?

Explicit support of student peer groups might also be helpful -- formally tying the success of each group member to the performance of the group as a whole. The efficacy of peer tutoring is well documented. (This is reminiscent of both executive bonuses on Wall Street and the five-member groups of Bangladeshi village women who receive Grameen micro-loans -- quite a range).

I don't have a lot of solutions, but, as Davis says, these are important problems. If they are not addressed, online education may be part of the inequality problem, not part of the solution.

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Update 5/29/2013

I just finished this post saying we would be short-changing poor students if we only gave them material on cell phones, but, I do a lot of work in developing nations and there are things we can do now -- even with 2G phones.

FrontLineSMS has an SMS server that has been used for many applications in developing nations.  I just learned that they have an education-oriented version in beta.  Check it out.

I've got to throw in a photo that I show my classes -- motivated students studying under street lamps because they have no electricity at home: