Online Learning: What Can It Deliver

I recently became familiar with a report issued in March by dgCommunities, a project of the Development Gateway Foundation, titled Online Education: What Can It Deliver. The “report” is primarily a collection of insights and opinions from various leaders in the international effort to bring information and communications technology (ICT) to the developing world, but it nonetheless provides some very useful insights into the popularity, credibility, and effectiveness of online learning in the developing world.

Not surprisingly, a theme that comes up continually throughout the report is accessibility—that is, how easy or difficult is it for
potential online learners to avail themselves of e-learning opportunities given the challenges presented by the lack or high cost of Internet access in many developing countries. While the growth of wireless and satellite technologies has positioned developing countries to leap frog the investment in wired infrastructure undertaken long ago by more developed areas of the world, these technologies are, nonetheless, controlled primarily by private interests that may not have much incentive to implement them broadly and affordably throughout rural and/or impoverished areas of the world.

(Incidentally, this same issue is visible in its own form here in the United States as municipalities battle it out with telecommunications providers over the right to offer free wireless Internet access, or states and counties try to force or entice companies to provide affordable access in rural areas. Citizens, for the most part, appear to be unaware, unconcerned, or perhaps worst of all, unengaged.)

In an earlier posting, Disruptive Learning: No Excuses, I referenced some success stories with respect to gaining access to learning opportunities in less than ideal circumstances, and I continue to be impressed by the work of OneWorldTV and other NGO organizations that I have referenced in earlier postings. Still, while the Political Compass tells me my leanings are much more toward Ghandi than towards Milton Friedman, I think it is telling that the dgCommunities report contains a whole section highlighting the growth of private sector funding of higher education opportunities. The sheer growth in demand and corresponding learner numbers—yes, the market—is likely to be the biggest factor in addressing the accessibility issue. (Which is not to say that there will not be, as always, many areas the market will overlook.) The numbers, presented in an International Finance Corporation report linked to within the dgCommunities report, are compelling:

  • It is estimated that there are more than 110 million students in higher education worldwide.
  • The worldwide private higher education market is estimated at more than $350 billion
  • There are likely more than 1 million online students in China right now; the Ministry of Education approved 68 new satellite/Internet universities in 2004.
  • Of the 10 largest distance education institutions in the world, 7 are located in developing countries -and all use IT to assist delivery in some of their programs

Ron Perkinson, the analyst responsible for the report, concludes with the following future outlook for higher education:

  • Financing of education will tighten-–demographics outweigh fiscal realities-–growth in non-public financing
  • New business models–-‘Public going Private’ trend will grow Knowledge societies and lifelong learning–important for
    economic development-–more flexible mass & e-delivery-–new systems for education and training
  • Globalization and Internationalization–changing the future landscape of higher education, national and cross-border-–transferability of credits & qualifications, national & foreign–optimizing Education/AID/Trade efforts & investments essential
  • ICT’s and the Internet–optimizing use of new technologies-–models advancing quality-based mass education delivery

I’ll conclude this posting by suggesting that leaders of mission-driven organizations who are not cognizant of the above trends and how they might impact delivery of online learning services—whether to the developing world or to a professional society membership base may be surprised by unexpected challenges or missed opportunities.


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