Who are we serving with online learning?

By Mark D. Porcaro, Executive Director of Online Learning, Wichita State University

Mark D. Porcaro, Executive Director of Online Learning, Wichita State University

If you follow most studies of online students in North America today, you’ll see that by far, most students in online programs are Caucasian, middle-class women in their late 20s to early 40s. From our vantage point of the middle of this highly irregular year, we are beginning to realize that while online learning has made it possible for this group of disenfranchised people to get an education while juggling competing demands, it may inadvertently be shutting out other groups, namely first generation and underserved populations. The main reason? Access to technology and the tools to be an online student.

If you are an administrator in primary, secondary, or higher education like me, you may not look like your students. You’ve completed college and most likely have a graduate degree. You may personally come from a disadvantaged and underserved population, and you may be a first-generation student, however, you also probably didn’t learn online and much of your access to education was through analog means. In addition, you most likely have access to technology and a reliable high-speed internet connection.

Today’s students become online students not because they feel that they want an online education, but because they want to complete what they started years ago, or take control of the future of their career and they choose an online education because they can accomplish those goals without sacrificing all the other obligations they have to their family, community, or work. More importantly, they do it because they have access to a computer that will allow them to do their course work, and they have a reliable and fast internet connection.

Have you ever been away from your home or office and needed to do something on the internet only from your phone? If you have a high-limit or unlimited data plan, you may not have thought twice about what you were doing when you video chatted, watched a video or were actively using data for a long time. Chances are, you only thought about your battery life and whether you had a way to charge your phone if it died.

"We need to get internet into the homes of our students, and we need to get them reliable devices on which they can adequately learn"

Imagine for a moment that you are now a student and this same cell phone is the only way to access your online courses. Can you now reasonably write an essay, read a PDF scan of a journal article, or take a timed quiz or exam using only your phone? Of course, you probably all compose and read emails, look at documents, and watch videos on your phone regularly, but have you done that all while worried about being charged for data overages because you are not tethered to reliable and free WiFi; not to mention that you don’t have the safety net of a computer to which you can later turn to complete what you started?

You may be saying, “but there is free WiFi all over the place: McDonald’s, a public library, or anywhere on campus.” Because of COVID, all those places to access a reliable internet connect became scarce if nonexistent. There’s another issue at play here: in many rural areas of North America cell data is at best 3Gand internet access at home may be barely qualified to be called high speed.

What I’m saying can be boiled down to this: technology is fantastic when it works, but we as administrators and educators probably haven’t thought through how it doesn’t work for people who are not in our shoes.

We need to and can do better. My hope from sharing my thoughts on this issue is that we educators should ardently advocate for those who don’t have access to technology and internet in the ways that we may. In the 21st Century, especially in the post-COVID-19 world, access to these things are a necessity, not a want. It is imperative that everyone have equal access to education regardless of their race, social-economic status, living conditions, means, etc.

We need to get internet into the homes of our students, and we need to get them reliable devices on which they can adequately learn. By this, I don’t mean light-weight computers with mobile operating systems, instead they need computers that can run the full-suite of programs that they need to learn equally with their classmates who already have access.

Online learning has worked for some, but it still isn’t working for all, and COVID has laid that bare.

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