What Happened to the Social Agenda for Distance Education?

This was originally published in Spanish in Albert Sangrá’s blog, Traspasando la línea in El País, a Madrid-based newspaper. This is the English version.

Source: http://estudiomundialupiicsa.wordpress.com

Modern distance education emerged in the 1960s as a response to demands for greater and more equitable access to postsecondary education. Beginning with the creation of the UK Open University in 1969, open universities were established around the world with a clear mandate to help eliminate the social and financial barriers to higher education that had effectively limited access to the middle and upper social classes. This situation was particularly acute in the developing world and the open universities that were established in countries such India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Thailand have made a significant impact on postsecondary participation rates in those regions. Until the turn of the century, the discourse of distance education was essentially about access: trying to reach the underserved populations and the second chance and non-traditional learners and trying to help developing countries address their need to educate large numbers with limited resources. This was the social agenda of distance education. But with the emergence online learning in the late 1990s there has been a gradual erosion of this social agenda and its replacement by both a functionalist and a technologically deterministic agenda.

The Functionalist Agenda

Technology-mediated forms of distance education emerged in the late 1990s and the use of the Internet as method of delivering education became increasingly popular. At the same time there were growing financial pressures on public postsecondary institutions that forced them to look for cost-saving alternatives to deal with increasing demand. Many turned their attention to the newly-legitimized online distance education because it was seen as a way of avoiding the costly construction of new buildings. However, instead of using online technology to reach the non-traditional learner, they were incorporated into on-campus teaching to create what was termed blended learning approaches and more recently has been called e-learning. This form of e-learning gradually began to overshadow the socially-oriented distance education programs.

Source: http://www.mansunides.org

Technological Determinism

The other drive force behind the growing use and pressure to use online learning and, more broadly, ICTs in education, is the idea that “new technologies are changing the world and that, in turn, educational institutions have no choice but to adopt digital technologies, designed elsewhere, for other purposes, for fear of being ‘left behind’” (Selwyn & Facer 2013, p. 9)

The dominant themes in our educational technology discourse are no longer about access but about the technological imperative, and the need to prepare learners for the 21st century, for the “knowledge economy”. Look at any recent government policy on ICT in Education and this theme is front and center. Access, in the sense of participatory access, is rarely mentioned in these policies.

This shift in the discourse troubles me. First, the access problem hasn’t been solved. It is still a major issue, particularly for the developing world. While there was a 53% increase in higher education participation globally between 2000 and 2007, very little of that growth has been in low-income countries. Participation in higher education in low-income countries increased marginally from 5-7%.

Second, this narrow focus on the “knowledge economy” overlooks the current reality of many developing world economies. They are heavily dependent on services such as tourism and agriculture and will continue to be for some time to come. It is naïve to think that there will be an economic transformation in all these countries. Yes, there will be a growing need for “knowledge workers” but a single-minded focus on educating for the “knowledge economy” may have the unintended consequence of forcing people to leave their countries to see work elsewhere, thus undermining already shaky economies.

Post 2 Bullen_2_Education-Belize-Breaking-FreeFuente: http://www.ambergristoday.com

It also overlooks the fact that in many of these countries, the basic infrastructure is still lacking. In Belize, for example, 27% of primary schools do not have access to electricity and only 31% of secondary school teachers have formal training (Ministry of Education, Belize). Investing heavily in Internet-based educational technologies clearly doesn’t make a lot of sense in contexts such as this unless it is coupled with a focus on developing the human resource and physical infrastructure at the same time. Not surprisingly, also, Internet access is low in many of these countries. In 2012 only 25% of individuals in Belize, for example, were using the Internet. But even more revealing is that there are 73 countries in the world that have even lower rates of individual Internet use.

More on this topic next week in ICTs for Skill Development or Educational Transformation.


Selwyn, N. & Facer, K. (2013). (Eds.)The Politics of Education & Technology. NY: Palgrave MacMillan.