Accessibility of online learning

After reading an opinionated piece in the NYTimes about why students would consider a $50,000 education when they can access the same courses online for free, I started wondering about how truly accessible online learning is. Here are some interesting statistics on both the US and Canada. Food for thought!

From 2010 data: Statistics collected by the Commerce Department showed that 68% of US households had broadband internet access.  For households whose annual income is less than $25, 000, only 43% had broadband internet access. Comparatively, for households whose annual income is greater than $100,000, 93% had broadband internet access. Black and Hispanic households had significantly less broadband access at 55 and 57% respectively compared to Asian and White households (81 and 77% percent). Rural households also had less broadband internet access (57%) compared to urban households (70%). Studies also show that Black and Hispanics are more likely to use a mobile phone to access the internet than a computer. How would this impact the ability to take online courses?

What about Canada? According to the 2010 Statistics Canada report, 8 in 10 adults have internet access with urban areas having only slightly higher internet access (81%) than rural areas (71%). In terms of socio-economic class impact, for households whose annual incomes were greater than $87,000, 97% had internet access. For households with incomes less than $30,000, only 54% had internet access. (Retrieved from The study mentioned above did not specify broadband internet access and likely includes dial up access, a much slower internet connection that would not be suitable for online courses. The only statistics I could find on First Nations internet access are from 2007: “only 17% of First Nations communities (reserves) had [broadband internet access] compared to 64% of other cities and small towns in Canada” (Canadian Council on Learning, 2009, p. 6). An additional 5% of planned internet access had been slated for funding at that point which would bring it up to 21% of First Nations communities.

A report on the state of online university education in Canada from 2012 identified “specific  populations that often lack the support needed to succeed in online education:

  • Some students with disabilities require universal course design, which is often missing
  • Students in rural and remote areas often lack ICT infrastructure with adequate speed
  • Some adult, rural, and new Canadians lack technological readiness for online education
  • Many Aboriginal communities lack adequate technology, connections, and digital skill supports
  • New university students often require skill and discipline preparatory (remedial) programs
  • Some low‐income and first‐in‐family students require additional institutional supports and services in areas such as library use, social networking  to provide connection, and motivational and learning tools such as course and program scaffolding and specifically designed pedagogical techniques”  (Canadian Virtual University, 2012, p. 18).

So when we talk about the amazing accessibility of online learning, I think we need a bit of a reality check about who will actually be able to access these free educational opportunities and learn something new.

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