Kulvir Bahra is currently working as Digital Development Editor at the Open University in FutureLearn Micro-credentials Production team. He has 7 years experience in developing online distance based learning and has a wide range of teaching experience.
The proliferation of Massive Open Online Courses suggests a lot of choice in online learning providers, but are the resources available truly accessible for all regardless of ability, when some platforms may be primarily founded on only one kind of experience, digital, or pedagogical?
Quality of learning is more important than choice
Back in the 1970s information overload was a concept that’s even more true today. We are constantly bombarded with information through a wide range of channels (social media; streaming; radio; podcasts). The abundance of choice is a challenge. How can anyone filter the unnecessary from the essential? It requires an understanding of digital skills, and the critical thinking needed to work out whether information sources are reputable.
With this challenge, it’s difficult to judge the quality of learning from so many competing higher education providers around the world. How do we benchmark quality and relate it to the appropriateness of the learner’s preference? Many discussions within the educational technology world are opinionated rhetoric. An evidence based approach to define and quantify good accessible learning is needed – successful learning is a broad concept that can easily be misinterpreted.
One approach is to classify all Massive Open Online Courses in an online site, with learner reviews scoring their different qualities and including reviews by users. A series of criteria or online accessible requirements be explained in practical terms. One example is Dhawal Shah’s Class Central site which gives a good narrative view of the landscape in a comparison of all the current platforms.
We must consider socio-economic differences when co-curating online learning content
There is a digital divide both in the UK and globally. In 2018 iNews claimed one in ten adults had no access to the internet. Low income families may also struggle to access adequate internet connections because of the cost. Some may also struggle with the internet without the digital skills to improve their learning further. Having negative experiences of the education system won’t give new generations a good start. This is an opportunity to upskill the nation and the world, at the same time.
From perception to reality
Global learners may see current online learning offerings as a positive step towards democratizing access to education. It allows less advantaged communities to access more learning opportunities which would not be possible in their home countries.
However, the current offerings from mainly Western developed countries also present subject matters from a culturally biased perspective. Further, global learners might struggle with content in English which is why learning providers will need to consider translated versions to improve levels of engagement for non-native speakers as well as a better understanding of any cultural barriers.
In addition, there may not be the pressure to innovate in the field of online learning in certain developing countries, where the demand for education exceeds the number of available seats at educational institutions.
There may also be technical accessibility issues, not just from the viewpoint that indeed in many countries computer or laptop penetration is much lower than in the West, but also due to accessibility issues. For example, in rural Punjab, India, power cuts are a regular occurrence and can happen without prior notice and, of course, break internet connections. Lost connections frustrate learners and disengage them from participating in online forums.
The UK and developed countries have basic requirements for compliance with accessibility standards. Most higher education institutions still regard Learning Management Systems and Virtual Learning Environments as a space for saving lecture notes and recordings. But there should be more. Consideration needs to be given to whether content can be developed in a more meaningful way, ensuring that it is adapted to the way students learn, from the adoption of specific accessibility requirements for students with disabilities to the learning experience of all learners.
What’s the next step?
‘Accessibility’ is a wide term that improves access to learning equally, without anyone feeling a special case, ensuring learning content created is accessible to all, regardless of hardware, operating systems, and software.
As e-learning developers keep up to date with the latest trends in digital technologies, general data protection regulations, policies, and accessibility will allow the right choice of application. This will enable a sustainable long term solution that needs the least amount of improvement or changes.
What have we learned from the learning response to Covid-19 and what will change as a result of this? Is the increase in online learning by schools and universities permanent?
What have been the effects on children with accessibility issues during this time? Will a lack of preparation and/or resources now have a long-term effect on their learning or their motivation, and how will students be graded?
What steps will schools take to ensure that seamless learning can occur if this happens again?