Musings on bridging the digital divide

Dr Bruce G Allder, Director of the Culturally and Linguistically Diverse program at the Nazarene Theological College, Brisbane offers his musings on “Bridging the digital divide with off-line e-learning” by Mathew Hillier in Distance Education Vol 39, No. 1 January 2018.

Genuine accessibility to higher education by students in remote areas of the world continues to be one of the major challenges for education providers committed to extending beyond traditional boundaries. Accessibility is complex in that it includes, among other things, financial affordability, access to resources such as libraries, faculty, and learning resources and access to the digital world and all the possibilities this can provide. It is easy to glibly celebrate the global reach of the internet that provides access to a multitude of educational opportunities but overlook the fact that inexpensive, reliable access to the internet is still not possible in many remote areas of the world. This has been my experience working in the Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CALD) program within Melanesia and the South Pacific. Mobile phones abound, but reliable and inexpensive internet access is still not a reality. Some of the more sophisticated processes that have become part of our blended learning approaches are still out of reach for many remote students.

Hillier’s article highlights one creative way that seeks to address a lack of internet connectivity in many places. The modular offline learning education assessment platform (MOLEAP) reflects an interesting compromise:

The ability for the platform to work under different scenarios of connectivity, from fully offline, through occasional connections to completely online allows it to serve a wider group of students and teachers than existing solutions that are either “always off line” or “always online”. (p117)

Hillier recognizes that this will require further development, but it does begin to address several of the technical issues such as, less dependency on internet connectivity, the reality of working with outmoded computer hardware and software and maintaining some feedback from teacher to the cohort or student through the progress of the class.  A few questions that arise that need further reflection include:

  • does the process provide sufficient engagement with students individually and with the cohort to provide the opportunity for genuine social learning
  • is the process simple enough to use even in relatively primitive settings
  • will there be a need for an effective facilitator to manage the communication process between student and teacher where the teacher is remote to the students
  • what role might the gathering of a cohort play in this?

Theological education requires not only engagement with course content, but also with fellow students and teacher for there to be genuine opportunities for transformation of worldview, thinking and lifestyle. This is best done through personal interaction rather than exclusive engagement with words on a page.

Its potential is promising with further development. The fact that many educators in diverse settings are looking for effective ways to engage with remotely located students excites me. Equity in educational opportunities must surely be at the heart of most educators. This is a further step in the right direction.

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