Addressing Inequality in the Digital Era

I’m presenting at the European Commission’s conference on Education in the Digital Era in Brussels on December 11th. Prior to that I am helping to ‘animate the online debate’. I’ve written a blog entry to begin proceedings. It argues that whilst we should pursue ‘negative equality’ (the removal of all barriers to equality), it is most important to pursue ‘positive equality (assuring that all are equipped to fully benefit from open access). You can read it at the Open Education Europa site, along with details of the conference.


We can address inequalities.

Education in all European countries is unequal. PISA scores show that across Europe an individual’s socio-economic status predicts their education outcomes. In some European countries this correlation is stronger, in some it is weaker, but increasing equality in education is a key priority. What is the role of digital learning in this? It can be a force for equality, but it can be a force for inequality. The best and most equitable education systems in the world “attract the highest-quality resources to where these resources can make the most difference” – but is that happening digitally?

There are challenges.

If digital resources go to those who already have the most resources (as we’ve seen with graduates and MOOCs), we risk increasing inequalities. What then are the barriers to learning equality in the digital era?

Accessing Resources

Addressing inequalities in education in the digital era depends on all learners being able to access the best online content. Yet some of the best content is not openly available, or is highly costly. Learners are prevented from accessing available content because they lack physical infrastructure – computers, tablets or home internet connection – through which to access them. These issues are likely to adversely affect those of a lower socio-economic status.

Equipping learners to access

Addressing inequalities depends on all learners having the skills to access and benefit from the content or teaching. Yet some learners are prevented from accessing open resources of high quality because they have low digital literacy. Learning difficulties, disabilities or even low literacy also adversely affect the learner’s ability to benefit from the resources. Across a European portal, language will also be a barrier.

Facilitation of access

Addressing inequalities depends on teachers. Teacher quality is still the decisive factor in student outcomes. The better the teacher, the better the outcomes for the class, and the more equal the outcomes for the class. We need to reimagine high quality teaching for the digital era with equality in mind. The most competent, most resourced teachers should be in front of the neediest learners. Will this involve reimagining the role of the excellent teacher? Could this be done virtually? What training will it require?

There are solutions.

In the pre-debate for the Learning in the Digital Era Conference, we will consider:

  • Resources collaboratively maintained by educators can enhance the quality and relevance of teaching materials while reducing their cost.
  • Physical location, socio-economic background and disabilities should not limit access to knowledge and skills when learners, peers and educators can meet and exchange in virtual environments.
  • At different stages of life, enhanced educational provision can help reduce intergenerational inequalities.

We’ll also look at some specific examples like:

  • Belgian resource-sharing platform KlasCement with 70,000 members, 30,000 resources and 300,000 downloads per month
  • Free online tools like EdPuzzle that are changing the role of teachers, enabling them to adapt any online content and add assessments – for free
  • Teachers like Madara Pelnena who are using digital technology to raise the performance of disadvantaged students at the classroom level
  • Organizations like the AEMA Network, which are seeking to give equal access to education to all learners in Europe

And we’ll ask what can we do to overcome these challenges and how can we build on these examples? So please help us to shape the debate.

These are complex questions.

To adapt Isaiah Berlin’s formulations of positive and negative freedom, we could say that in the area of digital learning there are two types of equality: ‘negative equality’ and ‘positive equality’. To achieve ‘negative equality’ means open access to all of the best content and teachers for all learners of every age. But perhaps we should also consider the category of ‘positive equality’ – where learners not only have equal access to digital learning, but the skills and resources to benefit from that access; where the resources play an active role in increasing equality between learners and weakening the correlation between socio-economic background and learner outcomes.

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