Inequality kills – the future of online learning in distance education

On Friday, 24 August 2012, Tanya Gold posted a piece in The Guardian relating to the denial of class in British society starting with the words “Inequality kills.” In the article, Gold (2012) reflects on the increasing inequality in British society and its impact on social (im)mobility, health care and preventing people reaching their full potential. Children do not have much chance in moving beyond the income of their parents – which does not affect the 7% of children whose parents can afford to send them to private school, but it does affect the other 93%… Gold (2012, para.6) contests that “it doesn’t matter where you come from, it’s where you are going that counts ” and state that “where you come from determines where you are going”…

The purpose of this blog is not to respond the validity of her opinions in the context of British society. Her opinion piece triggered a number of thoughts relating to my commitment in last week’s blog to reflect on romanticizing the impact of technology on the future of higher education.  I intend to keep my promise, but in an oblique and roundabout way.

There is no doubt in my mind that the Internet is reshaping how we define and produce knowledge, how we assess, validate and accredit knowledge and the type of graduates we grow. Distance and online education have always been the stepchild of higher education with concerns about the quality of an eduction that is not face-to-face (as if face-to-face warrants good quality…). These concerns have, suddenly disappeared and distance education is en vogue with everyone talking about the Khan Academy, MITx, EdX, Coursera and Udacity. In the corridors of distance education we now ask one another “did you see what Stanford is doing?” and “have you seen the latest course on offer from MITx?” The stepchild of higher education is suddenly welcomed as a prodigal son or daughter. Online and open education is the new black. There is a lot of hype how online and a particular form of open education will change the playing field in higher education resulting in previously excluded masses now benefitting from the opening of higher eduction. So we dream of a world where using technology will democratize the world, and erase inequalities based on income, race, gender, religion, and class. Technology is heralded as the big equalizer and celebrated as a major factor in bringing down tyrants and exporting a particular gestalt of American democracy. Higher education institutions and faculty just cannot afford not to join the technological tango in fear of being caricaturized as luddites and as old-fashioned.

Excuse me if I sound cynical, but I don’t belief romanticizing the role of technology in the future of distance and higher education is useful or  valid. Despite glimpses of what technology and access to well-designed online learning can achieve, I believe that technology will continue to serve the dominant interests and beliefs of the day – like education throughout the ages. While we often focus on the opportunities technology offers, we seem to forget how the same technologies can be used to subjugate, disempower and serve the interests of despots and autocratic regimes or neoliberal market ideologies (see for example Morozov, 2011). Technology and the educational use of technology is not an unqualified good. I agree with Gray (2004, p. 70) who warns that knowledge and science cannot (and will not) “end the conflicts in history. It is an instrument that humans use to achieve their goals, whether winning wars or curing the sick, alleviating poverty or committing genocide.”

Having now made the case for neither a romanticizing of the past of higher education nor romanticizing a technological future, let me return to the statement made by Tanya Gold – “Inequality kills.”

There is no doubt in my mind that the future of higher education will be digital and mobile.  We should however take notice of Castells’ (2009) warning that networks do not only connect and include but also disconnect and exclude. Without romanticizing technology and the way it will shape higher education, there is no doubt in my mind that we should prepare students and our graduates to participate in a networked world. Not preparing them will permanently destine them to become permanently disenfranchised and an integral part of the wasteland of human progress (e.g. Bauman, 2004).

I acknowledge that preparing graduates for a digital and networked future in a developing world context is mind-numbing. Concerns about access to the Internet and the cost of access paralyze many higher education institutions in developing countries from embracing educational technologies. Despite and amidst this huge challenge, I believe that we simply do not have a choice but to use every conceivable means to ensure that students become critical participants in the global networked society. To graduate students who are digitally illiterate is immoral. 

I had chills down my spine reading Tanya Gold’s (2012) piece on how increasing inequality permanently affects the social mobility of thousands of people in a so-called developed country. Students’ background increasingly determines where they will end up in the pecking order of an unequal society. One particular phrase she uses struck a cord – she asks : “Where is the anger?”

There is a lot of faculty who are angry and genuinely concerned about the concerted efforts to move distance education in a developing world context to digital and online formats. Taking into account that “inequality kills” and that it is more true than ever before that “where you come from determines where you are going” – how can we justify not going digital?

In conclusion: We should stop romanticizing the past of higher education. We should also be very wary of attempts to romanticize digital and online learning. Unless we can live with accepting that our graduates may be permanently disenfranchised because they are digitally illiterate, we have no choice. They must realise they don’t have a choice. Inequality kills.

[Image retrieved from, 27 August 2012]


Bauman, Z. (2004). Wasted lives. Modernity and its outcasts. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Castells, M. (2009). Communication power. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Gray, J. (2004). Heresies. Against progress and other illusion. London, UK: Granta Books.

Morozov, E. (2011). The Net delusion. How not to liberate the world. London, UK: Penguin.

About opendistanceteachingandlearning

Research professor in Open Distance and E-Learning (ODeL) at the University of South Africa (Unisa). Interested in teaching and learning in networked and open distance and e-learning environments. I blog in my personal capacity and the views expressed in the blog does not reflect or represent the views of my employer, the University of South Africa (Unisa).
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14 Responses to Inequality kills – the future of online learning in distance education

  1. Laura says:

    Thank you for this excellent and important posting, Paul. I agree with you that participation and contribution in networks (educational, online and across and within countries) are critical in order to address deeply entrenched social inequalities. Like you I worry about the easy answers promised by the current fashion in online courses, especially the big ones branded (but not accredited!) by prestigious universities.(See for example Daphne Koller’s talk “The online revolution ; education for everyone” and my comments at

    • Thanks Laura – I wholeheartedly agree with your response to Daphne Koller’s talk. You wrote: “…the points made lack an understanding of local context. I am in favour of innovation and experimentation but would be fearful if these kinds of MOOCs were genuinely considered as viable alternatives to South African education problems of access and success.”

      I suspect that the complexities in our context just do not allow “quick fixes” amidst the hype around pedagogical imports from other contexts. Like you I passionately believe in the potential for opening education. I alternate between delirious excitement regarding the pedagogical opportunities offered by Web 2.0, and brutal depression about the impact of decades’ inequality on generations of students and their families.I just cannot accept the status quo and permanency of inequalities and injustices.

  2. nboruett says:

    Indeed your arguments are powerful. Inequality kills. Teaching via technology is expensive. Ipads, tablets, internet are expensive. Our hope may lie on the mobile phone- it is still expensive for persons who survive under one USD.
    However, as Albert Einstein we have to think beyond what caused this inequality. Then we can find solutions to this problems. Personally i have taught for many years and i have used material from Ivy leagues and i must say they are high quality. I am following one on statistics from udacity and it is very adaptable here- standard deviation in NYC is the same standard deviation in Accra. The pedagogic quality is beyond reproach. I used material from Berkley Maryland on health strengthening system, quantitative or qualitative were great.

    • Thanks for the response and engagement. You are right – the amount of excellent resources freely available is scary, and as you state, many educators already use them in their teaching. What is more scary than the amount of excellent materials and opportunities available is the myopic view of many faculty that, somehow, we can teach in a digital age using predominantly printed materials because our students “don’t have access.” Yes, access to the Web is varied and costly in our context, but considering that perpetuating inequality is unforgiveable, we don’t have a choice. They don’t have a choice.

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