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There is much written about online education’s huge, unlimited potential for outreach in developed and more so in developing countries. I have been involved first hand in facilitating workshops in developed and developing countries demonstrating the functions and benefits of online delivery, especially in expanding access to higher education.

Benefits of Online learning

There is no doubt that online delivery can provide enhanced opportunity to engage in higher education for students who are located in remote areas, who are engaged in full-time work, who have family commitments or medical conditions that prevent attendance on campus, but it is not necessarily a panacea for all students.

African woman studying online with laptop on couch at home. Photo: Daniel Ernst

Challenges of Online Learning

I would suggest that online study presents some substantial challenges for many in developing countries where the quality of what students receive at the primary and secondary school levels in terms of teaching, resources and curriculum is in many instances sub-standard. These students are less prepared and resourced to succeed as independent, self-directed learners, which is expected in the online learning setting. Further, the cultural context of these students places significant value on community and relationships, yet the online learning journey from beginning to end has the learner and teacher separated as well as the learners from each other. This is a major challenge and is basically contrary to the collective milieu that is so highly valued in these cultures.

Even if the student has exceptional facility with the technology and the technologies are available to them and are reliable (a huge ‘if’ in many developing countries), there are so many other aspects of being a higher education student that they have to traverse independently. These include working out what subjects to enroll in each semester after decoding prerequisites, how to appropriately contact the lecturers, where to get help about academic skill development and study techniques, how to best use the set text, how to submit assignments, how to access library resources, how to find resources on the web, where to sit exams… to name just a few. Sure, all this information is available for students to read online, but it doesn’t replace the chance discussions had in class about such issues and the inevitable supplementary information provided. In most instances, these students also are ‘first in family’ (or village) to attempt higher education so have no one with relevant experience to guide them in what to do.

Let’s assume that the learning materials made available to the student in the online mode are clear, comprehensive, well presented and structured and of a high quality. Let’s also say that much thought has gone into ensuring different learning styles are catered for in the learning activities provided, in making sure the content is complimented with a diversity of contemporary research informed examples, and that informal assessments are included along the way to allow students a chance to gauge their learning progress. (Again, these are huge assumptions to make!) The lack of tangible social connection still presents as a major problem for most students in developing countries. This is notwithstanding the online forums that enable student-to-student online discussion, the audio lectures made available and teleconferences that might occur between lecturer and students.

Group of students sitting at table in library. Photo: freeograph

Social Connection is an Important Part of Online Learning in Developing Countries

A major factor in these students studying online is geographical isolation and for many the option to travel a large distance to attend an intensive school during the vacation break at the University is impractical. However, they need a physical space where they can come together to connect with other students – an opportunity to create a complimentary learning community.

There are some lovely examples of online (and distance) learning programs that acknowledge this need for social connection. One such example that I have witnessed working well is where the University offering the programs taps into existing local education facilities around the country to set up study centres at local schools. Ideally, live lectures are streamed via video-conferencing to the study centres, but in reality, the poor communication services and even lack of electricity in some places hampers this. Limited face-to-face sessions with lecturers occur throughout the semester and are very well attended, but these can be rather few and far between. What stands out, however, is the role of these centres in establishing that important sense of community. They become a place for students to come together on an informal basis to share knowledge, experiences and stories. It corresponds with that strong sense of family, community and collaborative relationships that are fundamental to many of the cultures found in developing countries. Students feel secure in visiting the Centre and interacting with others who share similar challenges to them even if they are not studying the same course. For some, without this in-person contact their level of motivation and focus to continue with their studies would be lost.

Study Classmate in the Classroom. Picture: Rawpixel.com

The example provided is not unique – there are several such examples in operation around the globe. What is often missing in developing countries though is a consistent, long-term commitment to maintaining these centres and the inevitable reliance on international public funding to overcome the challenges associated with their on-going operation. What is also sometimes missing is due consideration by all those involved in the decision-making process of investing in approaches that fit with and will ensure genuine success in that cultural context. What is the point in spending sizeable dollars on approaches that are doomed to perish because they fail to take into account cultural principles and environmental realities?

Lucubrate Magazine, Issue 53, March 1st, 2019

Photo on top: soniadhankhar

Categories: Magazine, Education, Elearning

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Nita Temmerman
Professor Nita Temmerman

Nita Temmerman (PhD; MEd (Hons); BEd; BMus; ATCL; MACE) has held senior University positions in Australia including Pro Vice Chancellor Academic Quality, Pro Vice Chancellor International Partnerships and Executive Dean. She is an independent higher education consultant and invited professor to universities in Australia, the Pacific region, SE Asia and the Middle East and Academic Board Chair for private higher education institutions. Nita is also an invited accreditation specialist with the Hong Kong Council for Accreditation of Academic & Vocational Qualifications (HKCAAVQ), and international associate with the Center for Learning Innovations & Customized Knowledge Solutions (Dubai). Projects draw on expertise in organisational strategic planning, quality assurance, academic accreditation and reaccreditation, higher education policy development and review, teacher education and curriculum design and evaluation. Nita has published 14 books, over 70 scholarly papers, conducted numerous presentations in SE Asia, Middle East, Pacific, UK and USA and remains an active contributor to several education publications.

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