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Our digital landscape is not just convenient, it has been a tool for opening up our world. We can connect to a variety of different cultures, and share knowledge that would not have been easily available just a few decades ago. As a result of widespread access to advanced connected technology, eLearning platforms have emerged as a method to democratize education.
Many universities now offer formal qualifications via online courses, from degrees to completion certificates. Some of them, such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) OpenCourseWare program, are largely free or subject to minimal certification fees. Companies have been able to design coaching programs tailored to their specific needs, and even YouTube has become a platform for independent tutors to share their knowledge. There are relatively few boundaries to some form of learning today.
We’re going to take a look at a few key areas in which eLearning is truly making a difference in accessibility to education. How is online teaching maneuvering around the old gatekeepers? Who stands to benefit?
The Challenges of Disability
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is in place to ensure that those with disabilities aren’t discriminated against. In the workplace, this is often through the lens of how a disability affects the performance of a job and what steps an employer should take to accommodate this, while allocation of social security disability benefits similarly is often based upon the ability to earn, and a person with a disability must provide evidence of a hindrance to performance.
In education, application of ADA and allocation of benefits is geared toward supporting the student through their learning, often with a wider reach than in the workplace — encompassing activities outside the classroom such as camps, field trips, and after-school clubs. Testing, too, must include reasonable accommodations, including the provision of large print, Braille, and screen reading technology.
eLearning platforms have become not just a tool to assist in accessibility for the disabled, but eLearning courses themselves are being designed with accessibility strategies and ADA compliance in mind. The ability for multimedia approaches to be used allows tutors to easily provide course materials in audio form for those with sight impairments, or integrate subtitles and visual cues for the hard of hearing — all of which fall under the requirement to provide auxiliary aids to allow non-discriminatory methods of communication. Platforms are being developed to be compatible with voice-to-text software and Braille keyboards. The interactive nature of eLearning has revealed itself to be a useful solution to many of the challenges of accessibility in education.
Perhaps one of eLearning’s most useful attributes is the integration of tutor-learner connection using video conferencing technology. This can help students who are unable to travel to an educational establishment to have equal access to the experts leading their course, and benefit from close mentorship. This is useful not just for those with physical disabilities, but also those with psychiatric conditions going through periods of crisis, allowing them to maintain their learning at these difficult periods.
A Wide Range of Beneficiaries
When it comes to accessibility of education, eLearning has a role to play beyond those groups who may be more visibly struggling to gain equal opportunities. It has the potential to affect a broad range of recipients in positive ways.
One of the primary gatekeepers shutting people out of education today is poverty. Many of those working on the front lines of public schools acknowledge how deeply a lack of access to socioeconomic stability can detrimentally affect a student’s learning. Yet education is also one of the potential ways for individuals to transcend their socioeconomic issues; expensive formal education does nothing but create a cycle that keeps the poorest poor. The cost of degrees through online courses are generally significantly lower than those held on-campus, meaning that eLearning can provide potential solutions to break down a few of those financial barriers to learning.
Learners with Family Obligations
For too long it has been part of our accepted wisdom that once one has family obligations, the opportunity to enjoy a formal education has passed. Families are complex, changeable beasts; students may have their own children or have parents and siblings they need to care for, and eLearning has become a tool that reflects and supports our social needs. These courses are designed to be consumed flexibly, with many providers such as EdX including access to forums that help mimic the peer and tutor support found in traditional environments.
Schools without Resident Experts
Let’s face it, schools themselves are often recipients of challenging gatekeepers in the form of the bureaucrats who set their budgets. While specialist STEM-based subjects are valuable, schools are not always able to allocate funds to hire full-time specialist staff. eLearning platforms, such as Lynda (a free service), can provide modules and materials which help non-expert staff guide students through project-based learning. While no substitute for teachers, this type of eLearning platform is a valuable resource for those dedicated educational professionals who want to give their students the best school experiences, despite budgetary constraints.
Diversity in Everything
Perhaps one of the obvious advantages of eLearning is its worldwide inclusivity. It doesn’t require students to be on certain geographical premises, and therefore makes the course open to people from all over the globe. This is not just a matter of convenience; it’s a route to greater diversification of our workforces.
Companies are now able to widen their talent pool searches to include individuals in communities who may not have had the opportunity in previous decades. As noted by the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, 53% of businesses who use remote teams do so in order to access diverse employees in different geographical locations. Businesses can ensure that initial and ongoing training can be delivered effectively using eLearning, and remote employees don’t feel out of the loop or that their career development is being neglected.
Our continued embrace of eLearning platforms to provide education, both in the traditional sense and workplace training, has the ability to not just transcend the limits of geography, but also in turn help turn the tide of our society’s biases. It can help ensure that those in marginalized communities make valuable contributions to projects because they are not limited to only those employers in their immediate vicinity, or of their own ethnicity.
eLearning is not just a matter of convenience or cheaper education, it’s a vital tool in ensuring equality in our society. By developing these platforms in both institutional and vocational fields, we can continue to make certain that those who traditionally had difficulty accessing education — the disabled, those experiencing poverty, and those in distant locations — can have the opportunity to contribute to their chosen fields. We all benefit from greater diversity, and eLearning can help break down barriers.