Online education sites that follow an open learning model, like Khan Academy, Duolingo, Udemy, and Coursera, have helped provide anyone with access to the internet connection to a college-level education. Anything that one would ever want to learn is at your fingertips — regardless of your race, gender, or socio-economic status.
Salman Khan, founder of Khan Academy, sees a vision where people take ownership of their education in order to make an impact. They don't just passively listen to a video but instead engage in the content that's being lectured. The video provides some structure and core knowledge, the student goes out and finds the rest.
This idea is an improvement over a time when such services didn't exist but still has some issues that need to be addressed. Marc Sollinger of Public Radio International argues that there are still quite a few barriers that prevent Khan's vision of democratized education from becoming reality. Sollinger is right. Lots of them. He interviewed Mimi Ito, a cultural anthropologist at the University of California Irvine, to get her take on whether open courses are the revolution everyone is making them out to be.
“Often, when we think of the open internet and resources being freely available, we assume it has a democratizing function. That anybody can access this stuff; it’s free and open, so therefore it must be more equitable. The sad fact is that we know historically, that when you provide fancier technology, it actually increases inequity.”
She cites one main barrier as access to new technology: the haves and the have nots, if you will. But even in an ideal world where everyone has a laptop, iPad, and smartphone, she says it doesn't make a difference if the people most in need of equalizing do not have context for using this technology.
A prime example of this is the difference between females and males growing up in the computer age during the 1990s. By the time both of these groups got to the classroom, in say late university, most boys already had context for how this technology functioned and was being used.
Another issue is the reputations that are attached to universities and colleges. The schools winning the battle for online students are the ones that big, established brands in the traditional education market. To say you learned something online via Kahn Academy just doesn't have the same weight as saying you graduated from Penn State, where there's not even a need to admit you did courses online.
Well regarded colleges have become well regarded online colleges, complete with the high tuition. Getting online makes the education easier to obtain for some but the traditional financial burden keeps it from being democratic.
Online learning still has a long way to go before it's an equal playing field, but Ito says that educators are determined to help it get there:
“The sector around educational technology is very progressive and quite aware of these issues, and is grappling with them in a serious way.”