Education expansion can balance access with equality

Online education holds promise – and also danger when adopted without transformation, in the name of benefiting everyone who needs it – according to Tressie McMillan Cottom, assistant professor of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University in the United States.

She warned that education expansion in a structure defined by unequal access to resources could deepen inequalities.

Delivering a keynote address at last week’s major conference of the International Council for Open and Distance Education, or ICDE, McMillan Cottom also said that growing access to education via digital technologies and e-learning held the potential to support job creation and tackle cultural imbalances, if delivered affirmatively.

The 26th ICDE World Conference is being held at Sun City, north of Johannesburg in South Africa, from 14-16 October, co-hosted by the University of South Africa under the theme “Growing Capacities for Sustainable Distance e-Learning Provision”

“It is quite easy in the grand political scheme to expand access,” said McMillan Cottom, but there were concerns: “What can access do for equality. What can access do for justice?”

She said open and distance learning was designed to benefit people disadvantaged by, among other factors, race, gender, social class, culture, and differences in income and wealth. While local and national contexts may be different, globally marginalised people were affected by similar issues.

Continuing inequalities

According to the sociology of education, McMillan Cottom said, access and expansion were not shown to address inequality for disadvantaged groups.

For at least 60 years, sociologists had studied education as an institutional process of qualification – both formal and informal education, and in terms of defining skills, abilities and talents – but education should not be treated in isolation.

“We say that education as an institution is interrelated to other institutions and that they all work together. To understand one you have to understand the other. More importantly you have to understand how they interact with each other.”

McMillan Cottom said that as in many other countries, the US was battling demons around expansion. “We are dealing with some very similar issues.

“We have greater demand and we have the ability to expand our core secondary institutions to meet that demand. Our response to demand has primarily emerged out of the market sector, which is for-profit private institutes.”

Also as elsewhere, America was struggling with how to meet the needs of older students, disadvantaged students who were poorly prepared for higher education, and students who wanted vocational training that institutions were not offering.

“We are struggling with how people would pay for that type of education,” she said.

The question was what education could and could not do.

“If you expand education without attention to the unequal distribution of resources, you will reproduce inequality,” McMillan Cottom argued.

Education and jobs

The past three decades had seen increased demand for post-secondary education by students who had changed careers, and wanted to re-enter job markets or change vocational pathways. “We cannot create more prestigious education to serve them.”

For-profit colleges and universities that offered certificates and degrees as job training were devised as a response to demand, but this came at high individual and social cost.

“By expanding higher education without paying attention to the mechanisms by which we expanded, we created a two-tier system where the most disadvantaged students paid the most for the least quality of education,” she said.

Although it was debatable, education expansion alone did not produce more and better jobs. Jobs and education could go hand in hand, but this was not currently the relationship and would not necessarily be achieved without extra institutional investment.

“Education alone does not produce a job structure that facilitates upward social mobility,” McMillan Cottom emphasised. “If we ask education to do certain things without the mechanisms to do it, we set educational expansion up to fail.”

Public and private provision should match skills with the requirements of the market for mobility towards employment to happen. This rarely happened incidentally but had to be affirmative and deliberate.

The civic sphere – which includes government, universities, markets and students – needed to consult more broadly, to make credentials matter to the disadvantaged. “What purpose does it serve to broaden access to education without broadening access to labour markets?”

The promise of open and distance learning

In the US, the system had created a permanently disadvantaged, over-educated and under-employed group of people who happened to be black, female and low-income.

“Access has to be affirmative for disadvantaged groups to benefit. You have to make up the difference in resource allocation for those groups, and that happens with deliberate education policy,” McMillan Cottom said.

“We can do this for students wherever they are, to help them get where they want to be. Not just for individuals but also for groups,” McMillan Cottom said.

There should be access not just to content, but also to high quality knowledge.

As skills developed and technological changes happened, there was a transition point where students needed to obtain a certificate that would get them accepted at university, but disadvantaged groups could get lost in the process.

“The process of learning is social, but we are producing online and distance education curricula that for most do not play a part in developing the social aspects of learning. It is the social aspect that turns content into knowledge.”

She said students valued instruction through social networks highly. The issue was how to make tools and social aspects more robust in the educational delivery system, in an integrated system of knowledge production.

Moving from access to justice

Research in the United States had shown that white males who were educated and had high incomes were the primary group taking up MOOCs – massive open online courses – adding to their already existing advantages.

What became apparent was that access to higher education was expanded, but that the benefits of e-learning were accruing to those who tended to need it the least.

So platforms, tools and governance mechanisms were being developed, unleashing the power of technology, while still leaving many behind.

However, McMillan Cottom said, access could be balanced with equality if it was accepted that tools alone could not achieve this. For those who cared about education, affirmative distribution to the disadvantaged had to be paired with funding.