Digital learning is no panacea, but there’s a lot it can do

How can we make the most of digital learning to meet the needs of learners across the diverse contexts of the majority world? How can we leverage what digital learning offers, despite technology and connectivity gaps? How can we ensure it is used to redress inequity, rather than reinforce it?

How can we do all of this in ways that are designed by and for those in education in the Global South and knowledge systems?

After a sudden and rapid pivot online in early 2020, most of us have spent much of the last three years grappling with the challenges of working, learning, teaching and organising online.

There have been many successes. Despite the challenges, it has shown us what digital could do for work and for learning.

But for some it’s been a frustrating and challenging experience, especially in parts of the world where connectivity is poor, data expensive and power unreliable. Many academics, educators and researchers are struggling to navigate online modes with little support.

Online and digital learning don’t have to be dazzling to be effective. In fact, we know from our work that thousands of Global South professionals and students have found online learning to be transformative – despite the familiar challenges of connectivity, data, power, skills and time.

Three common critiques levelled at online learning – and particularly in relation to students and academics in parts of the Global South – are, firstly, that technology is a significant barrier and this limits its value; secondly, that it doesn’t enable learners to interact, which in turn diminishes their learning outcomes; and thirdly, that it is less equitable – both in who can participate and who can succeed online.

Over the last decade INASP (International Network for Advancing Science and Policy) has been designing and running online learning programmes with and for Southern academics and researchers. Learning from the 20,000 participants who have successfully completed one of our courses has given us an idea of what works – and what doesn’t.

We’ve dug into our data, and into the literature, to understand this better.

Technology barriers

Firstly, technology barriers. Two major factors limit the accessibility of online learning in the Global South: an individual’s digital skills, so that they can navigate and study successfully online, and the digital infrastructure that’s available to them, so that they can get online easily and reliably. Both factors are known to limit participation in online courses and to impact negatively on learning outcomes.

But while they’re important, time management issues and the pressures of other work have emerged as a bigger challenge, cited by 70% of our learners, compared to the 30% that mention internet problems and the 15% who mention unreliable power supplies.


Secondly, equity, and taking one dimension that is key to equitable learning: gender. Women are often said to encounter additional barriers to online learning, with structural ‘offline’ barriers, such as caring responsibilities, their ability to access broadband or data connections, limiting their access, and digital spaces – just like physical ones – often being hostile or unsafe.

While these barriers certainly exist, proportionally more women have completed our courses than men. The differences aren’t huge (between 49% and 72% of women complete, compared to 47%-68% of men). However, when we looked at the 3,000 people who participated in one of INASP’s MOOCs (massive open online courses), we also saw that women’s confidence levels increased slightly more than those for men.

Of course, these numbers don’t suggest that more women are accessing and succeeding through digital learning – there are still many barriers to address – but what they do suggest is that a more positive picture is emerging.

We’ve heard that digital learning can be easier to access because access isn’t controlled by institutional gatekeepers, and that it is easier to fit around family and caring responsibilities. Could digital learning in fact help to overcome some of the deeper, structural barriers to education and professional development, by offering new possibilities?

Social interaction

A third critique is that online learning is not good at enabling the kind of social interaction that can be important for gaining new knowledge and developing new skills and confidence.

But it is possible to encourage real connection and interaction in online learning, and for some learners it can even suit them better, because they can engage with their peers in ways that suit them. And taking steps to actively encourage interaction can help to significantly improve outcomes – motivating and keeping people engaged, and encouraging them to learn from, not just alongside, their peers.

Learning design

So if the critiques don’t always stand, what can we do to make better outcomes more likely online?

Not all digital learning is created equally, and a lot of what passes for online learning is found wanting in many respects. The key to success is found in learning design – that is, by starting with the needs of the learners and using those to guide you.

Let’s take technology – while it’s easier to be swayed by technological innovations and impressive design solutions, you can end up with a data-hungry course that is less accessible. You don’t need to ditch video content or interactive tools, but by creating pathways through a course – thinking of participants with the least reliable internet access, at the lowest speeds, the lowest level of digital literacy and the least experience of online learning – you can make sure they can still succeed.

Thinking of equity, and by putting together a design team with an explicit concern to mitigate bias – say a team which has a good gender balance – you’re more likely to anticipate and design to mitigate some of these barriers.

How might biases be encoded in the materials or the language of a course? What do we need to do to ensure learning spaces – the virtual classrooms and spaces – are inclusive and safe places? Having at least one member who can review the design from a gender perspective will help, but everyone involved in design and facilitation has a part to play.


Finally, learning design can help tackle interaction too. Our participants have particularly valued the online experience, because they could connect to and learn from peers from across the world – something they couldn’t do in a local, in-person course.

The presence of a facilitator makes a real difference – completion rates from facilitated courses are twice as high as self-study courses because someone not only responds to questions but can pose their own and encourage discussion.

Peer assessment and group work are both great ways to engage participants, can help to provide valuable feedback at a larger scale, and can be a learning gain in its own right. Being able to give useful and constructive feedback is an important skill in the academic world, and beyond.

The growth in the use of video conferencing tools and chat apps, whether text or audio based, allow you to host live drop-in clinics, where participants can ask questions, discuss particular issues or get help dealing with specific problems.

Whether fully online or blended, digital learning certainly isn’t the panacea, and certainly not for higher education systems where resources are strained. There is much that is better done in person.

But online learning can also enable us to do things that we can’t do in-person – at least not without great cost to limited budgets and to the planet – and it can enable us to make more of the occasions when we do come together face to face. What’s more, good quality, effective online learning need not be the preserve of the wealthy and well-connected.

Jon Harle is director of programmes for INASP, based in Berlin, Germany. He can be contacted on or on Twitter: @jonharle. Joanna Wild is senior specialist for digital and blended learning at INASP, based in Oxford, United Kingdom. She can be contacted on or on Twitter: @askawild. INASP has recently published all its tools and guides, as well as examples from real projects, and has synthesised what they have learnt, backed up by evidence, in a new open access book, Digital Technology in Capacity Development: Enabling learning and supporting change, to help others design and deliver their own, effective online learning. Edited by Joanna Wild and Femi Nzegwu, it draws on the experience of INASP’s global team, from Lagos to Nairobi, and from Dhaka to Kathmandu. It’s free to download at African Minds here.