Solving the technology access problem for on-line learning

December 4, 2013 at 1:06 am 7 comments

We’ve heard about this problem before: Online courses don’t reach the low-income students who most need them, because they don’t have access to the technology on-ramp.  This was an issue in the San Jose State experiment.

That’s because the technology required for online courses isn’t always easily accessible or affordable for these students. Although the course may be cheaper than classroom-based courses, the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education argues in a report released Wednesday low-income students might still have a harder time accessing it.

“We have to wrap our heads around the fact that we can’t make assumptions that this will be so simple because everyone will just fire up their computers and do the work,” says Lillian Taiz, a professor at California State University, Los Angeles, and president of the California Faculty Association.

Many students, Taiz says, don’t have computers at home, high-speed Internet access, smart phones, or other technologies necessary to access course content.

via Online Programs Don’t Always Expand Access to Higher Education, Report Says – US News and World Report.

The US News article suggests Google Chromebooks as an answer — cheap and effective. The Indian government is trying an even cheaper tablet solution. Could you use one of these to access MOOCs?

The Indian government realized a few years ago that the technology industry had no motivation to cater to the needs of the poor. With low cost devices, the volume of shipments would surely increase, but margins would erode to the point that it wasn’t worthwhile for the big players. So, India decided to design its own low-cost computer.  In July 2010, the government unveiled the prototype of a $35 handheld touch-screen tablet and offered to buy 100,000 units from any vendor that would manufacture them at this price. It promised to have these to market within a year and then purchase millions more for students.

via The $40 Indian tablet that could help bridge America’s digital divide.

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7 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Barry Brown  |  December 4, 2013 at 1:25 am

    A big hurdle is going to be removing the incentive to profit from the handouts. All too often I’ve seen people take advantage of these programs for their own personal benefit.

    * Various government programs encourage disadvantaged students to take courses at a local college. They receive a waiver for fees and reimbursement for textbooks. My friends who work for these social services complain about people who sign up for classes, buy the textbooks, get reimbursed for them, drop the classes, and sell back the books for a tidy profit.

    * Unrelated to education, but a couple years back there was a deadly heatwave on the east coast of the US. People without air conditioners were given ones by the city government, which they promptly sold, even in the midst of the hot weather. Besides, AC units are expensive to operate.

    The problem with giving technology to people is it’s worth money — even if only a couple dollars. I’m not sure how to properly address this.

    • 2. Mark Guzdial  |  December 4, 2013 at 7:56 am

      There have been a couple of Freakonomics podcasts in the recent past that have dealt with the efficacy of handouts to alleviate poverty — the most recent one is an interesting panel discussion on the topic. Here’s the bottomline: It can work. Sure, there will be people gaming the system, seeking profit, and using the handout for booze and gambling rather than investing it. But direct handouts of money have been used very effectively by the poor in many conditions. Do you prevent helping most of the people because some people will use the handout to make a profit?

  • 3. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  December 4, 2013 at 1:39 am

    The expensive part of the internet access is often not the hardware, but the data access plan. I pay $65/month for my internet and phone access, which is not much for me, but would be a lot for someone trying to live on minimum wage. Coffee shops in college towns provide free wireless (for a cost of about $2–5 an hour in drinks or snacks) but often without the bandwidth needed for MOOC videos—in poor neighborhoods, internet access may be even more expensive, if available at all.

  • 4. shriramkrishnamurthi  |  December 4, 2013 at 8:10 am

    It won’t.

    First of all, education, like all other resource-intensive activities, will keep pushing the boundaries of what it needs. From slides to projectors to videos, there will always be innovation that wants some newer technology that only a subset of people have. I don’t see this game of catchup suddenly ending.

    Second, last I saw the specs for this device (it’s been around for a while), it was pretty underpowered. And video is extremely demanding, as are various other predictive-type computations. (Along those lines, I tried to run some applications on a Raspberry Pi at Cambridge last summer and mainly noticed how not-ready it was.) Not to mention, there have already been several low-cost, crappy Android tablets on the market — and they don’t sell.

    Third, tablets are not a great general-purpose educational medium. We’ve learned over the years just how difficult it is to support WeScheme on tablets, because their keyboards are just not conducive to typing. Okay, we’ll teach (some little bits of) programming with drag-and-drop; will we teach writing the same way? Etc. No, some parts of education will adapt to the crippling limitations of the technology, while other parts will still remain inaccessible.

    The insertion of weak technology could also have other costs: bad ergonomics could leave a generation with neck pains, wrist pains, etc. Oh, you want a stand for that? A good posture and viewing angle? Your $40 tablet is probably up to $100 now.

    Cheap, refurbished desktop computers — that are far more powerful than tablets — are pretty easy to get. They’re generally more robust, easier to replace components of, and less likely to be stolen or lost (though, of course, not portable). I imagine schools have been making use of these. But I understand there’s nothing sexy about writing an article saying, “Instead of going into the Great Electronic Dismantling Depositories in the Sky [or in Bangladesh], these old machines went to schools where students could make use of them”.

    So, this tablet will not “bridge” the divide. It’s a few steps in the right direction, but a “bridge” as to cross all the way over. (To be fair, unlike a real bridge, a metaphorical bridge that gets only part-way over is still of use.)

    Sorry about feeling grumpy about yet another techno-utopian article.

  • 5. Liza Loop  |  December 5, 2013 at 2:30 pm

    Providing educational access to underserved and/or impoverished learners through computing is a problem we have been addressing for 40 years. It pains me to see continued focus on computing hardware without more attention to other factors that strongly impact successful exploitation of computer assisted learning. Along with access to hardware and connectivity we need to take factors such as machine maintenance, software context, social setting and individual learning style into account.

    Of course, access to hardware is important. But as ‘shriramkrishnamurthi’ noted above in comment #4, there are a lot of “obsolete” but serviceable computers available before they hit the recycle bin. Opening up more redistribution channels to keep these machines in service and get them to students in poorer neighborhoods might be a very effective weapon against the digital divide. Of course, this means that educational applications must be designed for down-rev compatibility.

    We should also note that television sets are present in a large proportion of low income homes. If we analyze the content of many online educational offerings we discover that much of the material is video or text and not interactive. These portions of a course can be delivered via TV with the interactive portions delivered separately to the computer. Many students can share one computer for the interactive sections of the lesson while others are engaged with the broadcast elements. Such use will maximize access to learning materials, take advantage of the motivational benefits of interactivity and minimize cost.

    ‘gasstationwithoutpumps’ points out in comment #3 that the cost of connectivity is a roadblock for many low income learners. This suggests that splitting out the interactive component of e-learning courses can make them more affordable because less time will be spent online. Also, one internet connection can be shared by several families if a larger proportion of study time is spent offline. In many cases, even interactivity need not be sacrificed when courseware is designed for downloading interactive lessons, completing them offline and batch uploading. Although this means that feedback on free-form responses will not be instantaneous, notice that even online courses are rarely monitored continuously by a live teacher. There are additional benefits to be gained by sharing resources which I will discuss later under “Social Setting”.

    Computers, like other machines, break down. Anticipating this is not rocket science but is rarely included in discussions of access. When hardware or software crashes and when operating system or connectivity settings are incorrect, users may have computers but they do not have access to the desired learning resources. It is expensive to obtain the repair and consulting services needed to get up and running again. Along with providing low-cost computers and initial set up to low-income users, promoters of online learning need to insure that broken computers can be fixed affordably and that there is a broad channel of expert support for learners who are isolated from ‘geek’ communities. This support cannot be offered online because it is needed when the user cannot get online. This is not to imply that there is a direct relationship between ability to deal with the more technical aspects of computing and income level. Rather, it is an acknowledgement that there are fewer “high-tech whiz kids” and IT professionals in low-income homes where the help is needed. As many would-be high-tech educators can attest, nonfunctional computers usually end up in closets both at home and at school.

    -Software Context-
    It is easy to focus in on the courseware to be delivered via computer and/or TV and forget about the operating, browser and course management systems that the learner must negotiate to actually get to the courseware. An optimal software context will be completely transparent to the user, but how many courses magically appear when the user pushes the computer’s power switch – especially when that computer is shared by many people for a variety of non-educational purposes? When computers are used in tech-savvy schools there is usually a teacher or aide available to navigate to the target lesson if the learner gets stuck. In low-income schools and homes lack of such support can adversely affect perceived success of computer-based teaching. A false conclusion can be drawn that computer-based instruction doesn’t work when the reality is that it is the computer that isn’t working. As with maintenance, being poor isn’t the source of this problem which is equally exasperating for the rich. But “poor” usually goes along with limited access to highly educated, technical helpers.

    -Social Settings-
    The potential for hardware to be stolen is often brought up when contemplating putting online resources into low-income settings. Although theft is a legitimate concern, it is much less of a factor (especially when placing older machines with little resale value) than other social considerations. Absence of high-tech advisors has already been noted under Maintenance and Software. There are additional negative social factors.

    Some social impediments are not unique to the online environment and have been treated extensively in the educational literature from Head Start to College Completion. These include lack of quiet places to study in crowded households, peer pressure not to study, inability of parents to supplement teachers’ efforts and competing demands on the student’s time and attention. However, the problem of isolation is a frequent social outcome of online study and rarely discussed. Occasionally isolation is not a problem for a learner. But for most who never attend on-premise classes, loneliness is a disincentive to completing courses, especially long ones. Online educators often assume that chats, forums and an occasional, synchronous, online seminar can combat this problem. Unfortunately, staying motivated, particularly when there is no cultural tradition of academic excellence, is a significant challenge.

    To combat isolation, online teachers can coach students on strategies for creating local, face-to-face cohorts to provide themselves with the supportive social setting they need for success. Encouraging students to recruit friends and family to take the same course at the same time can help. So can facilitating exchange of geographic information and the use of social media outside the course itself to help students find each other. These strategies are, in a sense, recreating a classroom environment for study albeit with a remote teacher and textbooks on a screen. The isolation of online education robs students of the reinforcement provided by oral debates about issues with peers, spontaneous peer teaching, and informal competition. They also miss directly observing the excitement of an ‘aha’ moment or the enthusiasm of a waving hand. These face-to-face meetings, organized by parents for young children and by older students themselves, can be entirely optional. That way, those who thrive in a more classroom-like environment can take advantage of the opportunity and those who work better in isolation need not partake.

    -Learning Styles-
    A person’s response to solo, dyadic, small group or large group social settings is part of his or her learning style. Equally important are whether a given learner is more self-directed or other-directed and whether he or she understands and retains educational content when presented textually, through charts and graphs, enacted on video or spoken aloud. There is even a subset of learners who must invent or discover concepts for themselves in order to master them to the point of usefulness. Learning styles in the classroom were beginning to be addressed by educators in the 1980s and 1990s, the same period when computers were becoming a serious medium for teaching. With the current attention on how to deliver instruction to large numbers of students in dispersed locations at reduced cost, there is an increased danger that learning style issues will be forgotten. Some educators believe that a lesson delivered in a style incompatible with the student’s learning style is not accessible. Teachers tend to teach in the same way they were taught. Translating the classroom to the medium of computer does not require the courseware developer to address the learning style question.

    The importance of learning style is often obscured by the way educators look at statistics. When faced with a choice between delivering a lesson that works well for an ‘average’ student to a large number of low socioeconomic status students who previously could not access that lesson at all or not delivering it, there’s no question of how to go. But what if a much smaller percentage of low SES students can actually benefit from lessons that are effective across a nationally normed sample because of a different distribution of learning styles in the low SES population? Teasing out such an effect is challenging, so much so that it rarely enters the discourse abut courseware design. In a classroom, a talented teacher makes small but important adjustments to the teaching to accommodate to learner’s styles. Online courses often employ multiple media but spread it out among several different concepts being presented. The rationale is to “keep the course interesting”. To accommodate different learning styles in e-learning the same content should be presented across several differing media so that students can access the material through their most sensitive channel.

    -In conclusion-
    It is exciting to contemplate the potential for online teaching to reach learners around the world and in every economic stratum. We are currently preoccupied with building an infrastructure that will provide physical connectivity and interactive hardware to households that had no opportunity for that kind of access. As these very basic aspects of the endeavor are successful, new challenges emerge. These fall into two categories: 1) Making sure the learner can get all the way through the maze of hardware and software used to deliver the lesson to the educational material itself. 2) Once the lesson is in front of the learner, we must ensure that the learner is embedded in a social setting that supports study and that the delivered material is compatible with the educational strengths and weaknesses of that individual.

    • 6. shriramkrishnamurthi  |  December 6, 2013 at 8:09 am

      Spot-on, excellent reply, Liza Loop. The breakdown, loss, and related factors are always overlooked by techno-utopians, without realizing that when these things happen, any distance between the students will be immediately accelerated. OLPC was (and, I expect, continues to be) suffused with precisely this kind of magical thinking.

      For several years now we’ve been running after-school offerings (and now in-school versions) of a program called Bootstrap ( We quickly realized that one of the biggest obstacles to adoption was the inability to deploy software on desktops. So we made our materials run entirely inside the browser (it took a whole PhD to figure out the details). But our continuing biggest problem is that schools simply will not upgrade their browsers! Some schools still run IE 6, which is not only so incompatible with the rest of the Web but also so insecure that even Microsoft will tell you to not run it.

      So, people could help schools upgrade to something like IE 10 or Firefox or Chrome, and all of a sudden everyone trying to provide materials for these learning environments would see their development and maintenance costs go down substantially. But where’s the photo-op in any of that?

  • 7. lizaloop  |  December 5, 2013 at 2:36 pm

    Reblogged this on HCLE Virtual Museum and commented:
    A major objective of HCLE is to help today’s educators benefit from lessons learned in the early days of educational computing. The blog below, “Solving the technology access problem for on-line learning” and the following comments demonstrate how tough it is get our arms around this problem even after 40 years of experience. In comment #5, Liza Loop adds some insights from the past that seem to be still relevant.


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