Barriers to participation in online learning
The skewed demographic of participation in online learning has been one of the central concerns of the OEPS project. In general, rather than widening participation, the growth in provision of good quality online learning material has resulted in more options for those with experience of higher education. In 2012, Grainne Conole noted in the Journal of Distance Education that
‘ … the ever increasing technologically rich learning environment in which today’s learners and teachers are immersed is raising issues in terms of social exclusion; the technological divide might be narrower but it is deeper—those not connected or not using these new technologies are being left behind at an alarming rate.’
Conole’s observation remains true today. In seeking to understand why open education has not had a bigger impact on lifelong learning we have worked closely with organisations active in workplace and community education to explore and analyse experience and practice. In the open education community the focus of inquiry has been on the ways in which technology impacts on participation. However, in our work we have found the broader frame of the well-established widening participation literature more helpful as a starting point. In this literature, barriers are classified as situational, institutional and dispositional. For learners in community or workplace settings, who are distanced from formal education, these ‘traditional’ barriers are relevant whether education is provided online or in more traditional face to face settings. However, where online courses are involved additional factors overlay and interact with those that are articulated in the literature.
For example, conceptions of education, and expectations of online study provide powerful disincentives to study. Individuals, and the organisations that support them, often default to a view in which learning in a class room with a teacher is the norm. Other models are seen a poor replacement. So for online learning to be accepted and effective, alternative pedagogical models have to be clear and explicit. In addition, learner expectations are often shaped by real experience. Online ‘study’, through mandatory tick-box, online training modules, is almost ubiquitous across the public and private sectors. These modules are universally hated and colour perceptions of learning in a negative way. In general, online is viewed as an individualised, isolated and second best learning experience. With partners we’ve tackled this by being explicit about online as a ‘means of exchange’ and not an end in itself. This forms the starting point for developing good practice that involves designing opportunities for social interaction and appropriate support.
We have found other ways in which individual, dispositional and situational barriers to participation are mediated in a digital learning environment. These are explored in more depth in a forthcoming paper in the Journal Widening Participation and Lifelong Learning. We will also be publishing a series of short good practice reports on overcoming barriers to participation during February and March.