Canada, December 21, 2018: Online learning is often assumed to hold the potential to bring quality education to people who may otherwise have only limited access to education or no access at all. From rural communities in North America to refugee camps, online learning is changing how and where people learn. But is online educational access living up its promises? This eLearning Inside report surveys five key areas of educational access according to reports published in

Even in the 21st century, growing up in rural areas of the United States and Canada often still means having limited access to education. While some students have to travel over an hour to attend school, others have limited course and program offerings (e.g., no AP-level courses or gifted programs). As a result, rural students often face higher barriers of entry compared to their urban peers when it comes to getting into top-ranked universities. Online learning is consistently held up as one potential way to overcome these barriers–but is it working?

Over the past two years, eLearning Inside has reported on several online educational access programs for youth living in rural and remote regions. These programs include Illinois’ current pilot program for rural students, and on the advising side, platforms such as myKlovr that offer rural students access to quality college advising. In rural communities, however, just getting online can often be a challenge.  As reported on eLearning Inside in September 2018, 2.3 million American K-12 students still don’t have access to broadband internet.

Barriers also exist at the post secondary level where there are still many educational deserts. An estimated 41 million American adults lack access to a nearby physical university. While online educational access may appear to be an obvious solution, among those 41 million American adults without access to a physical university, 3 million also lack access to an internet connection suitable for online education.

For now, the promise of using online learning to expand educational access in rural areas remains limited to those living in rural areas where broadband access is already widely available.

Supplementing Education in America’s Struggling Urban Schools

While students living in rural areas often lack access to a wide range of courses and school programs, many of their urban counterparts are also suffering.

In 2018, Detroit schools reported the lowest results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The Detroit Free Press highlighted just some of the troubling results of the 2018 report. At the fourth-grade level, only 4% of Detroit students scored at or above proficient in math, compared to 36% statewide. The results in reading were nearly as low with only 5% of Detroit’s fourth-grade students scoring at or above proficient, compared to 32% statewide.

At least some educators, researchers, and community leaders believe online education might be a way to supplement the programming already happening in struggling urban schools. One such program is Coursera’s collaboration with Michigan State University, the Berklee College of Music, and Detroit’s Making It Happen Foundation. The program aims to bring music and art courses to students in some of Detroit’s struggling inner-city schools.

While online learning may appear to be a viable way to supplement programming in struggling schools, some educational researchers worry that online learning is not be the best option.

2015 study published in the Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness found that students who are already struggling also struggle online. In the survey of 1,224 ninth graders who failed algebra in 17 Chicago public high schools, students were randomly assigned to take either an online or face-to-face algebra recovery course. The researchers found, “Compared to students in face-to-face credit recovery, students in online credit recovery reported that the course was more difficult, were less likely to recover credit, and scored lower on an algebra post test.”  By contrast, another recent study tracking the progress of students in Maine and Vermont who were already working above their level and looking to move ahead found that the online format enabled them to excel even further.

On a related note, there is also growing evidence that entrenched biases are often just as prevalent online as they are in traditional classrooms. One recent study by researchers at Stanford University found while online programs often attract a more diverse student body, racial and gender biases persist.

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