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Technology, Business and Society Programme Paper 9: The Riddle of Distance Education Promise, Problems and Applications for Development

7 Jul 2003

  • Author(s): Judith Adler Hellman


Potential benefits for distance learners in both developed and developing countries include the greater access to education that distance learning offers, the flexibility of scheduling, the possibility of proceeding at one’s own pace, and the opportunity to study without having to leave home. In addition, for institutions that bring their course online, the opportunity to reach distant students holds out the hope of great savings in the construction of classrooms and other infrastructures, as well savings on the salaries of teachers.

The advantages of distance education for developing countries are framed in terms of the ever-lower cost of computer technology, and the increasing speed and capacity of computers in relationship to their cost. In the face of the pressure on these countries to join the global information economy, distance education appears to provide the opportunity to train more people better and at lower cost.

However, distance education has some serious drawbacks, even in its application in advanced industrial countries. These include its cost and capital intensiveness, time constraints and other pressures on instructors, the isolation of students from instructors and their peers, instructors’ enormous difficulty in adequately evaluating students they never meet face-to-face, and drop-out rates far higher than in classroom-based courses.

The present study shows that many of these fundamental problems are reproduced when distance programmes are exported to developing countries. The social impact of technological change is difficult to predict or foresee. Often, far from improving the quality of life or expectations of the powerless and the poor, the application of technology may reinforce the worst problems of inequality. The digital divide that polarizes the technological “haves” and “have-nots” separates the “wired world” from that without access to this technology, and, within developing countries, those who have the requisite levels of literacy and computer skills to make use of the Internet and other communications technologies from those who do not. Income, education, age, ethnicity, language and gender separate people who have a reasonable hope of making use of electronic communications from those who have little or no hope whatsoever.

One of the conclusions of the study is that the deskilling of the teacher which is a consequence of distance education is a social cost that must be taken into account when determining the appropriate disbursal of funds to education in developing countries.

Judith Adler Hellman is Professor of Political and Social Science at York University, Toronto, Canada.

Order PPTBS 9 from UNRISD (US$ 12 for readers in industrialized countries and US$ 6 for readers in developing and transitional countries and for students).