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Back | Programme Area: Technology and Society (2000 - 2009)

The Riddle of Distance Education: Promise, Problems and Applications for Development

The idea that teaching and learning can successfully take place through electronic communication between teachers and students widely separated by space and time is a concept that has inspired both hope and dismay, excitement and fear. In advanced industrial countries with high rates of literacy and school attendance, and abundant opportunities for post-secondary education, there is a burgeoning literature, most of which touts the “unlimited” possibilities of this “revolution” in education.

At the same time, distance education has its passionate critics, even in societies in which universal access to computer technology is an attainable goal. Far less controversy has attended the projections of wide use of electronic means to bring educational materials to resource-deprived countries. Indeed, a general assumption that distance education represents an unquestionably positive step forward has framed almost all discussion of the use of this technology in education in the developing world.

However, there is presently only a limited critical literature focused on the developing countries that would be comparable to the broad critique of distance education that has emerged in North America. Yet a careful analysis of the prospects for the application of electronic technology to education may show that many of the shortcomings of distance education already identified with respect to advanced industrial countries also apply or, indeed, are likely to appear in even more dramatic forms in developing countries. Moreover, there is a significant range of concerns about the impact and effectiveness of distance education in developing countries that would not be an issue in wealthier countries.

Some of the potential benefits for distance learners in both developed and developing countries include the greater access to education that distance learning offers (above all to what is increasingly referred to as the “non-traditional student”), the flexibility of scheduling, the possibility of proceeding at one’s own pace, and the opportunity to study without having to travel (indeed, without leaving home). In addition, for institutions that manage to persuade or oblige instructors to “bring their course online”, the opportunity to reach distant students holds out the hope of great savings in the construction of classrooms, student housing, parking lots and other physical infrastructure, as well as substantial potential 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.

At the same time, 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.

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 functions in strange and unexpected ways to 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.

There are various ways to count the costs of providing distance education to students in developing countries. One of the problems is that most calculations based on “per-student” costs fail to take into account the drop-out rates of those initially enrolled. Since there is a huge outlay of funds involved in the production of new courses, some planners propose that the development of distance-learning materials could be offloaded onto a wealthier institution (in an industrialized country). But “packaging” courses raises serious problems of designing culturally appropriate materials and approaches, and may exacerbate existing problems of what is perceived to be cultural domination by Europe and North America. Moreover, because funding for education in the developing countries is not limitless, the channelling of scarce resources into computers as opposed, say, to in-class teacher training, represents a choice that is made and an opportunity foregone.

If face-to-face instruction is a more effective way of reaching (and retaining) students, particularly the most marginalized students, then planners, at some point, may have to set aside their romance with technological solutions and return to the basic task of developing a corps of qualified and dedicated teachers who can reach those who—according to the signs we already see—will inevitably be left behind in the computer revolution. As presently conceived, the demotion of the classroom teacher to an “equipment monitor” who throws the switch to bring someone “better informed” or “more expert” or “more entertaining” into the classroom represents a deskilling of the teaching profession at a time when teachers everywhere—but particularly in developing countries—are suffering a precipitous decline in prestige and respect in their communities, not to mention a fall in real wages. This problem will only be exacerbated by the use of material generated in the industrialized countries. Thus the deskilling of the teacher 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.
  • Publication and ordering details
  • Pub. Date: 1 Jun 2003
    Pub. Place: Geneva
    ISSN: 1020-8216
    From: UNRISD