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Why Online Learning Can Create Equitable Access to “The Great Equalizer”

If there are silver linings to be found in the turmoil the pandemic created in postsecondary education, one of them is the mainstreaming of virtual learning experiences. Long before sudden shutdowns left colleges across the country scrambling for ways to stay connected with students, online learning was an educational lifeline for adult learners and other underserved students.


Jack Mills

Senior Vice President of Partnerships, Impact, and Insights, Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL)

The best online learning programs were not, however, a simple broadcasting of traditional classroom lectures. Over the past 30 years, the specialized science of online learning has evolved as a format that works throughout students’ personal and professional lives. It can help adults access career-furthering education, fueling social mobility and community prosperity.

High stakes

The need for our current workforce to gain new skills is urgent. The pandemic is intensifying the tech-driven disruption of jobs. Although there were more than 9 million job openings in May, 9.3 million people remained unemployed. One theory for this paradox is that employers are searching for workers with higher skill levels. Strategies to make workforce education and training more accessible are an important way forward to rewarding careers and broad economic growth.

Unfortunately, most adult learners do not have the luxury of treating education as a full-time job. They often must contend with two kinds of scarcity — time and income. Many are holding down one or more low-paying jobs, and/or caring for family members. The essence of serving adult learners well is meeting them where they are, rather than expecting them to somehow put their “real-life” responsibilities on hold.

Online learning does exactly that, and much more. Over the past several decades, it has led to innovations from new accelerated programs to open educational resources to fully online programs and colleges. It has also proven that it can offer all the academic rigor of traditional programs. 

Sophisticated virtual experiences can be nearly indistinguishable from “real life” learning, even for more hands-on fields of study (consider the DOT-approved simulators that are part of training programs in the transportation industry).

Access for all

But to reach its full potential, we must ensure broadband access is available to all communities. Digital literacy and lack of technology devices can be challenges. 

While the mass pivot to online learning occurred under duress and wasn’t flawless, its growth is an encouraging development. After all, if education is to fulfill its promise as the great equalizer, there must be equitable access to it. Online learning provides yet another evolving route within the vital journey of lifelong learning.

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