Online education has been hailed as a boon to potential students in developing countries-and some researchers and educators claim it will end the digital divide between the developed and developing world.

But is it realistic to assume that online education can level the global economic playing field by bringing education to people in developing countries? The idea has a lot of potential-but there are also some factors that make success difficult to predict. Here's a look at the issues.

The Promise of Online Education

It can be administered fairly cheaply

Compared to building an entire university and attracting professors within easy access of isolated areas, bringing access to an online education program to a third-world country can be quite cheap. You'd need the infrastructure for online access, as well as computers and possibly printers, faxes or scanners for students-which sounds like a lot. But for a new university, you'd need all that plus a campus.

It brings first-world educators to third-world countries


Students in developing countries can benefit a great deal from online education.

It's an unfortunate truth that many of the most educated minds in developing countries leave to seek better opportunities elsewhere-so students seeking a traditional education in a third-world country may not have access to the best teachers. With online education, students could have access to teachers anywhere-and geographic barriers won't get in the way of opportunities to learn.

Learners could potentially access the classroom from anywhere

Many people don't live within walking distance of a university. Distance education brings the classroom to them-and online learners could potentially access their classrooms from their own villages or even their own homes.

It protects learners who might be in danger in a traditional classroom

In some regions, girls and women in particular are in danger when they attend school because of religious and political groups who believe women should not be educated. Girls attending school in some countries risk assault, injury and even death. With distance education, girls and women could attend school in privacy and safety.

The Challenges Faced By Online Learners in Developing Countries

Many countries lack the infrastructure

It's easy to dream about bringing distance education to everyone in developing countries-but many learners in these areas don't have access to running water, let alone the Internet. Electricity and telephone lines in some underdeveloped rural and even urban areas is an impossibility. Before online education can be a reality in developing countries, more people need access to an Internet connection.

Many students lack the training

Online education relies a great deal on reading, writing and computer skills courses-skills that many people in developing countries don't have. Bringing distance education to a student with basic computer skills and strong reading abilities is one thing-but bringing it to a student without even this basic knowledge is more of a challenge. Limitations faced by reading difficulties could be reduced by providing webcasts of lectures-but students would still need computer skills and a way to deliver projects and homework assignments.

Many students lack the equipment

It's difficult to take an online class if you don't own a computer, or have only limited access to one. In developing countries, people have fewer financial resources and more difficulty getting access to computers than students have in the developed world.

Online education has a great deal of promise

It brings a flexible education to students where they live-so students in isolated areas don't have to find their way to a far-off college or risk danger from political groups who don't want them to learn. It also allows non-traditional students to work their education around their schedule, so school wouldn't interfere with work or childcare commitments. It makes education more affordable as well.

However, it faces challenges such as weak infrastructures, lack of computer training in developing countries, low literacy levels, and lack of basic computer equipment. Students in developing countries can benefit a great deal from online education. But in some areas-perhaps in areas full of the students who need an education the most-access would still be a problem.

Sources: Projects Overview
International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning: Online Learning in Higher Education in Sub-Saharan Africa: Ghanaian students' Perceptions and Experiences
UN Chronicle: Distance Education: Its Advantages and Shortcomings

About the Author:

Jennifer Williamson worked as a GED teacher for an adult education nonprofit for two years. Her students came from all walks of life, and ranged in age from sixteen to sixty-eight. During that time, she became knowledgeable about the unique needs of non-traditional and adult learners. She counseled hundreds of students about their higher education options, including online degree programs. Today, she works as an education writer in Pennsylvania.