This past fall, I was fortunate enough to join a team of Haitian, Canadian, and American university faculty members and business people for a series of meetings in Cap-Haitien, Haiti and the surrounding area. The purpose – to discuss opportunities for online learning.
When I think about why we started D2L in 1999, we were really focused on breaking down barriers to education and learning around the world. Initially, these were barriers such as time, distance, and accessibility—our efforts to overcome them were enabled through the introduction of the internet and web-based technologies.
One of the big questions that came out of our meetings in Haiti was, “What does online learning look like for those who don’t have easy access to the technology that makes online learning possible?”
This question is motivated by a “collision” of two seemingly polar issues: the intense desire of universities in Haiti to provide online learning opportunities and the limited resources students and faculty have to access and support these courses. In other words, IF we build it, CAN they come?
This challenge is not unique to Haiti. In fact, this is a global issue. Over the last fifteen years, we’ve made major in-roads and improvements to outcomes, retention, graduation rates, and the personalization of learning for the almost fifteen million learners that leverage our products. However, most of these learners would come from areas of the world that are predominantly “rich” in comparison to the four billion people sometimes referred to as the Base of the Pyramid. This group represents more than half of the global population in emerging economies who live on less than $2 USD per day.
So the question is, how do we do we provide equitable access to quality education for those in the poorest parts of the world?
Let’s look at Haiti as an example. There are certainly people in Haiti who have access to the Internet, either through data plans on their phones/tablets or through wired connections. However, these tend to be a wealthy minority. 80% of the approximately ten million Haitians live at or below the poverty line—$2/day—and 54% live in extreme poverty—less than $1/day (Source: CIA World Factbook: Haiti). In Haiti, years of absence of a public school system to speak of drove the emergence of a large number of private schools, most of which are unaffordable by the average family who are challenged to come up with the money to send a child to school (never mind more than one child). Many times, it’s even a challenge to pay for their school uniform (yes, every child in Haiti has to have a school uniform). It’s hard to imagine never going to school because of the inability to afford a $15 uniform.
In this context, how can one be reasonably expected to purchase the tools that make online learning possible?
However, our recent trip to Haiti illustrated that this is not the complete story. Instead, we experienced cases of resourcefulness, relationships, and resilience that provide examples of a new way forward for Haiti.
I have likened the opportunity for online learning in Haiti and other emerging nations to that of the opportunity cellular phones brought to African nations. Less than 3% of rural settlements in Africa are estimated to have fixed-line networks to support communications. Mobile telephony brought the ability to leap frog using technology, in that numerous countries now have over 90% coverage with mobile networks (Source: Telecommunication/ICT Markets and Trends in Africa 2007).
Online learning could bring similar opportunities for education that mobile technology has brought for communications. While in Haiti, I talked to school children who walked seven miles to and from school each day over roads that could only be described as treacherous. This is just one challenge of distance and access that could be significantly lessened through online learning.
So, what can we learn from our experience in Haiti? An exploratory trip to Haiti certainly ignites the mind on the challenges of providing access to high-quality, personalized learning for the next four billion people.
As companies like D2L and university partners consider “education for all,” we need to continue to engage our partners in the poorest parts of the world. Technology can help leapfrog some of the challenges of ensuring that every child receives an education: Modern infrastructure for technology is being built in Haiti (access to 3G and 4G networks is common throughout the country), $100 tablets are now being built within the county, and data plans are becoming more affordable. All of these structures allow online learning for students to be developed and professional development opportunities for teachers to take place.
Now, we have to figure out how to bridge the gap between the technology infrastructure that exists and the limited means people have to access it. However, throughout history and across global contexts, social innovators have never allowed obstacles to deter them from their goals. It will be exciting to be a part of the global transformation of how the world learns.