Online education hasn’t worked out quite the way it was supposed to. Nearly a decade ago the prophets of online education decreed that it would revolutionize learning around the world.

No longer would students be confined physically and mentally to the classroom: Voila! The Internet!


Students would be able to communicate with peers in other countries, learn subjects from experts when none existed nearby and proceed through courses at their own pace. In short, students would be empowered.

My own limited experience with online education has not made me a convert. In fact, the versions I’ve encountered seem downright lackluster.

I remember many of my friends taking online classes in college. Instead of studying for tests, they turned to Google for all of the answers. I don’t even know if they bothered to read the assigned material.

Other students in those classes took it seriously, I’m sure, but the online models I’ve seen do not inspire, provoke or enrich, qualities that distinguish high-caliber classroom learning and create critical thinkers.

I’m still open to having my mind changed about online education, and I still plan to take multiple online courses (or Massively Open Online Courses, MOOCs) in the future, but I don’t think it will revolutionize the US education system anytime soon, especially when the classroom experience has the potential to be so strong.

But online education wasn’t pitched as a radical antidote to the education model in wealthy countries. From the start, advocates had their sights set on unlocking access to education in the developing world, where schools are, at best, inconsistent.

And online education does hold immense promise for high-poverty countries.

So what are the hurdles to and opportunities for online education in areas of high poverty around the world?

1) Resources

Schools in impoverished areas around the world tend to lack resources, if schools even exist in the first place.

This means that books, writing supplies and calculators are rare and teachers are grossly underpaid.   

Image: Flickr: World Bank Photo Collection

Families are often in no position to fill the resource gap, either because they don’t have the money or have no way to procure the needed goods.

In such an environment, how can online education thrive?

Before online education can be seriously considered, a working computer needs to be accessible. And then a reliable Internet connection is needed.

It is estimated that 3 out of 5 people in the developing world do not have access to the Internet.

Plus, if students do not have basic literacy skills, then online education will be meaningless, which makes ensuring early schooling even more vital.

For example, the literacy rate in Afghanistan for girls is about 24 percent. The 76 percent who could most benefit from online education, well, they can’t.

However, computers can still have a dramatic effect in resource-deficient areas.

This is the idea behind the “Hole in the Wall” experiment. A computer scientist embedded a computer in the wall of a building and gave it reliable internet access.

He wanted to see if children in the area would figure out how to use it.

To his delight, curious kids soon began experimenting with the device and learned how to browse by the end of the first day.

While this is an isolated example, it has broader implications. If computers were similarly set up in other communities, classrooms or homes, eager young minds would soon begin to learn how to use them since computers are intuitive and interactive.

Also, programs from organizations such as World Possible are designed to work without the internet by sharing curriculums via flash drives.

2) Customization

If the resources for online education are secured, then content has to be tailored to the needs of each student.

This could mean cultural adaptation so that phrases, details and expectations are relevant. A program devised for students in the US may not be suitable for those in India.

Partnerships can be useful in reducing confusions and complications. For instance, a partnership between African Virtual University and the Planet Earth Institute creates programs specifically for African students.

One gifted student in Mongolia who excelled in online MIT courses is now working with the elite institution to improve the user experience for students in developing countries.

Customization could mean adapting to proficiency by adding or subtracting the amount of content in each section, or increasing or decreasing the difficulty.

Many online learning programs are geared toward college or high school students, which may be out of reach for early learners.


For instance, Coursera, the largest provider of online education, has 11 million students worldwide, a third of which come from the developing world. Of this third, 80 percent have a college degree. That’s not exactly a sign of empowering the worst-off.

Finally, personalization could mean adapting to technology. If a student has an old computer with a weak connection, then presentation may have to be pared down so progress isn’t painfully slow.

After all, how can a student stream a lecture on a spotty connection?

3) Blending online and classroom learning

Online and classroom learning programs are often framed as zero-sum competitors. Online learning is looking to overthrow classroom learning, while classrooms don’t want to cede ground.

And this does play out in reality. Online classes are often used as an expedient way to cut school budgets while maintaining the illusion of breadth and depth.

Some commentators worry that an overreliance on MOOCs developed by Western institutions could disincentivize investment in local education, which would undercut the advances promised by the “blended-learning” model.

But these two modes of learning can and should be complementary.


If the various families of a community do not individually have the money to buy a computer, a community computer can be procured for the classroom. Students can then share this computer according to a schedule and after-school hours.

Online lesson plans can also be curated by an in-person teacher who can clarify problems, determine when to advance and expound upon information to give students a fuller understanding.

This is how the Khan Academy works. Students work in groups to explore online curricula and then teachers answer questions and devise additional content.  

Coursera also embraces blended learning. The organization has enlisted U.S. embassies in more than 40 countries to host weekly discussions for students enrolled in MOOCs as a way to boost engagement and understanding.

4) Real-world benefits

The main benefit of education is that it expands horizons. But many people also want their education to lead to a stable life.

A traditional education often provides a degree and connections, which can then be parlayed into work.

While a student may learn just as much online as she would in the classroom, there isn’t a guarantee that connections and accreditations will be gained.


For online education to achieve universal appeal, programs have to be linked to physical learning centers and mentors who can guide students through their education and into a meaningful, stable job or other opportunities.

This is obviously the biggest hurdle, because online education providers cannot suddenly transform a country’s economy or social system.

However, companies can do more to link students to opportunities, such as by providing job training, local collaborator networks or even paths to college.


More than 31 million students around the world do not receive a primary education and another 62 million miss out on secondary schooling.

Around 775 million people are illiterate. All three of these figures disproportionately affect girls.

Educating girls & women is the key to ending extreme poverty for a variety of reasons.

But too often girls receive a thwarted education. Sometimes families can only send one child to school (boy gets priority), other times cultural stigmas and even violence may pull a student from school.

When girls in poverty do not receive an education, they are far more likely to repeat the cycle of poverty they grew up in when they have children.

If girls do receive an education, this toxic cycle can be shattered and girls can rise into the women they were always meant to be.

When so much of the world receives shoddy or zero education, it seems wrong to fuss about the details of a method that can create a massive expansion of learning.

But before online learning players can achieve the results they dream of, hurdles have to be overcome.

In the meantime, these hurdles can be tackled through increased investments in education.

You can TAKE ACTION NOW by calling on world leaders to bring education to the poorest people around the world.

Who knows, maybe online education will become a key component of future investments.

As for me, I’ll give MOOCs another try--without resorting to Google.


Defeat Poverty

Will online education ever revolutionize learning?

By Joe McCarthy