How Online Education Helps Underserved Students

Rob Jonkers

Taking an online course seemed like a no-brainer to students who first learned of the option. It was inviting to be able to study from the comfort of a dorm room rather than trudging to class. Yet few of the early adopters realized they were helping to change education forever.

Today, enrollment in online courses is rolling steady. Online education saw increased enrollment between 2000 and 2010. The pace has slowed since then, with only slight increases since 2012, but there is no sign students are turning away from online education.

Advancements in technology enable instructors in America to reach students where educational opportunities are non-existent. Simple technologies we take for granted can shrink the urban/rural divide. Working adults no longer need to stress over jobs impeding their educational advancement. Disabled students need no longer worry that an institution will not meet their needs.

Distance education helps rural students

In some states, the performance of rural students falls far behind that of their suburban peers. Many factors play a role; for example, rural students don’t perform as well as suburban students when education funding is low.

An Education Week article that observed student performance noted that students do better when online education and high-speed Internet are available. The Enhanced Rural Online Learning project, a study at University of North Carolina, showed that online education improved the performance of rural students.

Online and digital learning programs can help underserved students in the United States as well as those in countries with populations far removed from urban centers. The Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya currently helps 180,000 refugees battling infectious diseases, dust storms, and malaria. Over half of the population comprises school-aged children.

Organizations partner with Kenya and the United Nations to care for these children. This includes the children’s education. British telecom company Vodafone launched an innovative solution: the Instant Classroom.

The Instant Classroom is a laptop with 25 networked tablets, all pre-loaded with educational software. The classroom-in-a-box contains a projector, speaker, and hot spot modem. The Vodafone volunteers also delivered e-Readers pre-loaded with books to enable online education without the online component, important in an area where Internet connectivity is poor. The Instant Classroom concept also provides blended learning, as a teacher is present for a traditional classroom setting while using mobile technology.

Online education helps working students

Students who work while attaining a high school or college degree may not perform their best. A 2005 study showed working hampered the academic performance of high school students, regardless of whether how many hours they spent working. College students who worked full-time also received lower scores than those who worked fewer hours. Additionally, students who worked longer hours tended to drop out of college. Some returned to finish their degree later; others did not.

Some students, such as those who are supporting a family or who are maintaining a career, have little choice between work and education. Many either drop out completely or reduce class loads. Online education lets working students learn at their own pace, as they can study anywhere at any time.

Online education helps disabled students

The Center for Online Learning examined the state of online education and disabled persons and found that well-designed online education can be a boon to students with special needs. Individualized education programs may benefit most from data collecting and analysis.

The flexibility inherent in distance learning programs benefits disabled students by allowing them to review material on demand. These students often need more support to perform to the best of their abilities in the classroom.

The Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits discrimination against students with disabilities and requires academic institutions to provide reasonable accommodations to such students. Materials posted online must be accessible to blind or hearing impaired students, for example. Instructors should provide students the ability to capture streaming lectures. Digital technology can help instructors more easily accommodate students with disabilities.

Online education helps gifted students

We don’t often think of gifted students as underserved, but some cash-strapped districts are finding it difficult to accommodate students with advanced learning capabilities. Some K-12 schools may not offer advance placement (AP) courses, for example, and others may not have the funds to provide appropriate materials. A lack of attention to “differentiation” may trouble some students. (Differentiation refers to the notion that different students learn at different speeds.)

Online education can also provide learning opportunities for advanced students. Dual enrollment programs, for example, allow high school students to take online college courses. Students in remote rural communities can enroll in these courses, and advanced students can pursue their academic interests by taking special classes online.

Helping underserved students thrive

Advances in technology can bridge many gaps. Rural students can access the same opportunities as their suburban or urban peers. Disabled students may have an easier time learning in a well-structured online learning program. Students with financial limitations can take advantage of flexible schedules that enable them to hold a job. Underserved students benefit as well.

Overall, online education helps serve those previously left behind.

For more information, please visit Higher Education. Reimagined for the new economy.


Rob Jonkers

About Rob Jonkers

Rob Jonkers is a solution director for Higher Education & Research (HER) at SAP. He is responsible for enabling and driving the HER cloud solution portfolio.