Illustration by Dhabia AlMansoori

Online Degrees Could Be Game Changers for Equitable Education

It is time educational systems make space for new ways of thinking and learning, without trying to exploit and capitalize on students trying to get an education.

Exactly one year ago, millions of students around the world were forced to adapt to new learning environments overnight. With school closures in almost 165 countries, the education of nearly 87 percent of the Earth’s student population was disrupted due to the Covid-19 pandemic. As university campuses were abandoned and thousands of international students hurried back to their home countries, many people started to recognize the convenience and necessity of remote learning.
For years, the voices of activists calling for alternative educational systems have been buried by institutions who profit off of on-campus instruction fees. If there is anything positive about this pandemic, it’s that it showed the arguments against online education for what they truly are: materialistic, capitalist and hypocritical.
The debate about online education did not only begin with the rise of the pandemic. In fact, over the past decade, educational systems have been slowly integrating technological solutions to provide remote learning. In 2019 alone, global investment in educational technology — a sector which pertains to the infusion of technology and education — reached $18.66 billion, with $312.2 million invested in 13 legacy digital learning companies and $3.67 billion invested in around 120 AI-based learning companies. With the rise of education technology giants like Udemy, Coursera and Andela, people have started realizing the need for alternative educational opportunities.
While some students advocate for online education because they can sleep through lectures or watch them at twice the speed, others have voiced their appreciation for how online education has helped deconstruct barriers. Attending a higher education institution is a massive financial burden for millions of students around the world. From the cost of tuition and books to living and transportation costs, thousands of students graduate university with mountains of debt. For centuries, students who wanted to pursue higher education were forced, either because of degree prestige or job market demands, to attain degrees from in-person institutions.
Prior to the pandemic, many institutions did not have online degree opportunities because they claimed that the essence of the education would be lost. However, people are now graduating, having taken online courses from those very same programs, proving that they’ve been able to successfully encompass the essential learning materials of the courses.
When the average price between an online course and an in-person one is compared, the difference cannot go unnoticed. The estimated annual cost for a year of on-campus learning at an average university in Florida is $42,768, while the estimated online cost for the same degree would be $21,000. As more professors and students experiment with online courses, many are realizing that there is often no real need to pay almost double the amount for similar content.
Additionally, over 5.3 million students were studying internationally in 2017. The number has most certainly increased over the past few years. And yet, millions of gifted students struggle every year to find affordable opportunities abroad, attain student visas, or leave their homes and families behind. Many of these talented students end up attending less-recognized institutions in their home countries or drop higher education entirely, which significantly lowers their access to prestigious jobs. With online education, the obstacles of accessibility are significantly decreased, allowing more students to pursue opportunities they would normally be denied.
Alternative education models will not only disrupt discriminatory pedagogies that institutions have been following for centuries, but they will also allow for more flexible and accommodating modes of learning. Adjusting to online learning models, for example, gives young mothers a chance to complete their education without having to leave their children behind. They allow boys who are compelled to work right after school the opportunity to pursue their passions while supporting their families. They empower disabled people to study without having to worry about special accommodations. There are a number of more examples of how they strike down barriers otherwise prohibiting such an education.
This is not to say that online education does not come with its own challenges. While it does provide a more accessible education, it could potentially be strenuous in the long-run, and certainly isn’t for everyone. Due to its reliance on technology, many students and educators have difficulties with concentration and productivity levels. The fact that students have to spend many hours facing a computer can also lower their engagement, restrict their social interactions and hinder their practical development in various subjects. Additionally, many students may not have adequate access to technology or healthy learning environments. This is why it is important to consider online education as an alternative — not necessarily a replacement or substitute.
There’s no doubt that every mode of educational instruction has its own opportunities and challenges. But it’s time that educators, policymakers and large corporations realize that alternative educational opportunities — like online degrees or online courses, can adequately prepare students for the job market. The pandemic has continually proved that with the right technologies and systems, everything can be adapted to be more inclusive and equitable.
It’s time educational systems make room for new ways of thinking and learning, without trying to exploit and capitalize on students’ desire to learn.
Malak Abdel-Gaffar is a staff writer and photographer. Email her at
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