eLearning and the Digital Divide

By Arya M. Bhat, Intern at iZen

August 10, 2022

eLearning and the benefits

The 20th century has seen incredible technological progress throughout society, as more and more of the world we live in is dependent on technology in order to create more powerful and efficient results. This has been increasingly true in the education sector, as electronic learning, or eLearning has emerged and completely transformed the way we learn.

Despite these developments, structural inequities continue to plague our society that make eLearning a privilege to many students with oppressed identities and elevate those already carrying power and privilege.

To delve further into this issue, we must understand what eLearning is and why it is uniquely key to a student’s success. eLearning has various benefits for its users. eLearning is meant to be an adaptive, interactive tool that suits each student’s needs. This means it allows for flexible schedules, unlimited places to take classes, and the highest level of comfort one can have while learning. This often results in a greater willingness to learn new concepts that one might not otherwise participate in if it were in person, although e-learning brings the same benefits to school classrooms as well. eLearning also has proven cognitive benefits when grasping new concepts and reviewing old ones. It allows for techniques such as “microlearning” where individuals can learn in small chunks and at their own pace. This promotes healthy study habits such as consistency and motivation, which are key factors for active recall and long-term retention to be successful. By developing this level of comfort and consistency over a period of time rather than cramming, it allows for the knowledge one learns to truly be comprehended. Spread out learning plays a critical role in ensuring the neurons in one’s brain can fire properly by forming stronger links in order to retain information more effectively. The more learners engage with the content and practice, the stronger links their neurons will form, as well as external connections they can make with the real world so that the “aha!” moment arrives. Ultimately, eLearning is a critical factor in creating greater opportunities and inspiration for all its users in whatever way they see fit.

The divide in the US

Despite all the benefits eLearning brings to the table, it has one major drawback: access. Access to online learning in the US is skewed disproportionately. A survey done in 2020 by the US Census Bureau using 4 weeks of data found that one in ten of the poorest children in the US had limited or no access to technology for learning.

12.2 percent of respondents from households making under $25,000 annually said they were not able to supply their children with digital devices, while 9.8 percent said the same for internet access. Growing up in poverty translates into other issues, which often mean low-income families are forced to choose food over the highest quality of education their child can get, which in this day and age means having the ability to go online. In fact, one in four children living in poverty and famine are seldom or never able to access the internet.

Education disparities worsened further with the COVID-19 pandemic, as Black, Hispanic, and Asian students are around fifteen percentage points more likely than white students to be in a “remote-only” school district. This problematizes rapidly when we look at the strong correlation between access to online education and race. 13.2 percent of Black respondents in Los Angeles said they rarely or never had a learning device, while just 0.1 percent of White respondents in Los Angeles said the same. In other regions of the U.S. such as Detroit, this phenomenon affects one in five Black households. When students of color aren’t able to have in-person learning, while also not having access to learning devices, it jeopardizes their chance at a stable education and continues cycles of inequality that constantly push minorities to the bottom without giving them an equal playing field to their white counterparts. Latinx, AI/AN (American Indian/Alaska Native), and Black students are disproportionately more likely to face other remote learning challenges through pre-existing household risk factors that are exacerbated by COVID-19. For example, an American Community Survey over four years found that sixteen percent of AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander )students are linguistically isolated, in comparison to the one percent of white students that face similar challenges. The problem is compounded when eLearning fails to have accessibility features, such as translators for students with language barriers. The survey also found that 28% of Latinx students and 27% of AI/AN students live in crowded conditions, in comparison to the seven percent of white students in the same situation, making it harder to focus and perform at their best.

eLearning can also be difficult for children with disabilities, which is especially true for those who are from economically disadvantaged families. For small children, this often means the need for constant monitoring to stay focused. However, many working-class parents don’t have the privilege of working from home to be there for them. They cannot arrange for $50 an hour tutors or specialists that can ensure their children get the best quality care and education possible while they aren’t there. Meanwhile, other children with disabilities do not have digital literacy or the online learning skills needed to engage with curriculum and testing in eLearning. Other accessibility arrangements that can easily be made in person are much more difficult and often aren’t done in eLearning, such as adjusted timing to complete assignments and material in accessible formatting like Braille. Many instructors in virtual learning are also unequipped to meet the needs of students with disabilities and execute strategies for online teaching which work effectively for each individual.

With greater access to eLearning, it has the potential to be utilized for reducing disparities. eLearning can be used as a catalyst to improve graduation rates and higher education outcomes for historically marginalized students. For example, many low-income families are not able to afford the same quality of education that private schools, one-on-one classes, and personalized learning plans offer. eLearning could be a tool to solve that by using automated bots and computer programs that require no external instructor or operator, so that it is free but still offers the same quality of education and advice. For tools like this to be prioritized in developing and distributing, teaching institutions must first acknowledge the disparities that exist between their student populations, and begin to adopt strategies that are actively working to reduce them. Digital tools should have clear instructional guides and content that are accessible in various languages and formats for students with disabilities. Online learning environments should also be engaging and welcome students of different cultural, social, and economic backgrounds through sensitivity training for instructors and support forums for students who need it. eLearning can also truly benefit from collaborative environments that not only build community but also enhance the learning experience and encourage students to gain respect and empathy for one another. In this way, incremental changes can be made to better the online learning experience of marginalized students and promote growth. However, the most pressing and complex issue being the lack of internet access in many homes is one that requires a more complex solution. Ongoing developments in LMS (Learning Management Systems) are being done so that content can reach populations who have limited or unstable access to the internet. Other teaching establishments need to keep pushing and providing greater assistance to students with limited technological resources at home. Overall, these developments are critical in continuing to fight the systemic inequalities that we see in education, and how that translates into higher education and job disparities.

The situation worldwide

The disparity of eLearning is non-unique however to just the US, as about half of the world does not have adequate access to the Internet. After centuries of colonization and resource depletion, the global south has the highest concentration of people living in poverty in the world.

Sub- saharan Africa and South Asia account for 84.3 percent of the poor, and about forty percent of people in Sub-saharan Africa live in extreme poverty, or on less than $1.90 a day.

When looked at through a global lens, many regions in the global south are struck disproportionately with poverty and are therefore forcibly disconnected from more privileged regions of the world’s digital communication platforms. This has several consequences on interpersonal day-to-day lives for the average person, but also on the overall country’s ability to engage with technological advancements the rest of the world is making, therefore maintaining systems of oppression that constantly allow the Western world to rise above and profit off of the global south’s struggle to catch up.

On a day-to-day basis, children in the global south have limited access to the Internet and other electronic learning tools to solidify and expand their knowledge. A 2020 UNICEF report found that two-thirds – or 1.3 billion – of the world’s school-age children have no Internet access at home. Lacking connectivity to the rest of the world limits young people and their ability to connect online, socially isolating them from the world. COVID-19 has only further exacerbated these consequences, as many schools were forced to close down without e-learning options due to expenses. Lack of Internet access is quite literally preventing future generations from getting their education, therefore taking their bright futures away from them.

It’s important to recognize, however, that these inequalities are not purely a problem because of the inability to virtually learn in times of a pandemic, but also simply because of competition in the 21st century. Advanced technology is necessary for countries in the global south to compete in the world economy, and be able to financially support themselves while continuously growing and thriving.


Education is the most critical tool for raising a country’s standard of living through sustainable long-term progress. eLearning is a scalable and relatively affordable way of doing so but is simply unattainable to a significant part of the world, due to a lack of access to connectivity and devices. This is a huge disparity issue as it puts almost 1.3 billion children from low-income countries and rural regions at risk of missing out on their education, and therefore once again continues the same cycle of poverty.

The world we live in today has seen incredible technological developments and opportunities through groundbreaking solutions such as eLearning that have been cut from the same fabric that constantly benefits those with privilege and power above all else. Without significant intervention, the divide will only grow into a canyon, continuing in a vicious cycle. For society to start taking steps to fight inequality all across the globe, eLearning needs to be accessible, inclusive, and adaptable to break out of the cycle of poverty to ensure that all students have the bright futures they deserve.


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