Teaching and Learning Forum 99 [ Contents ]

Online external education: The Internet - A tool of equity or oppression?

Tim Houweling
Edith Cowan University

The Oxford Dictionary defines equity as fairness, or justice. Among university educators the word "equity" immediately conjures thoughts of access to education, or rather the lack of access to education by certain groups within society. In University the word "equity" has almost become synonymous with a lack of access to a University education because of the students socioeconomic status. However Australian universities are confronted with two important equity groups, namely those from low socioeconomic backgrounds and rural and isolated areas (Western, 1998). "People from low socioeconomic backgrounds and from rural and isolated ares are still significantly under-represented in higher education (indeed, access and participation rates for rural and isolated students actually declined between 1991 and 1995)" (West, 1998:20). As the Higher Education Council points out "the isolated group is one of the most disadvantaged equity groups in terms of access and the most under-represented group in terms of participation." (West, 1998:92).

Equity means treating students fairly. Fair treatment however is not necessarily equal treatment. For example it may be equal treatment to require students to travel to China to complete a unit but it is not fair treatment. Some students may easily comply with this requirement while others cannot comply. Although the treatment is equal, the effect is discriminatory. This places us at the heart of the dilemma and question I pose: "Is the Internet a tool that can be used to address equity or does it cause equity problems?"

The two important equity issues (socioeconomic issues and geographic isolation) confronting Australian Universities need to be addressed by special measures. Just as it would not be appropriate to build more Universities to address equity issues confronting the socioeconomically disadvantaged students so to it would not be appropriate to address the geographic isolation of students by simply providing more units in the external mode. Universities need to consider the needs of the different equity groups that have been identified and address the particular needs of students.

So what does equity have to do with online external education? The argument is this; to access online education the user must have access to the Internet, and this is where the problem begins. To complete external education by way of the Internet some students may be able to comply easily while others may not. This dilemma was also recognised in the final report of the Review of Higher Education Financing and Policy Committee where it states: "Some expressed concern that a move to computer-based learning materials might disadvantage people who do not have access to computers or who do not have a high degree of familiarity with computers, especially older people. We are convinced that technologies offer significant opportunities to higher education institutions to enhance the quality, accessibility and cost effectiveness of the higher education teaching and research..."(West 1998:60). The committee does not deal with this issue at length and seems to deal with the concern that computer based learning may disadvantage some students by saying that the advantages far outweighs the disadvantages enhancing the quality, accessibility and cost effectiveness. The question in essence remains: Does the Internet make studying at Universities more accessible?

It is no doubt clear that a special measure that may be adopted by a university to address a particular equity concern may not address other equity issues. Special measures that are adopted to address access by socio-economically disadvantaged students will not necessary address the needs of rural and isolated students. Offering education by way of the Internet does not address the needs of students who come from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds however it is a tool that goes a considerable way to addressing the needs of rural and isolated students. The two major equity issues confronting Australian Universities must be addressed in different ways, although it is possible that other students benefit from Universities addressing equity issues, however that does not cause discrimination to those who are not able to benefit from the special measure that has been adopted to address an equity issue. Let me give you an example from another area of life. The construction of a lift next to a stairway benefits not only those in wheel chairs, but also many other persons, for example parents with children in prams, the elderly and a whole other group of user who for what ever reason choose to use a lift. The simple fact that a lift has provided other groups of people benefits does not mean that those who now use the stairs are disadvantaged. Addressing the disadvantage of one group by implementing special measures does not mean that others are now disadvantaged.

Although students may not have access to the Internet at home, this does not mean that the Internet is not available to them. The Internet is available at any University or public library, and most universities offer students cheap or free dial up access. For those students who cannot access the Internet at their local public library, university libraries, or at home, external units may be offered in a variety of ways, including offering the unit to the student on CD ROM.

Strategies that are implemented to assist rural and remote students participate in higher education do not create equity issues, but go some way to addressing the equity issues confronting rural and remote students. In the 90s it is not an option whether to make use of emerging technology it is necessary that Universities "are committed to making the best possible use of the emerging technologies to ensure Australia provides high quality education to its domestic and international students wherever they are located" (West 1998:45).

The committee reviewing Higher Education financing and policy noted "we detect an unwillingness in the sector to do what is necessary for higher education to realise its potential to become a world-class industry in the next century. So that Australian Universities can realise this potential the committee recommends urgent action ... to increase their capacity to invest in information and communications technology" (West 1998:101). The failure by University educators to use the Internet to offer rural and remote students access to education may create an issue of equity. "The technologies are opening up a vast range of exciting possibilities for improving the way in which we can meet the learning needs of Australians and project Australian higher education in the international arena" (West 1998:60).

The Internet does not create an equity issue but must be used by educators to address one of the biggest equity issues in Australia that is geographic isolation. If Australian Universities do not offer remote students courses on the Internet other Universities outside Australia will. The Internet presents opportunity to those educators who are willing to use it as a tool.

The Internet the place for learning?

I rank the Internet to be one of the great events in advancing education. The committee reviewing higher education financing and policy recognised this and said: " we expect technological changes, notable the growth of the Internet and the World wide Web, to have pervasive impacts on our institutions and personal lives, flowing inevitably into changes in community expectations of higher education and the way in which the business of higher education is conducted" (West 1998:55). The Internet facilitates the exchange of information, it assists the advancement of technological ideas, and is increasingly being used in various industries and trade. Just as the advent of the city facilitated huge advances in learning, so to does the Internet facilitate huge advances in learning. Over time the Internet will have a dramatic impact on education. Just as the development of cities advanced learning so too the Internet will advance learning, the Internet should not be seen as an enemy of education but a tool. With the development of the cities people could come together in one place in large numbers to listen to a speaker. The city became known as the place for learning, trade, and advances in technology. Cities became the icon of the beginning of the modernist era. The Internet is fast becoming the place for information, learning and trade.

The cities were not without critics and the cities thriving sex trade caused cities as a whole to be damned by some. Like the Internet the cities had negative elements that were recognised, but they also served as the centre for information, learning and trade. The city experienced expediential growth, progress was embraced without concern for those who did not embrace progress. The Internet is very much in its developmental stage. As we head towards the year 2000 it is surprising that so few courses are offered on the Internet. It has not yet become the place for learning, however in the future we may certainly expect the Internet to become a place for learning, a global University. There are three main reasons for this:

  1. Access to the Internet is cheap, and available anywhere.
  2. Placing information online for students is cheap and easy.
  3. The Internet has a vast array of resources and houses the most up to date information in a particular area.
The Internet is becoming the place for learning. However the learning that occurs on the Internet is more often then not of an informal rather then a formal nature. The Internet must become part of any students' well rounded education. Universities must recognise the benefits of the Internet and be at the forefront of using new technology. In many respects it may be argued that the Internet is the icon of the post-modern era in which we live. An education in 1999 would not be complete if the student were not exposed to the Internet in some fashion.

The Internet is not a tool of oppression but a tool that can be used to address equity issues in higher education. The limits on the use of the Internet as a tool for education is only as limited as educators will allow it to be. The Internet presents opportunity, I encourage all academics to take part in addressing one of the largest equity issues facing Australian students, make your units available online in 99, if the Internet is not seen as opportunity then it will present as a threat. The Internet is not a tool of oppression but a tool of equity.


  1. Western, J., McMillan, J. & Durrington, D. (1998). Differential Access to Higher Education: The measurement of Socioeconomic Status Rurality and Isolation. A report commissioned by the Department of Employment Education Training and Youth Affairs. Canberra.

  2. West, R. (1998). Learning for life. Review of Higher Education Financing and Policy. A report commissioned by the Department of Employment Education Training and Youth Affairs. Canberra. pp20.

Author: Tim Houweling is a barrister and solicitor practising in environmental, planning and local government law at McLeod & Co. He is also a sessional teacher in law subjects at Edith Cowan University. Phone: 9383 3133. Email: howeling@cleo.murdoch.edu.au

Please cite as: Houweling, T. (1999). Online external education: The Internet - A tool of equity or oppression? In K. Martin, N. Stanley and N. Davison (Eds), Teaching in the Disciplines/ Learning in Context. Proceedings of the 8th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, The University of Western Australia, February 1999. Perth: UWA. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1999/houweling.html

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