I’ve always thought of the U.S. as the leader in digital learning, representing the most adventurous innovations. But lately I’ve realized my perception may be flawed by a false sense of American exceptionalism.

In Canada, for example, about two-thirds of colleges offer online degrees—and many have for years. While here in the U.S., a far smaller number grant degrees online.

I thought it would be good to do some digging to explore a more nuanced appreciation of the status of virtual instruction outside the U.S.

At the very dawn of digital education, Canada introduced one of the very first learning management systems, WebCT, a pivotal application, invented at the University of British Columbia in 1997. Branded eventually as Blackboard, it was the market leader in the U.S. and Canada for some time, and even today the company is in second place, with DTL Brightspace, a Canadian firm, close behind.

Years before the University of Phoenix launched its first online course in the U.S., powered by CompuServe, an early online service provider, the University of Toronto, achieved the historical distinction of running the world’s first-ever completely online course five years earlier in 1986. Since those early days, two million Canadian students avoided COVID-19 danger, continuing their studies remotely during the pandemic at Canada’s fully online colleges—including Athabasca University in Alberta and at highly ranked colleges like McGill University in Montreal.

South of the U.S. border, Tecnológico de Monterrey, a private university, founded in 1943 by a group of wealthy local business executives, supports 33 campuses across the nation and in 15 countries abroad. Commonly known as Monterrey Tech, it broadcast its first class more than 20 years ago via satellite. Today, its Virtual University enrolls 12,000 students. Another 26,000 study at a lower-cost affiliate, Tech Millennium. That college requires its 60,000 traditional students—many of whom come from other Latin American countries—to take at least one online course before they graduate. Following Monterrey’s success, other Mexican higher ed institutions have launched new online programs mirroring Monterey Tech’s model.

But the situation in the rest of Latin America is less ambitious, with fairly low online learning penetration in the region’s colleges and universities, a troubling plight found throughout the underdeveloped world. In Latin America, only about 15 percent of higher ed institutions offer hybrid options, and only about 20 percent deliver fully online courses. Unfortunately for students, only a third of these are accredited.

In Europe, most colleges moved to remote learning as the COVID-19 pandemic forced health restrictions. Even before the crisis, practically all European higher ed institutions offered digitally enhanced learning, and more than half were delivering or planning to introduce online degrees. In the U.S., it took the pandemic to propel the online rush, only recently leading to half of all American higher ed students taking at least one online course.

In the United Kingdom in particular, the Open University is among the greatest online learning success stories. Launched in 1969 as a distance-learning college, broadcasting courses on television, it is the largest university in Britain and one of the biggest in Europe, with more than 175,000 students and more than two million alumni.

In light of simmering U.S. conflicts with China and Russia, I thought it useful to take a look at digital education in those two countries. The contrast between the two is quite extraordinary, with Russia forging ahead as China holds back. Since the Bolshevik Revolution, first the Soviet Union, and now the Russian Federation, pushed remote learning as key to its goal of promoting mass education. To my surprise, I discovered that more than half of its 7.4 million higher ed students are in online programs, supported by a thriving system little known in the West. China, on the other hand, offers no online degrees and is unlikely to introduce any for another several years.

Poor Internet Access Cripples Online Higher Ed

When the pandemic careened across the globe in spring 2020, U.S. higher ed responded swiftly by opening online in a few weeks , a feat made possible only because privileged American secondary intuitions long ago introduced digital access in nearly every college in the nation. As campuses locked their gates out of fear of infection, most American college students rushed to their laptops to study from home.

Elsewhere, not everyone was as fortunate. During the global crisis, 1.6 billion young people in 161 countries were not in college. Shockingly, without internet access, COVID-19 locked out close to 80 percent of the world’s enrolled students. Africa was hit hardest, cruelly, with 82 percent of college students in sub-Saharan Africa without internet access.

Most college students in the U.S. continued to attend class remotely as the virus erupted and receded like storm waves, largely unaware that so many elsewhere were locked out. Globally, the greatest obstacle to universal online higher ed is not stubborn academic officers who reject digital education as being inferior substitutes for face-to-face instruction, but poor internet access, mostly in Africa and elsewhere in the Global South.

Worldwide, more than half of households have an internet connection. In the developed world, nearly 90 percent are connected, but in the least developed countries only about 20 percent are plugged in. With the lowest internet access in the world in sub-Saharan Africa, average broadband penetration is at a mere 2 percent, with nearly 90 percent of students without computers at home South Africa, the continent’s bright spot, is the strongest early adopter of digital education with 63 percent of the population online.

Phil Hill, a prominent edtech consultant, told me that because Africans are forced to introduce mobile, not as an add-on, but as a priority, “from day one, Africans optimize digital learning for mobile. They are quite resourceful in ways we haven’t seen in the developed world.”

Cell phone use is as common today in South Africa and Nigeria as in the U.S. While smartphones are not as widely available, the devices are beginning to proliferate in several nations, including 34 percent in South Africa. Compared to building hugely expensive schools on ground, virtual campuses with direct mobile access are much cheaper and a far more rapid way forward. Some observers predict that mobile learning will be the principal mode in Africa in this decade.

Countries that have seriously invested in web infrastructure found themselves with a major advantage during the pandemic. Take the small Baltic country, Estonia. Long before the coronavirus invaded, Estonia made high-speed internet access a national priority—one of the first countries in the world to declare internet access a human right. And its colleges were some of the quickest to move online during COVID-19.

The pandemic taught us that the internet is no longer a nice-to-have, but decisively, a need-to have, an essential utility, like electric power and running water. Virtual learning, too, must be as ubiquitous as conventional higher education, especially for students too far from college campuses to attend face to face, and now for many in our post-industrial economy, forced to work to earn college degrees.

Clarification: This article has been updated to note that Open Universities in Asia offer education in a range of formats, not just online education.

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