Inequality as Higher Education Goes Online

  • Laura CzerniewiczEmail author
Part of the Research in Networked Learning book series (RINL)


With the promises of networked learning as a base, this chapter describes changes in the higher education (HE) sector, using inequality as a frame. It provides a brief overview of particular aspects of the reconfiguring landscape where education itself has become intrinsically digitally mediated and disaggregation an important trend. It notes the global shift online and locates the MOOC trend in the broader curriculum provision terrain. Other important considerations include the ways that globalisation and marketisation are playing out, including in terms of the geopolitical differences and contested power relations. The paper then reviews the rise in inequality across the world, noting the UK’s position in Europe and the extreme situation in South Africa, as well as the different approaches in an information age to addressing inequality: through market-led and commons-led approaches. Therborn’s equality/inequality framework is then used to interrogate this increasingly online Higher Education (HE) landscape using three types of inequality: vital inequality, resource inequality and existential inequality. Vital inequality shows how educational inequality is a life-and-death issue. Resource inequality includes a range of capitals: economic disparities (e.g. costs of data and availability of connectivity), discrepancies of cultural capital (e.g. digital literacies), and the value of institutional capital as new forms of certification jockey for legitimacy. Existential inequality, the most neglected, comprises five dimensions: self-development, autonomy, freedom, dignity and respect. Considerations here include issues of virtual representation, discoverability and visibility online, as well as the skewed geopolitics of knowledge, ironically worsened in an open access context. The chapter ends with a call for critical research, inequality-framed experimentation, policy and advocacy. It argues for theorised explorations of the fluid intersection between inequality and the digital as well as for innovations in the development of new commons-based business models.


  1. Allen, E., & Seaman, J. (2015). Grade level: Tracking online education in the United States. Babson Survey Research Group and Quahog Research Group, LLC Retrieved from
  2. Altbach, P. (2014). MOOCs as neo-colonialism: Who controls knowledge. International Higher Education, (Spring), 5, 7.Google Scholar
  3. Badat, S. (2015). Social Justice in Higher Education: Universities, State, and Philanthropy. Presented at The Advancement and Financing of the Social Justice Mission of Higher Education Institutions: A Symposium, Cape Town.Google Scholar
  4. Barack, L. (2014). Higher education in the 21st century: Meeting real-world demands Economist Intelligence Unit research report, The Economist.Google Scholar
  5. Beetham, H. (2015, April). What is blended learning?. Seminar presentation, Bristol UK. BIS. (2013). Literature Review of Massive Open Online Courses and Other Forms of Online Distance Learning.Google Scholar
  6. Bowles 2015 “Stones Only” blog post available at
  7. Brake, D. (2014). Are we all online content creators now? Web 2.0 and digital divides. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 19, 591–609.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Buchler, M., Castle, R., Osman, R., & Walters, S. (2007). Equity, access and success: Adult learners in public higher education (triennial review). Pretoria: Council for Higher Education.Google Scholar
  9. Christensen, G., Steinmetz, A., Alcorn, B., Bennett, A., Woods, D., & Emanuel, E. (2013). The MOOC phenomenon: Who takes massive open online courses and why? Working Paper. University of Pennsylvania. Retrieved from
  10. Codd, J. (1988). The construction and deconstruction of education policy documents. Journal of Educational Policy, 3(3), 235–248.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Council for Higher Education (2013). A proposal for undergraduate curriculum reform in South Africa: The case for a flexible curriculum structure. Report of the Task Team on Undergraduate Curriculum Structure. Pretoria.Google Scholar
  12. Dabbagh, N. (2007). The online learner: Characteristics and pedagogical implications. Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education, 7(3), 217–226.Google Scholar
  13. de Hart, K 2015, in Czerniewicz 2015 in Open Education an international perspective ,available at
  14. De Waard, I., Gallagher, M., Zelezny-Green, R., Czerniewicz, L., Downes, S., Kukulska-Hulme, A., & Willems, J. (2014). Challenges for conceptualising EU MOOC for vulnerable learner groups. In Proceedings of the European MOOC Stakeholder Summit (pp. 33–42).Google Scholar
  15. DeBoer, J., Stump, G., Seaton, D., & Breslow, L. (2013). Diversity in MOOC students’ backgrounds and behaviors in relationship to performance in 6.002 x. Presented at the Sixth Learning International Networks Consortium Conference.Google Scholar
  16. Dillahunt, T., Wang, Z., & Teasley, S. (2014). Democratizing higher education: Exploring MOOC use among those who cannot afford a formal education. IRRODL, 15(5), 177–196.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Flick, C. (2011). Geographies of the world’s knowledge. Oxford: Convoco.Google Scholar
  18. Franco Yanez, C. (2014). DeMOOCratization of education? Massive Open Online Courses, opportunities and challenges: Views from Mexico, Thailand and Senegal. Retrieved from
  19. Friedman, T. (2013). Revolution Hits the Universities. New York Times. Retrieved from
  20. Friedman, E., & Mare, R. (2014). The schooling of offspring and the survival of parents. Demography, 51(4), 1271–1293. Scholar
  21. Global Bandwidth Index December 2014 (2014). Juniper Networks.Google Scholar
  22. Gregson, J., Brownlee, J., Playforth, R., & Bimbe, N. (2015). The Future of Knowledge Sharing in a Digital Age: Exploring Impacts and Policy Implications for Development Jon Gregson, John M. Brownlee, Rachel Playforth and Nason Bimbe March 2015 (IDS EVIDENCE REPORT No. 125). Institute of Development Studies. Retrieved from
  23. ICEF 2015, Global review maps the state of MOOCs in 2014, ICEF Monitor, 19 Jan 2015,
  24. Ingraham, C. (2014, July 31). Want to live longer? Send your kids to college. Washington Post. Retrieved from
  25. (2014). State of Connectivity 2014: A Report on Global Internet Access. Retrieved from
  26. Jones, C. (2015). Networked learning: An educational paradigm for the age of digital networks. Berlin: Springer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Kulkarni, J., Cambre, C., Kotturi, Y., Bernstein, M., & Klemmer, S. (2015). Making distance matter with small groups in massive classes. In CSCW: ACM Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work, Vancouver, BC, Canada: CSCW.Google Scholar
  28. La Rue, F. (2011). Report of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Human Rights Council Seventeenth session § Agenda item 3.Google Scholar
  29. Liyanagunawardena, T., Adams, A., & Williams, S. (2013). The impact and reach of MOOCs: A developing countries’ perspective. Elearning Papers, 33.Google Scholar
  30. Mansell, R. (2013). Imagining the internet: Open, closed or in between. In F. Girard & B. Perini (Eds.), Enabling openness: The future of the information society in Latin America and the Caribbean. Ottawa: IDRC.Google Scholar
  31. Marrone, M., Mantai, L., & Luzia, K. (2013). MOOCs – what’s cultural inclusion got to do with it? In Electric dreams. Sydney: Macquairie University Sydney.Google Scholar
  32. Mbembe, A. (2015). Decolonizing Knowledge and the Question of the Archive (Text for lecture at Wits). WISER. Retrieved from
  33. Meara, E., Richards, S., & Cutler, D. (2008, March). The gap gets bigger: Changes in mortality and life expectancy, by education, 1981–2000. Health Affairs.
  34. Morrison, N (2015) The EdTech Trends To Look Out For In 2015 in Forbes Jan 1, 2015, available at
  35. Moser-Mercer, B. (2014). MOOCs in fragile contexts. In European MOOCs Stakeholders Summit. Retrieved from
  36. Noble M, Wright G. (2013). Using indicators of multiple deprivation to demonstrate the spatial legacy of apartheid in South Africa. Social Indicators Research, 112, 187–201.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Nkuyubwatsi, B. (2014). A cross-modal analysis of learning experience from a learner’s perspective. The Electronic Journal of eLearning, 12, 195–205.Google Scholar
  38. Nyoni, J. (2013). The viral nature of massive open online courses (MOOCs) in open and distance learning: Discourses of quality, mediation and control. Mediterranean Journal of Social Sciences, 4(3), 665.Google Scholar
  39. Olds, K. (2013). European MOOCs in Global Context. available at, 10 October 2013
  40. Palin, A. (2014, March 9). MOOCs: Young students from developing countries are still in the minority. Financial Times. Retrieved from
  41. Ryberg, T., & Sinclair, C. (2016). The relationships between policy, boundaries and research in networked learning. In T. Ryberg et al. (Eds.), Research, boundaries, and policy in networked learning, research in networked learning. Cham: Springer International Publishing.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Schroeder, R. (2011). The three cultures of post-industrial societies. Sociological Focus, 44(1), 1–17. Scholar
  43. Seery, E., & Arendar, C. (2014). Even it up: Time to end extreme inequality. Oxfam. Retrieved from
  44. Shah, D ( 2015) By The Numbers: MOOCS in 2015, Class Central December 21, 2015,
  45. Sharma, S. (2013). A MOOCery of Higher Education on the Global Front. Retrieved from
  46. The Cape Town Open Education Declaration. (2007). Retrieved from
  47. Therborn, G. (2013). The killing fields of inequality. Cambridge: Polity Press.Google Scholar
  48. Xu, D., & Jaggars, S. (2014). Performance gaps between online and face to face courses: Differences across types of students and different academic areas. The Journal of Higher Education, 85(September/October), 633–659. Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Centre for Innovation in Learning and TeachingUniversity of Cape TownCape TownSouth Africa

Personalised recommendations