Commonwealth of Learning (2021) Quality and equity in digital learning: a policy brief Burnaby BC: Commonwealth of Learning

About the policy brief

The Commonwealth of Learning (COL) is an intergovernmental organisation created by Commonwealth Heads of Government to promote the development and sharing of open learning and distance education knowledge, resources and technologies.

I was the lead author of this paper, but my main contribution was in identifying areas of risk in creating inequities through the use of digital learning. Most of the actual policy recommendations came from input from staff at the Commonwealth of Learning, who have more experience in briefing governments than I do.

Why was the policy brief needed?

The move to emergency remote learning as a result of Covid-19 brought to light a number of challenges in providing digital learning on an equitable basis. When online learning is a choice or an option for students or parents, it can help increase access. Those in most need will make the choice (on-campus or online or a mix) that best suits them.

However, when digital learning becomes the only option, suddenly a wide range of learners become vulnerable. The most obvious challenge is that many simply will not have access to the technology.

The policy brief attempts to identify the groups most at risk and suggests a range of policies or strategies that can be used to alleviate or reduce the inequities.

For whom is the policy brief?

1. National governments

As the report notes: while there is an obligation on schools, universities and colleges to provide adequate services and support for all students, institutions alone cannot directly impact the underlying economic and social causes of inequality, including inequality of access to technology at home. Although it is necessary to take actions to ensure more online learning access for resource-poor families, such as loans of tablets, the long-term solution is to reduce poverty in the first place. Poverty is the problem, not unequal access to equipment or the Internet, which is most often a consequence of poverty

2. Educational institutions

After COVID-19, many education institutions are likely to want to integrate and expand some elements of online learning in their course delivery. This will require adequate Wi-Fi access and high-speed Internet on campuses as well. Again, this could be a challenge for resource-poor institutions and those based in more remote areas….. Ensuring the quality of digital learning alongside equity requires educational institutions to understand their students’ access to digital tools.

Policy recommendations

I provide a very brief summary here. For more background on the reasons for the recommendations and more details, please read the actual policy brief.


The use of technology for teaching does not itself cause or resolve these inequalities; but without countermeasures, it will magnify them. In other words, the solutions for dealing with inadequate Internet access suggested in this article are more mitigation than proactive adaptation; they do not get to the root causes of inequality. That is the broader responsibility of government. To address inequities in digital learning, governments must take the following actions:

  • Mandate a quality assurance agency/body to focus on equity in digital learning provision
  • Invest in broadband access as a critical infrastructure 
  • track trends and gaps in access to digital technologies, and target underserved populations and regions.
  • conduct research on new digital inequalities resulting from algorithmic decision making
  • ensure “no one is left behind” when using digital learning, by taking a needs-based approach to providing access to digital devices
  • build the capacity of teachers at all levels to leverage the power of digital technologies for teaching and learning. Teachers’ access to devices and bandwidth for the Internet must be part of policies for promoting digital equity in learning
  • support digital learning for students with disabilities by providing training and funding for assistive technologies.

Educational institutions

  • invest in the infrastructure necessary for online learning on campus, including high-speed Internet access and computer labs.
  • use a completely online learning approach only when it is possible to ensure all the learners have access to the Internet.
  • design learning for low bandwidth situations, and employ asynchronous learning to help learners use technology flexibly.
  • ensure course developers adopt Universal Design for Learning principles to accommodate the needs of students with disabilities.
  • develop a dynamic suite of online, open-access courses, preferably with tutoring support, tailored for various groups
  • set clear policies and allocate adequate resources for faculty and part-time instructor training that specifies a minimum of number of hours to be spent on digital learning
  • ensure that algorithm-based recommender systems do not restrict decision making and career development through profiling and streaming that may affect groups in different ways.
  • support interdisciplinary and interorganisational research on digital inequalities
  • use OER to increase equitable access to course materials and ensure cost is not a barrier to learning.

My comments

The policy brief concludes:

We need all students back in school, full-time, as soon as is safely possible. Moving forward, we need to ensure appropriate policies and systems are in place so that students can at the very least access education during any emergency. The pandemic proved beyond doubt that online learning is a reasonable way to do this where Internet access is widely available. Ensuring equity and quality in digital learning will not only make our educational institutions more resilient but also move us closer to meeting the needs of learners in a digital age.

However, it seems clear to me that as always, technology amplifies existing conditions. There is a clear tension between equality and the increased use of digital learning.

For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance; but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath. Matthew 25:29

I do worry that the move to digital learning will increase inequality, especially between rich and poor countries, but also within countries. Nevertheless it is incumbent on us all to try to mitigate the inequalities that will inevitably flow from an increased use of digital learning. This policy brief is an attempt to do this. I will be interested in your views on this – please use the comment box at the end of this post.


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