Universities, now more than ever, must look at how online learning can aid diversity and inclusion

Anthony Tattersall, head of EMEA at Coursera, on how online education can help bring diversity and inclusion to higher ed in the midst of COVID-19

Getting university access right is essential to ensuring that everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed. Yet, official figures reveal that more than 20 universities and specialist colleges in the UK are still failing to give three-quarters of places to state school pupils, despite the push to widen access to higher education. Today, on the United Nations’ (UN) World Day of Cultural Diversity, all of us here at Coursera wanted to release our latest insights on the benefits online learning can bring when it comes to addressing this gap.

Now more than ever, we must look at how online learning can help. Let’s discuss some key contributing factors, based on trends from our 58 million learners:

1. Classroom diversity

Last year, according to UCAS, a record 40,720 international students from outside the EU were accepted to on-campus courses – a 6% increase on the previous year. This is positive but largely dominated by certain countries. Racial and international diversity is therefore not as significant. COVID-19 and Brexit will pose further restrictions by limiting mobility.

On the other hand, international and racial diversity can also be achieved remotely. Our data shows 94% of students enrolled in UK courses are international, including 23% US and 15% Indian students. Online learning could open up alternatives to improve access; for example, Imperial College’s Global Master of Public Health has students from countries as diverse as the US, Germany, France, Switzerland, Singapore, Denmark, Japan, Hong Kong, Lebanon, Kenya, Uganda and Guatemala.

2. Access to high-value credentials

Today, the most advantaged areas of England are more than six times as likely as their less advantaged peers to go to selective institutions. Universities have been asked to halve the gaps in the next five years. Online learning provides a new gateway for success. Universities like Michigan, Yale and Duke already combine on-campus with online credentials. These are delivered via the same curriculum and the diploma students graduate with is identical.

Professional Certificates from leading industry educators also help with in-demand skills. For example, our Google IT Support Certificate identified 60% of enrolled students as female, Black, Latino or veterans; and 84% reported a career impact within six months of completing their course – like getting a raise, finding a new job or starting a new business.

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3. ‘Learn while you earn’ model

More than one in five students in the UK work two jobs in addition to attending on-campus university. Despite this, those who end up graduating are doing so with a much higher debt than their peers in other countries. In this respect, online learning provides a more cost-effective, less disruptive model of study. The majority of degrees online cost less than half of comparable on-campus programmes and provide flexibility for people to work, raise families and stay in their own community with minimal disruption. This opens up new opportunities, particularly for mature students. Those aged 25–29 represented only 11% of enrolments in 2018/19 on-campus courses across the UK, whilst the average age of a student on our platform is 33.

4. Getting more women in tech 

In the UK, 35% of women are enrolled in STEM degrees, compared to the nearly 40% of UK female students on our STEM courses online. Over 1,700 courses on our platform focus on STEM skills and many of them are accessible to students with no background in technology.

Online courses are also moving towards creating a curriculum designed to better appeal to certain audiences. Content in the Google IT Support Professional Certificate on Coursera, for example, is written by women and contains personal stories of Googlers, including female executives. This has helped increase learner diversity by 10% more than average.

What’s more, our AB testing functionality supports partners in learning about the types of teaching that work best for each learner. For example, Chris Brooks from the University of Michigan randomised the appearance of male versus female workers in video content, and found learners post more in the same-gendered condition. As the world navigates through digital transformation, these developments can help attract the next generation of talent into these areas of learning – the ones that will be most needed in the future.

5. Investing in soft skills and life skills

Despite equality legislation and recognition by many businesses that diversity and inclusion is important, we know that inequality still exists. For example, in 2019 the UK gender pay gap was over 17%. We must prioritise building the critical thinking and emotional intelligence skills that allow us to be truly diverse and overcome these barriers, thinking of needs that go beyond gender, age, ethnicity, race and sexual orientation.

Educators have a huge role to play in this respect. The demand for such courses online serves as evidence of just how much appetite there is to learn these skills. Comparing April 2020 with April 2019, we’ve experienced an 1,400% increase in personal development courses, such as The Science of Wellbeing, by Yale University with over 1.9 million enrolments. This presents an opportunity for universities to complement their ‘hard-skill’ courses with soft skills online.


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