Online Education is not an Equal Opportunity for all Adult Learners

Distance education has gone from simple written correspondence, to cassette and videotapes and has moved now almost exclusively to online delivery, known as electronic learning or e-learning. Historically, distance education in Canada gave all Canadians the opportunity to upgrade their skills, gain more knowledge, and further their careers.

With the advent of e-learning, it may be assumed that more people would have access to an education, and that adult learning would become more efficient and effective. Unfortunately, online education is not an equal opportunity for all adult learners, as the high cost of equipment and steep learning curve of the software makes online learning prohibitive to many low-income earners.

According to previous research (Cukier, 1997 and Huldmann, 1999) cited by Sweet (2000), purchasing appropriate computer equipment and the initial startup costs are key elements that dissuades many low-income potential online learners. To participate in online education, a learner required an Internet connection in addition to a relatively new computer, and updated software.

Apple’s most affordable computer is a Mac mini, which is a computer that can hook up to any monitor, keyboard, and mouse. It retails for $749 CDN, (Apple, 2011) but the price does not include Microsoft Office, which is currently priced at $128 CDN (Staples, 2011a). This software package, which includes Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, is a requirement for most online learning. PC MS Office software is the same price (Staples, 2011b) as the Apple version. An inexpensive desktop is approximately $380 (Staples, 2011c) plus the cost of a monitor, while a inexpensive laptop costs approximately $230 CDN (Staples, 2011d).

In addition to computer equipment, an Internet connection is a requirement. Monthly connection charges are between $27.99 for the ultra-lite package at Rogers (Rogers, 2011), while Bell offers it’s essential service package for $34.95 (Bell, 2011). These prices do not include 13% HST taxes, service charges, modem rental, and activation fees.

In all, the startup cost could be a minimum of $380 per year for Internet service and $260 for a laptop. This is comparable to one online accounting course in continuing education at the University of Toronto (University of Toronto, 2011), which is priced at $550 or one degree course at Athabasca University, which is priced at $751 per course (Athabasca University, 2011).

With only 1.6 million out of 3 million low-income Canadians having access to the Internet (Statistics Canada, 2010, May 10, and 2010, June 17), it is little wonder that low-income earners are not partaking in online education. Interestingly, 89 per cent of Canadian Internet users have some post-secondary education, which increased from 84 per cent over the previous two years. This five per cent increase is small compared to the jump to 66 per cent from 58 per cent of users with no post-secondary education (Statistics Canada, 2010a). However, “Internet use” in the survey includes not only home access, but access at work, libraries, and schools. It is beyond the scope of this article to infer or discuss these statistics and what the increase may suggest, but it is important to note these changes, as further research is needed in this area.

Aside from the startup costs, another deterrent is learning is learning how to use the software. According to Conrad (2001, p.209), “Access to learning at a distance using sophisticate technologies will be gained by those already familiar with such technologies and in possession of the necessary equipment.” This may be true partly because those who know the software and have the equipment are required to learn only the course material and not have the added burden and pressure of also learning a new technology. Thus, many low-income learners who do not know how to use computers may face too many challenges prior to enrolling in online education.

The potential and promise of online adult learning is not an equal opportunity for education. High startup costs and a steep technology learning curve may dissuade many low-income adult learners from enrolling in e-learning. As the Canadian Association of University Teachers aptly stated in 2001, “If education to date has been the great equalizer, technology-based education could be an engine of inequality (Online learning report earns an F).


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Online learning report earns an F. (2001, March). Canadian Association of University Teachers, 48 (3), p. A6.

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Sweet, R. (2000). Distance education for adult learners: Developments in the Canadian post-secondary system. The Canadian Journal for the Study of Adult Education, 14 (1).

University of Toronto. (2011). Accounting: The Fundamentals. Retrieved from

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