The Americans who’d benefit the most from online education have no idea it exists

Doing it old school.
Doing it old school.
Image: Reuters/Enrique de la Osa
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Here’s a catch-22. Americans are obsessed with lifelong learning and self-improvement, and online education makes it cheap and easy. Yet the people most familiar with digital learning are those who need it the least.

So says a Pew Research Center report published on personal education and technology. Surveying nearly 3,000 US adults on their learning habits during the last 12 months, Pew discovered that 74% of Americans call themselves “personal learners” and 36% “professional learners.”

The vast majority of this obsession with self-improvement takes place in physical locales—high schools, libraries, places of worship–and not the internet. Despite the growth of online education, most people remain unfamiliar with digital concepts and platforms like massive open online courses (MOOCs) or the Khan Academy, which provides video education on key concepts in math, science, languages and the humanities.

Especially unaware of e-learning are people with lower levels of education or lower incomes. Nearly 58% of personal learners with college degrees turned toward the internet in the last 12 months, while only 43% of high school diploma holders did. As many as 60% of personal learners in households with more than $75,000 a year in income used the internet for education, while 44% of learners in households earning less than $30,000 did, the study said.

This presents a paradox, the study’s author John Horrigan tells Quartz. The more rich and educated you are, the more technologically savvy you are, and the more you know how to use digital learning tools. While many low-income and low-education Americans would benefit from e-learning, they don’t have the income or education level to access it.

“It becomes a bit of a double whammy for less-educated Americans,” Horrigan said. “They’re less attuned to seeking out educational opportunities than other segments [of the population], and less skilled at using new technologies that might help them overcome those gaps.”

Pew’s findings also highlight a disconnect between what Silicon Valley innovators see (a nation of digital connection) and the reality (millions of people unplugged from the internet and sticking to old-school methods).

That disconnect, and the paradox of online educational access, won’t be easily resolved. But as is the case with digital learning itself, spreading awareness is a good start.