21 Lee, “Rethinking the Accessibility of Online Higher Education: A Historical Review”


Lee, K. (2017). Rethinking the accessibility of online higher education: A historical review. The Internet and Higher Education, 33, 15–23. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.iheduc.2017.01.001.


Online education has become increasingly more popular throughout the world. With this continued increase comes the need to evaluate the accessibility of different distance education (DE) programs, as well as online higher education (HE). In the beginning, DE programs were established to provide educational opportunities to those who could not attend face-to-face meetings, in other words, the programs were created to increase accessibility (Wedemeyer, 1981). However, Kyungmee Lee (2017) suggests that today it is difficult to truly assess the accessibility of online education. Lee recognizes that guaranteeing accessibility, to all students is, “A complex and multi-dimensional social issue, one which requires serious, and continuing, scholarly discussions” (p. 21). By analyzing the purpose of distance learning, the attributes of distance education users, and the technology used during instruction throughout history Lee aims to highlight the struggles and continued lack of accessibility in online HE.

Key points

  • Purpose of distance education
    • As stated, the original purpose of offering distance education classes was to provide HE opportunities to students “previously underserved by traditional, campus-based universities” (Lee, 2017, p. 16).
      • Examples of this date back to the 1800s when women and racial minorities were banned from receiving HE.
    • In the 1960s and 1970s open universities and DE institutions began, allowing for, “An open-or at least more accessible- point of entry to HE” (Lee, 2017, p.17).
      • These universities promoted accessibility by lowering or removing entrance requirements and using distance learning
    • In the 1990s DE began to shift to online education
      • “It has been an ongoing struggle for the DE institutions to maintain the ‘balance’ between their original mission of serving the disadvantaged and new market-driven values” (Lee, 2017, p.18).
    • Distance students
      • “Being labeled as a group of “non-traditional students” or “back door learners,” distance students were generally conceptualized as adults who could not rather than would not access traditional HE because of their personal, financial, or social, somewhat disadvantaged conditions” (Lee, 2017, p. 18).
      • Unfortunately lowering and removing entrance requirements did not ensure student success once in the program and subsequently did not address potential challenges
        • Learning at a distance requires learners to be intrinsically motivated, as well as being able to display higher metacognitive skills (Peters, 2001; Moore, 2009).
        • Dropout rates are higher for distance learners
        • Students must be able to balance their “outside” lives with their school life
      • Diverse groups of students
        • Students pursuing second degrees, higher degrees, additional credits, and supplemental education
          • These students tend to think of online HE like they are clients or customers. They know there are other options and have very high expectations.
          • “Providing genuinely accessible HE opportunities that meet students’ diverse needs is much more complicated and challenging than simply letting every adult in universities” (Lee, 2017, p.20).
        • Instructional technologies
          • In the 1960s and 1970s technology was mostly printed paper, audio lectures, and telephone communication. Currently, learning has moved online.
            • By moving learning online it allows communication and interactions between many people, from all over the world.
          • Online education has a better reputation than the original DE programs, as it allows collaboration and interaction among students and teachers.
          • Lee argues that quality online HE programs are more expensive, resulting in making them less accessible to all students. They also require more student participation, which can be difficult for many students.
          • The digital divide is another factor in accessibility.


Lee agrees that there have been “laudable attempts to increase the accessibility of university education throughout the long historical development of DE” (2017, p.21). However, he also acknowledges that there is still work that needs to be done. Two positive examples that Lee briefly touches on, that are not a product of university creation, are massive online open courses (MOOC) and open educational resources (OER). These technologies have provided open access to all individuals, which greatly increases the accessibility to individuals. It will be interesting to see how OER affects accessibility in the future.

Discussion questions

  1. When thinking about the current open access movement, do you believe enough is being done to ensure accessibility to all learners? How could the movement continue to improve?
  2. Lee argues that it is too challenging for an online program to be both accessible (i.e., affordable) and interactive. Do you agree with this argument?
  3. Do you think it would be beneficial for all universities to provide open access material? If HE were completely free, would that fix the accessibility problem? 


Allen, I., & Seaman, J. (2014). Grade change: Tracking online learning in the United States. Wellesley MA: Babson College/Sloan Foundation.

Lee, K. (2017). Rethinking the accessibility of online higher education: A historical review. The Internet and Higher Education, 33, 15–23. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.iheduc.2017.01.001.

Moore, M.G. (2013). The Bottles are New but What of the Wine? Managing Learning and Teaching in Web 2.0. In U. Bernath, A. Szucs, A. Tait, & M. Vidal (Eds.), Distance and E-Learning in Transition (pp. 237–267). New York, NY: Wiley. https://doi.org/10.1002/9781118557686.ch27.

Peters, O. (2001). Learning and teaching in distance education: Analysis and interpretation from an international perspective. London, UK: Kogan Page.

Wedemeyer, C. (1981). Learning at the backdoor: Reflections on non-traditional learning in the lifespan. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press.

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