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This is Part 2 of our diversity series, in which we examine global diversity in education. To read Part 1, which introduces the series, click here.
Learning empowers people and helps them achieve better lives. When barriers prevent particular groups from learning, the cost is disempowerment and lower quality of life. This hurts us all.
As an education provider with global reach, we recognize the opportunity to play a role in eliminating education barriers, and we are committed to doing so. We’ve recently spent some time considering this question: What can we do to make education accessible to more diverse audiences in the US and around the globe?
We must first become more aware about what might be preventing diverse audiences from gaining technical skills or working in the technical field. Barriers to educational diversity vary tremendously. They might be gender-based, ethnic, physical, technical, or cultural. Some are obvious, some are very, very subtle. But there is no mistaking the fact that the issues are deeply real. For example, there are currently more than 100 million young women in developing countries who can’t read a single sentence because they don’t have access to education. This is staggering, and it has to change.
As we learn more about these barriers, we can then look to existing solutions to address them. Two examples follow:
Gender Barriers in U.S. High-Tech
It’s probably common knowledge at this point that in the U.S., opportunities for women in tech have declined tremendously; a 2014 Harvard Business Review article describes this in detail. In 1985, 37% of computer science degrees in the United States were awarded to women; by 2012 only 18% were. In 1991, women held 37% of all computing jobs; in 2014, they held only 26%. And women leave the tech field at a higher rate of 41% after 10 years, compared to 17% of men.
Identifying sources of gender and other biases and taking steps to correct them is part of the solution (the Harvard Business Review article points out a good process employers can use for doing this and Facebook has recently published great training materials on managing bias). But with women confronting a field that may seem unwelcoming, more personal approaches are also needed. Approaches like encouraging girls’ interest in math and science from a young age, telling success stories of female tech students and professionals, supporting and using organizations like Girls Who Code that provide training and support to females interested in high-tech, and creating female-female tech mentorship programs.
At Udacity, we have taken steps to make our site design and student support systems more accessible to a broad and international audience. Site language is vetted to ensure we are not just translating words, but content as well. We analyze metaphors for universal applicability, use analogies with approachable images and contexts, and try to purge potentially alienating colloquialisms, idiomatic speech, or inappropriately gender-based phrases. Course discussion communities are closely monitored to ensure they are safe spaces. We are also now offering easier on-ramps into technical areas, like our Intro to Programming and Beginning iOS App Development—these entry-level programs have attracted a much larger female audience and early signals indicate that they are good funnels into our career-focused programs which lead to jobs in the technical field. We regularly highlight student success stories from our female graduates—Stephanie Gross (Germany), Esther Camilo dos Reis (Brazil) and Victoria Jeffrey (US) being three recent examples—and are thrilled by the gains our students are making, both here in the US, and across the globe.
Socio-Economic Barriers in India
India has one of the world’s largest higher education systems, yet it only serves 6 percent of the relevant age group. Much has rightfully been made of educational advancement in India, but it must also be noted that highlighted achievements have largely focused on just a small percentage of the population—a “private-schooled, English-speaking urban elite.” However, according to a 2014 report by the McKinsey Global Institute, 680 million people in India (56 percent of the population), can’t afford to meet a set of basic needs—food, energy, housing, drinking water, sanitation, health care, social security, and, yes, education. Many others are somewhere in the middle, with the cost of education being a significant barrier.
Socio-economic issues are significant educational barriers for many in India and we are pursuing a multi-pronged approach to reduce them. Lower pricing and scholarship programs are two immediate opportunities. New approaches to mobile payment, money transfer, and currency exchange may be another approach that can help improve access.. On the career front, we can help by building awareness about alternative credentials, like Nanodegree programs, to support those who are unable to get into the limited spots at the top universities. Enlisting the support of leading Indian companies like Tata Trusts is proving to be particularly impactful. In addition to sponsoring scholarship opportunities, they are partnering with Udacity and Google to host a high-profile Career Summit that will also feature other top employers from around the country.
We are engaged in similar efforts in Egypt—where we have partnered with Egypt’s Ministry of Communication & Information Technology & Google on a large scholarship initiative—and in Germany, where we are working with CodeDoor and Social Impact Labs to help refugees regain career opportunities. Ultimately though, we are only scratching the surface; gender and socio-economic barriers remain, and we have a lot more work to do to implement effective solutions.
Inclusion efforts of all kinds form the core of what needs to be done to achieve barrier-less access to quality education across the globe. There is simply no justifiable reason why any individual or group should be excluded from empowerment through learning.
We are continuing our studies and looking for more opportunities to improve our global awareness of how we can make Udacity more inclusive for a broader audience. Do you have ideas or feedback for us? We’d love to hear it!