Why learner's agency and capabilities are vital for equitable education

Dr Anantha K Duraiappah
Dr Anantha K DuraiappahJun 16, 2020 | 18:24

Why learner's agency and capabilities are vital for equitable education

Equitable education should provide students with the freedom or agency to achieve the learning outcomes they value taking into account the students’ initial conditions..

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4 highlights the importance of quality and inclusive education for all learners. In addition, the SDG-4 equally emphasises the importance of ‘equitable’ education, acknowledging the need to provide equal and fair opportunities in education to all learners at various levels of education, regardless of their gender, physical and intellectual capabilities, social and economic backgrounds.


It is important to make the distinction between ‘equitable’ and equality. While equality focuses on providing equal access to education to all individuals, the word ‘equitable’ refers to providing education that allows learners to attain the capability to be educated. Capability here, I define as in Amartya Sen’s notion of agency — in this case, the ability or the freedom to be educated. A simple example will illustrate my point. A child who has a learning difference such as dyslexia might have had access to schools and the education under ‘education for all’. Now, unless this education offers the options that give the student the freedom to learn the way that suits her or him the best, this education cannot be considered as equitable.

In other words, equitable education should provide students with the freedom or agency to achieve the learning outcomes that they have reasons to value, taking into account the students’ initial conditions. These initial conditions are the learners’ attributes — their internal characteristics such as gender, biological and neurobiological traits — and endowments their external environments such as their political, social and economic status. Equal access works as long as all learners have similar initial conditions. Equitable education, on the other hand, acknowledges the internal and external differences that make each individual unique and different, and therefore the differing needs to learn and flourish. Understanding this simple but essential difference becomes critical during current times of rising socioeconomic disparity across individuals.


The better-endowed private schools have far advanced digital resources for online learning, while students from poorer schools have no such options. (Photos: Reuters)

The increasing trend we observe in the privatisation of education goes towards further deepening the equity gap across the haves and the have-nots. For example, the better-endowed private schools had far advanced digital resources to accommodate online learning, while students from poorer schools had no options offered during the lockdown. Daniel Markovits, Yale law professor, in his latest book The Meritocracy Trap, demonstrates how the attributes and endowments of individuals define the opportunities and outcomes they achieve. The challenge, therefore, is how do we, or can we even offer equitable education to all?

This is doable but non-trivial. Various organisations have attempted to define how equitable education may be achieved. For instance, the Organisation for Economic Co-operations and Development (OECD) outlines ten steps to achieve equity in education that encompass educational design, practices and resourcing. These policy recommendations aim to “reduce school failure and dropout rates, make society fairer and avoid the large costs of marginalised adults with a few basic skills”. The recommendations, while important and useful, place a significant emphasis on the physical learning environment and appear to offer standardised recommendations for all types of learners. The science of learning shows us that we all learn differently, each with unique strengths and weaknesses. The challenge is to strengthen the strengths and weaken the weaknesses.


The digital medium offers us such an opportunity to tackle this dual challenge. The current Covid-19 pandemic is testament to the need to establish alternate learning environments. This is important to avoid getting in situations such as the one we are faced with now — around 1.2 billion learners across the world affected because of the lockdown measures in 150 countries.

The digital medium offers various advantages, including the flexibility of operating from a non-physical common learning environment. In addition, the digital medium provides access to limitless content and learning resources at the touch of a button. Furthermore, the digital medium offers the opportunity for multi-modal learning, using a wide variety of tools such as storytelling, games, videos and imagery that can help make learning experiences immersive, interactive and fun. Moreover, the advancement in artificial intelligence allows flexibility for individualised learning experiences. These are based on the abilities and interests of learners and allowing them to advance at their own pace in the different areas of skills and competencies.

However, the digital medium does pose some challenges. One main challenge is that of accessibility. The vast divide amongst learners in terms of accessibility to digital learning, particularly in developing nations, has been hugely apparent during the Covid-19 pandemic. In some ways, the pandemic further exacerbated the inequitable access across and within countries. Another key challenge is quality and ensuring that the potential of the digital medium is utilised to its fullest and e-learning not reduced to digitised textbooks, PowerPoint presentations and YouTube videos. Another important concern is the protection of the privacy of the student. Last but not least, a fully digital educational space also should not be pursued. A hybrid learning space of physical and virtual might offer the best of both worlds for providing the agency to students to learn and flourish.

If countries don't embrace and accept the inevitability of education going digital and allocate their resources on building the capacity of their education systems to provide a vibrant hybrid learning space that blends the face to face interactions with the digital/virtual space, then equitable education will remain just another goal on our wishlist.

Last updated: July 06, 2020 | 14:20
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