10/25/2012 05:38 pm ET Updated Dec 25, 2012

Let's Not Stop at the Promise of Only Primary Education for Malala

As 14-year-old Malala Yousafzai, who was shot in the head by the Taliban for wanting to go to school, is undergoing treatment in the United Kingdom, it's time we all reflect upon what her desires really mean.

Malala was protesting her right to go to primary school, the most basic of educational needs and one that is the foundation for all educational achievement. Unfortunately, discrimination against female education is not only hindered at the primary school levels. Indeed, gender disparity in secondary education and in tertiary education persists in many parts of the world on a global scale.

Starting with opening access to primary education for females is an excellent beginning to a global problem, but it should not be the end-all of solving this problem. Malala's desire for "education for every girl," echoes behind it not just eradicating female illiteracy rates, but enabling women to learn through tertiary education in order to secure better jobs. Furthermore, on an economic level and not just in the interests of fairness, women consistently pump more of their income back into their families, ensuring the world's next generation of workers and intellects remain healthy and educated. We therefore should do all that we can to open access to women at the primary, secondary, and tertiary levels.

The area of education I am in, as President of the tuition-free, non-profit University of the People (UoPeople), which is designed to open access to higher education, is the tertiary level. At this level of education, this is the best time for us as educators to address gender disparities in higher education for females. The reason is the advent of Open Educational Resources, open source technology, better global telecommunication channels, an emerging and effective pedagogy of peer to peer learning with instructor oversight, and people helping each other. If we amalgamate all of these elements together, and add in volunteers (as was done with UoPeople), the result is online, tuition-free education for all. This structure solves many hindrances women face to continuing on with their education.

First, women in many places are the primary caregivers of children and may not have the flexibility to attend physical classes. The flexibility of anytime, anywhere learning is compatible for stay at home mothers or women who juggle work/family and school commitments. Second, for some women, their religious observance precludes them from studying in the same physical room as a male student -- online learning allows, in many cases, for study alongside their male counterparts in a virtual classroom. Third, many women are culturally discouraged from studying male-dominated subjects, such as computer science. Opening this subject of study for women in the world, allows them to bypass many constraints they would otherwise face if attempting in their home countries to study computer science (for example) in a physical environment. And finally, the structuring of a tuition-free and online institution, make it affordable for women, who sadly, continue to earn less than their male counterparts in many parts of the world.

I propose that for the women who make it through all the challenges of primary education in countries where they are currently at a severe disadvantage, that we, as global citizens, work to apply the tuition-free and online model of UoPeople -- not just to open up more institutions for higher education -- but also secondary education. Clearly, this is not the role of UoPeople to tackle secondary education. However, I am opening up this idea for dialogue in order that governments and non-profits may take the lessons inherent in the flexibility and accessibility of an online, tuition-free university and apply it to secondary education to solve secondary education's gender disparity.

Let's do more than just a promise to Malala for primary education. Let's take her dream and apply it in a practical way, so that women can access education not just through primary education, but all the way to graduating from college.

To donate to UoPeople's Women Scholarship fund: