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Challenging characteristics of online learning

and ways of addressing them
Table of Contents
Introduction ………………………………………………………………………………3
Five different challenging characteristics of online learning …………………………….3
(1) Technical competencies required of students …………………………………….3
(2) Issues of accessibilit …………………………………………………………….!
(3) Time commitments required of instructors ………………………………………!
(!) The need for self"motivation ……………………………………………………..#
(#) Issues of isolation and learning stle ……………………………………………..#
$uggestions to improve the learning e%perience of online learners ……………………...&
'onclusion ………………………………………………………………………………..(
)eference list ……………………………………………………………………………..*
+nline learning ma be defined as learning that ta,es place based on a -ide spectrum of
technologies via the -eb to reach a net-or, of learners for such purposes as encouraging
learner interaction and certification of learning (.reenberg/ 1**(0 1alloff 2 1ratt/ 1***).
Features of online learning that ma,e it different from the more 3traditional4 form of learning
are man. For e%ample/ online learning frees students from the necessit of travelling to 5a
fi%ed place … to meet a fi%ed person/ in order to be trained6 (7eegan/ 1**#/ p. 8). That is/ it
saves students from the trouble of having to travel to the classroom and et at the same time
allo-s them to be able to learn at their o-n pace because of its asnchronous nature
(7eeng-e 2 7idd/ 2919). +nline learning also proves to be a cost" and time"effective mode
of pursuing a course or programme of stud since travel e%penses and the time required to
travel are eliminated (:eans et al./ 299*). 1erhaps most importantl/ online learning provides
educational opportunities for those -ho could not or -ould not other-ise obtain them for
reasons such as life or -or, commitments ($tone 2 1erumean"'hane/ 2911).
;hile there are clear benefits of online learning/ there are challenges to be addressed too
-hen one considers online learning. The purpose of this report is to discuss some of these
challenging characteristics of online learning and suggest -as to over them. The report first
begins -ith a discussion of five challenging characteristics of online learning before
considering suggestions put for-ard b researchers in the area of online education to address
these challenges.
Five different challenging characteristics of online learning
There are at least five challenging characteristics of online learning. The are (1) technical
competencies required of students/ (2) issues of accessibilit/ (3) time commitments required
of instructors/ (!) the need for self"motivation and (#) issues of isolation and learning stle.
<ach of these characteristics -ill be revie-ed and discussed as follo-s.
(1) Technical competencies required of students
$tudents enrolling in an online lesson not onl need to master the course4s sub=ect matter but
also have to possess the technical s,ills to participate in the course and stud effectivel (see
$ong et al./ 299!). This ma still represent a technical challenge for man students. There is
an assumption that all students gro- up -ith technolog and ,no- it. In fact/ students displa
a great spectrum of abilities and comfort levels -ith computers. > lac, of confidence and
e%perience -ith computers continue to be a challenge facing online learning students/ man
of -hom are -or,ing adults -ho are still not quite as prepared for the technolog e%perience.
<ven students -ho are comfortable using a computer might not possess all the necessar
s,ills. For instance/ research has sho-n that students ma be computer savv/ but not
necessaril computer literate (?i%on et al./ 299#). The ,no- about computer and the can
pla the games -ell/ but man still are una-are of the range of features of the ;ord or <%cel.
This inhibits their effective use of the online learning e%perience.
(2) Issues of accessibilit
@ot ever student o-ns a computer. :an students still need the institutional learning
resource centres for computer access/ creating something of a digital divide among the
student population. The access level differs for students -ho must use the computer lab
versus those -ho can -or, all hours in their room. @ot ever computer lab possesses the
same technolog. >s students gain technical proficienc/ an emerging problem is access to
higher"end tools/ and the number of students -ho use them is gro-ing and there is thus an
increasing demand for more computer labs/ -hich is not often possible.
<ven students using mainstream applications encounter technical problems. > common
problem is slo-er dial"up speeds at home/ especiall in rural areas. These students cannot
ta,e courses effectivel unless instructors scale bac, course activities accordingl. These
problems -ith student access to technolog sometimes contribute to instructor perceptions
that students have -ea, technolog s,ills. Aut often -hat is the case is that man of these
students do not have access -ith enough band-idth to use the online facilities effectivel.
That is/ access to the Internet itself is not al-as reliable and this becomes particularl
problematic -hen the learning involves the use of video streaming.
(3) Time commitments required of instructors/ -ith the resulting delaed feedbac,
+ne ma=or challenge for instructors involved in online learning is the amount of time
required to develop and maintain an online learning course/ -hich sometimes results in dela
in providing the e%pected feedbac, (Bara 2 7ling/ 1***). There are t-o ,e underling
reasons for this time burden. First/ instructors need to rethin, and fundamentall restructure
online learning classes. In man cases/ instructors spend substantial time and effort
reengineering the course to adapt it for online deliver. This represents a significant amount
of added effort for instructors/ because man have fine"tuned their pedagogical approach for
traditional lecture"oriented presentation.
$econd/ man instructors tend not to initiall comprehend that online learning instruction
differs fundamentall from traditional approaches. Fe- anticipate the enormous volume of
correspondence the need to maintain -ith students. Cer often/ problems of understanding
among students occur more frequentl in online learning than in traditional classroom
settings -here immediate face"to"face feedbac, is available. This naturall leads to the need
for the instructors to regularl respond to students4 questions and more time ta,en to ensure
that greater understanding of both tas,s and sub=ect matter ta,es place. This also inevitabl
results in some cases of delaed feedbac,.
(!) The need for self"motivation
>s -ith their instructors/ time management s,ills and self"motivation impact student
performance in online learning classes. ?isorganiDed individuals are not going to have a good
e%perience. $elf"motivation is ,e to success in online learning. $tudents do not come into a
classroom to have ,no-ledge poured into their heads. The have to ta,e the initiative.
$tuding online is some-here in bet-een studing on campus and off campus. $tudents need
to be able to manage their studies b themselves and ta,e e%tra initiatives -hen the need
That is to sa/ online learning ma have displaced the need to drive to campus but it has not
eliminated the need to -or, hard or devote time and effort. Institutions -hich offer online
courses require =ust as much -or, from their online learners as the -ould from a campus
course/ and sometimes more. The are often hper"a-are of the scrutin of online learning
programmes b their accreditors and ma thus demand more from students. This inevitabl
places greater emphasis on the need for students to be more self"motivated. ;hen online
learning students do not have to spend time in class listening to lectures/ the logic follo-s
that the should spend the time on -or,ing through the materials given and other online
activities designed for them.
(#) Issues of isolation and learning stle
>nother common challenging characteristic of online learning is that the feel some-hat
isolated (;oods/ 29920 Conder-ell/ 2993). To varing degrees/ the feel that the are alone
in their quest for ,no-ledge. It is certainl true that studing at home/ often late at night/ is a
solitar activit. <speciall for those people -ho en=o and are energiDed b social
interaction/ studing online can seem a lonel e%perience as it usuall ta,es place apart from
personal/ social contact.
$ome students also find that the online environment limits their abilit to learn in a -a that
matches their learning stle. <speciall for visual and auditor learners/ -ho need the
presence of a spo,en -ord/ this can be a real challenge. To some e%tent/ it is the
responsibilit of the school to either address this issue or ac,no-ledge it in their mar,eting
materials. Bo-ever/ it is also a technological challenge that ma be difficult for schools and
students to solve.
Suggestions to improve the learning experience of online learners
The report has discussed five challenges in online learning -hich comprise (1) technical
competencies required of students/ (2) issues of accessibilit/ (3) time commitments required
of instructors/ (!) the need for self"motivation and (#) issues of isolation and learning stle.
;e no- move on to consider -as to address these challenges.
Technical competencies -hich relate to challenges -ith the use of technolog for learning
have long been a problem in education in general. $ong et al. (299!) have suggested some
-as to tac,le this issue from the beginning of the online learning e%perience. This can be
accomplished/ for e%ample/ b providing overvie-s of the tools used for the course andEor
hands"on -or,shops -ith the technolog that -ill be used in the online learning e%perience.
$tudents can also be helped to understand that problems are going to occurFand most li,el
at the most inconvenient time. Instructors can help ease the stress b informing students at the
beginning of the course that the understand problems -ill occur. $tudents can help ease their
o-n stress b recogniDing that problems can occur and ma,ing bac,"up plans and bac,"up
copies to help facilitate their -or,. The same solutions ma appl to issues of accessibilit.
>ll students -ill be informed in advance the various technological requirements for a
particular course including the modem and Internet speed ('onle/ 2998). Aac,"up printed
materials or pre"do-nloaded videos ma also be distributed.
>s far as time commitments are concerned/ planning and organiDation are the ,e to
addressing the problem here. 1lanning and organiDation on the part of the instructor should
include establishing deadlines for deliverables in relation to goals and aiming to provide
immediate feedbac,. Instructors have to be able to plan and organiDe -ell to meet those
needs. This is of course difficult because the planning and organiDation have to be completed
-ithin the constraints involved in all phases of the design and implementation of online
learning. Further complicating the process is the diversit of equipment/ tools/ and techniques
involved. > final complication is the fact that there is no one"siDe"fits"all approach ($teen/
299(). <ach course/ if the instructor is involved in managing more than one course/ is unique.
Bo-ever/ there is a general process -hereb the instructor balances the elements involved. If
the instructor plans and organiDes everthing in advance/ there is a greatl improved chance
that the result -ill be effective online learning e%perience.
Gi,e their instructors/ students need to be more a-are of the importance of time management
and their level of self"motivation. Aoth Bill (2992) and $ong et al. (299!) emphasiDe time
management strategies for assisting -ith the online learning process. It has been suggested
that online courses are dnamic on multiple levelsH information is received in a variet of
formats and at different times/ and this poses particular challenges to students. >ssisting
learners in establishing strategies for managing their time ma prove to be useful to cope -ith
this and other issues. Bill4s (2992) research indicates that implementing strategies such as
-or,ing at the same time and in the same space can have an impact on the success of the
online learning process. > regular schedule has also been suggested. A putting into place
basic time management strategies/ students are e%pected to improve their overall online
learning e%perience.
Finall/ to address the concern of isolation and individual learning stle/ a sense of
communit in students4 learning e%periences is necessar. )ovai4s (2992) stud highlights
that the stronger the online learners4 sense of communit/ the less isolated the felt/ a finding
shared b $ong et al. (299!). :ost recentl/ Ioung and Aruce (2911) also point out that a
sense of classroom communit and student engagement are closel related to one another.
The argue that students -ho feel a sense of connectedness and pschological closeness
rather than isolation are better prepared to become more activel involved -ith online
learning and the resulting higher order thin,ing and ,no-ledge building. 'ollaborative
learning e%periences online can increase participation and connectedness b means of
enhanced critical thin,ing/ shared reflections/ and helpful feedbac, among peers/ regardless
of individual learning stles/ -ithin the relativel safe conte%t of anonmit (Bolle 2
?obson/ 299().
$imilarl/ sustained online supported conversations can be the foundation of a classroom
communit that invites students to engage thoughtfull and respectfull/ -ithout the fear of
marginaliDation due to discrimination based on cultural or ethnic differences ('ameron et al./
299*). Instructors should therefore encourage online students to collaborate more often b
sharing their individual perspectives/ ideas/ and personal e%periences. The students could also
be encouraged to e%plore and ma,e ad=ustments of their learning stles in response to a -ider
range of modes of learning -hich/ in turn/ promote greater learning opportunities.
>s can be seen from this report/ along -ith unprecedented education opportunities/ online
learning presents challenges for online students. These challenges include such concerns as
technical competencies required of students/ issues of accessibilit/ time commitments
required of instructors/ the need for self"motivation and issues of isolation and learning stle.
The do not/ ho-ever/ necessaril overshado- the prospects of online learning. Aut ever
student -ishing to ta,e on an online stud should decide on their o-n terms =ust ho- these
challenges -ill impact their stud e%perience. ;hen managed -ell/ online learning can
nevertheless form a ver re-arding education path and =ourne at both personal and social
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