The Obstacles of Online Learning

One of the major concerns brought up about online learning pertains to whether it’s capable of offering a typical college experience. However, the reality is there’s no “typical” anymore when it comes to college life because there’s no “typical” anymore when it comes to college students. Coming from different backgrounds with different experiences, today’s students have diverse wants and needs. The many options now available represent a shift by universities to fit changing needs, as well as growing demand for flexible and adaptable programs. 

At the same time, online programs have increasingly begun to acknowledge the importance of community, exchange, and opportunities for socialization by incorporating opportunities for all of these things, just via virtual channels. For example, everything from career fairs to tutoring has moved online with great success. Andreas Kokkvoll, a part-time student in graphic design at the Noroff School of Technology and Digital Media, proposes, “You are not part of a physical environment like in a school, but there is always an opportunity to link up with fellow students online. If you are a person who wants to gather the class, you can use the platforms that exist to create a common environment online.”

Questions of quality have also arisen about online learning, including stigmas about its effectiveness and value. However, while employers may once have viewed candidates with degrees from online programs as inferior, that perspective is changing as more employers not only accept their worth, but also understand they may actually offer some advantages. For example, in today’s tech-centric work world, an online degree demonstrates competency with navigating the digital landscape. “I have expanded my technical competence to a great extent, and I have opened my eyes to a lot I did not know about before,” says 34-year-old student Mette Amelie. 

Like Mette, many students pursuing online degrees are largely positive. In fact, the vast majority of those who have taken both face-to-face and online coursework reported the latter was as good or better than the former,  according to a recent survey by Learning House and Aslanian Market Research. 

Learning House president and CEO Todd Zipper said of the findings, “It's encouraging to see that a majority of students who are studying fully online are reporting great value and satisfaction with their online programs which are largely tied to ambitious career goals. With an increasing population of savvier consumers with high expectations, institutions need to do better at offering more quality, diverse programs that are sensitive to cost in order to keep up with the growing demands of online college students."

Still, despite this positivity, many students also report being frustrated not about the learning experience itself, but about the cost. “I think it has reduced the intellectual rigor of my study because I’ve lost the ability to have the same level of discussion,” says one

According to a report from CNBC, students who signed up for, paid for, and expected on-campus instruction are particularly frustrated by the switch to distance learning with no adjustment in cost. Student Anthony Belotti says, “I feel like I’m teaching myself the material and every day is a new frustration. [...] I’m not getting the networking or one-on-one interactions with the professors.” 

Another hitch to online learning pertains to the technology itself. Lags, glitches, outdated software, and poor Wi-Fi connectivity can directly interfere with the learning experience. However, these can also be looked at as growing pains that will settle down as online learning further establishes itself. 

Lastly, there’s the fact that online learning is not necessarily the best fit for everyone. Students with ADHD or learning disabilities, for example, may have difficulty focusing due to the lack of structure in online learning. There are fixes for this, too, such as building in breaks and blocking out specific time for studying. Limiting access to distractions like mobile phones (there are various apps for doing so) and televisions can also help students stay on task. 

The Opportunities of Online Degrees

We’ve already established that while there are some perceived obstacles regarding online degrees, there are also many upsides to getting online degrees. These upsides expand beyond individual students for “big picture” impact. According to researchers, “Online degree programs can advance diversity and inclusion by meeting growing demand for higher education, lowering costs, and attracting non-traditional populations who could not attend a residential degree program.” 

COVID-19 has further demonstrated the tremendous potential of online learning as universities all over the world have been forced to pivot to remote instruction. It’s also led to increased scrutiny regarding the differences between face-to-face and remote learning with recent research from the UK indicating there are distinct benefits to both remote and hybrid learning

Another thing to keep in mind about online learning, from the perspective of an educator, is that while face-to-face learning as we know it has been around for hundreds of years, online learning is still very new. “As teachers and students at all levels gain experience with online education their quality will equal or exceed face-to-face instruction,” asserts a teacher with 50 years of experience. 

In Singapore, for example, medical schools are using virtual reality headsets and hand-held controls to create simulated hospital environments for medical students to digitally learn about patient care. We can expect to continue to see developments like this which will push the boundaries of what online learning is capable of and enrich the learning experience.

As with many things in life, what students get out of both online learning and face-to-face learning comes down to what they put into it, and what teachers put into it as well. At Harvard Law School, while online learning may not have been the first choice of many, it’s largely proven to be a success. “Overall, I think it’s clear that the professors have put in work to make sure that we are obtaining a rewarding learning experience despite it being online. I am definitely engaged in the material we are covering in all of my courses,” says first-year student Daisy Almonte.

In fact, so many stakeholders have found the shift to online learning to be beneficial that many experts predict that its growth will continue, even after the pandemic subsides. “I think it’s the present of college and I think it’s the future,” university chancellor Kristin Sobolik told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

So whether or not you’re already a fan of online learning or you still have your doubts, we can say with certainty it’s here to stay. And because this mode of delivery is still in its comparative infancy, we can also expect it to continue to evolve to better meet the needs of today’s and tomorrow’s students!