The growth of online learning in recent years can only be described as explosive. Fueled by advances in technology, cost-cutting initiatives, and most importantly, the shift to remote working during the COVID-19 pandemic, e-learning has become the norm.
But it is not without challenges. As more and more organizations experiment with new approaches to e-learning, some missteps are to be expected.
The technical challenges of e-learning
Many of the problems with online learning are technical in nature, related to delivering programs to learners in various locations. Below, we’ll dive into and share some of the most common workarounds.
1. Internet access
Many organizations have a geographically diverse workforce, but in some parts of the country, especially rural communities, internet access can be problematic. The digital divide is not only geographical, but also socio-economic. It affects approximately 43 million Americans.
Even when there is internet access, bandwidth and speed can be limited, making file transfer and page load speeds extremely slow. When e-learning programs are produced in-house, IT and learning design staff can work together to strike the right balance between file size and quality. As a workaround, large files may need to be compressed.
Compatibility is another of the most common challenges in online learning. Compatibility issues arise when learners in various locations use devices with different operating systems. Devices from the same manufacturer can also run on different versions of the same operating system. This can be problematic when trying to identify the range of devices that should be supported.
From a development perspective, try to ensure the widest possible compatibility. This may require surveying employees to determine which devices they will use for e-learning. Organizations may also choose to issue laptops, tablets, or smartphones to streamline compatibility.
Employees with certain disabilities or special needs may not benefit from online learning unless programs provide appropriate accommodations. It’s not only the right thing to do, but it’s also legally required.
Accessibility should be a priority when designing or purchasing learning programs. Even if an organization does not currently have employees with disabilities or special needs, this could change with future hires or with a change in the health of a current employee.
Common layouts include captions for the hearing impaired and narrated descriptions of on-screen visuals for the visually impaired. Given the relatively high incidence of color blindness (one in 12 men, according to the National Eye Institute), it’s important not to rely on color alone to distinguish visual elements.
Try Big Think+ for your business
Engaging content on the skills that matter, taught by world-class experts.
Other e-learning challenges
The remaining obstacles below have more to do with design and content. While not an exhaustive list, addressing these five issues would go a long way to ensuring an efficient online experience for everyone.
4. Limited interaction
It has long been a tenet of adult education that much of the learning that occurs in groups is the result of interactions among learners. Such interactions are opportunities to exchange best practices, address common frustrations, celebrate successes and expand one’s network. An online environment can make this type of learning difficult.
However, learning and development professionals can design opportunities for interaction in online programs. When designing group sessions, for example, they can include discussion forums or activities to be carried out in virtual breakout rooms. Online forums and message boards also allow those taking self-study programs to connect with each other.
5. Navigation and user experience issues
Anything that makes it difficult to navigate and interact with an online program interferes with learning. Unintuitive layout, too many links, unclear instructions, lack of interactivity – all these e-learning challenges need to be addressed during development.
One way to prevent navigation and user experience issues from impeding learning is to use agile learning design. The emphasis on reviews and the iterative nature of agile design helps ensure that such obstacles are resolved before an organization-wide program is released.
6. Lack of personalization
Too often it is assumed that everyone in a certain role needs the same training. The result is that employees find themselves enrolled in programs that do not adequately meet their specific needs or learning style.
More and more organizations are moving away from one-size-fits-all online learning in favor of personalized learning journeys that give employees a say in what and how they learn. Empowering employees improves learning outcomes, which benefits the entire organization.
7. Time management
It’s unusual for today’s employees to have more than 20 minutes in the average work week to devote to learning and development. This makes microlearning an ideal design strategy for e-learning programs.
Microlearning divides content into small chunks of five to 10 minutes maximum, with each chunk addressing a single learning goal. Short lessons or modules offer maximum planning flexibility and hold learners’ attention when time is of the essence.
8. Unmotivated Learners
This is one of the biggest challenges of online learning, or any kind of learning for that matter. Without the physical presence of a facilitator and other learners, participants in online programs can easily lose motivation. Even in an instructor-led virtual training environment, they can end up multi-tasking — responding to emails and Slack messages, and getting distracted by unfinished business.
The solution? Commitment, commitment, commitment. First and foremost, there must be some anticipation that the learning program will be worth the time investment required. “What’s in it for me?” must be answered in the message before the start of the program and clearly explained throughout. Each element of a program must be linked to this message.
Additionally, extensive research has been conducted on the effects of adding gamification elements to increase engagement. A little friendly competition can go a long way in motivating online learners. Designers can create opportunities to earn points or badges through completing activities. A ranking that shows their relative position can also be motivating.
The above e-learning challenges are some of the most common that organizations face, but there are others. The only way to know for sure which challenges are the most problematic in an organization is to ask.
Formative and summative evaluations of online programs should go beyond measuring learning outcomes to explore what, more specifically, hinders learning. Following up on post-training evaluations with one-on-one interviews or focus groups that unpack the user experience can also reveal insights that can be helpful in addressing e-learning challenges.