Why do students find it difficult to learn online?


Much has been written about “emergency distance learning” or “panic-gogy”. Some of these comments were highly critical of online learning, suggesting that it is entirely inferior to on-campus learning.

However, the situation that has emerged during the pandemic cannot be taken as an indication of what high-quality online learning looks like. Some aspects of high-quality learning in physical classrooms carry over to other modes, but others require a fundamental overhaul and overhaul.

Now, as many higher education institutions around the world prepare for a new semester, term or academic year, uncertainty regarding face-to-face classes persists with the latest wave of Covid-19 infections. Online learning is expected to feature prominently again in higher education provision for the second half of this year and beyond.

Why Online Learning Is Hard For Students

In this complexity, online learning remains difficult for students for five main reasons.

1. Online learning can be isolating

The feeling of isolation when learning online is not helped by webinar technologies (such as Zoom) because we all still find the real-time multimedia interaction in different places weird. Data from Australia’s National Student Experience Survey on sense of belonging has plunged in the past two years as online interaction is foreign to students and teachers compared to lifetime spent at interact face to face with others.

2. Flexibility Puts Pressure on Students

Increased flexibility places more pressure on students to judge their own progress and make good choices. Inherent in the flexibility offered by online learning, there are more choices as to the temporal and spatial dimensions of study. Not everyone has the ability to make good judgments about their learning and to act wisely on those judgments. These capacities are based on what is called “self-regulated learning”, which is an area of ​​research in which we are strongly committed.

3. Students don’t always know where to get help in online environments

Because interaction is difficult online and many students struggle to learn on their own, seeking help can be a hassle. This problem manifests itself in two ways: students don’t know when they need help and either they don’t know where to get help or they feel uncomfortable accessing virtual help.

4. Learners treat material differently online

Students working remotely learn differently than those working in physical environments. This is called the “screen inferiority effect”. There is uncertainty about the difference between acquiring information online and in physical environments, but there is enough research to suggest that there may be a cost to online learning when it comes to learning. efficiency of the time spent.

5. It’s easy to be turned away from studying online

With all the distractions just a click away, students are easily turned away from studying online. These distractions are designed to grab attention and maintain engagement. Distractions include everything from streaming services and social media to online gaming. These distractions then lead to absence from the learning task or multitasking. Both have proven seriously detrimental to progress.

Basic fundamentals of learning

The fundamental principles of learning underlie learning through modes. Paraphrasing (and with apologies to) Richard E. Clark, the nutritional value of a vegetable truck does not change because you transfer it to a train. Engagement, interaction, interest, motivation, time spent on task and attention are essential, regardless of delivery mode.

Quality online learning is not simply copying the teaching approach in a physical environment and doing more or less the same thing online. Different strategies and tactics are needed for successful online learning. These are arguments that have been made many times over the past two years.

The flip side of flexibility

Online learning has undoubtedly created many opportunities for students from equity groups to engage in higher education when they might not otherwise have been able to. Online learning, particularly the use of webinar technologies, has enabled higher education institutions to operate during the Covid-19 pandemic. The increased flexibility offered by networked digital technologies has given students choice in when, where and how they study. These are all good things.

However, the benefits offered by e-learning are not a panacea that will lead to cheaper, easier and faster higher education. Tech companies would have us believe that their tool or platform will “fix” online learning, revolutionizing education.

History has shown that no single technology or platform is the magic bullet for technology-enabled or online learning. Decades of research show that online learning can be difficult for students for many reasons.

This large body of research also suggests that developing high-quality online learning involves three key factors:

  • the fundamentals of high quality learning such as engagement and interaction
  • deliberate design of high quality learning specifically for digital learning environments
  • explicit support for students to equip them with the skills to learn effectively online, which includes the ability to make good judgments about progress and how to take appropriate action based on those judgments.

Online learning can be foreign or challenging for students. However, if well-designed and evidence-based and incorporates ways to deliberately help students learn to learn in these new environments, e-learning can and does offer opportunities that a locked-down traditional approach on specific times and places does not offer.

Jason M. Lodge is Associate Professor in the School of Education and Academic Leader – student learning at the Institute for Innovation in Teaching and Learning at the University of Queensland.

Paula de Barba is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Melbourne Center for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Melbourne.

Jaclyn Broadbent is Associate Principal (Teaching and Learning) in the School of Psychology and Associate Professor at Center for Research in Assessment and Digital Learning Environments (CRADLE) at Deakin University.


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