Learning Blues: The Key Challenges and Solutions for Online Education

May 20, 2021

Your pace (anytime), your place (anywhere), your path (anyone) – is the mantra of online education. While each of these factors matters greatly, they also epitomize the source of [most] challenges of online learning. Distance.

The past year triggered the world’s biggest experiment in remote learning. With one week to the end of spring break, universities, colleges, and K12 school systems moved their classes programmed for on-campus delivery to the online mode. Faculty often unaccustomed to online teaching substituted zoom rooms for classrooms and lecture halls.

These measures will remain exemplary of educational institutions’ ability to mobilize and salvage what remained of an academic year. But online learning modality is more than just about shifting bases.

Best practices to achieve active learning are quite different for online than in-person lecturing: the reason behind online instruction struggles (fostering student engagement, planning classes, et al.) reported by institutions in 2020.

This article intends to help you better understand the challenges of online learning and determine your level of online learning maturity. It also gives recommendations to the education leaders for improving the online experience.

Online Learning Challenges Grid

Online learning offers multiple advantages over the time and space barriers of in-person education.

While new technology often itself drives change, it needs the steerers to tell how it must impact and adapt. For educators to reap the benefits of online learning, it entails understanding and addressing their problems with e-learning.

Here are 12 typical online challenges reported by educators and institutions; Which of these apply to you?

Challenges in Online Learning

1. Technical Issues

From a spotty Wi-Fi to a complete lack of devices, technical issues comprise non-fulfillment of basic technical needs of a student or a teacher; and when the provisions are made, a computer shutdown or errors during a live teaching session, which can impede learning. Tech is the underpinning of digital learning. Without it, anything you build on it will remain weak.

Solution : Survey students, teachers, and parents ahead of time about their technical needs – in terms of internet bandwidth, and devices.

Timpanogos district in the US appointed ‘Facilitators’ to check on teachers and students; and lent Chromebooks to those with no computer at home (NYT).

2. Online Instruction and Communication

Online learning is like communicating without body language, be it synchronous or asynchronous mode. Are you able to properly assess a student’s request for an extension? Is your class confused about the instructions given to them? Do you often report cases of misunderstandings? Anxiety levels are high in absence of proper communication, and more so in online environment.

Solution : Instructions given online must be frequent, sound, and employ highly interactive designs and content to ensure communication has taken place. Teachers must understand the need for keeping in touch with every student. For overall communications, FAQs can be prepared detailing operations, and procedures.

Communication must go beyond academics. It must meet the socio-emotional needs of students, as well as teachers. - David Miyashiro, Superintendent at Cajon Valley Union School District in California

3. Continuous Feedback

Students need feedback: as carrot or stick. Feedback from instructors is fundamental for students to improve their performance. Are you solely relying on summative assessments? Are your students lacking motivation or discipline? A lack of continuous feedback could be the issue. The value of feedback rises even further in the online medium where information is in abundance, but no filters to streamline it.

Solution : Developing and designing a continuous feedback model to allow a better flow of criticisms and advice. The channels for recording and presenting feedback are rich and diverse online: videoconferencing, spreadsheets, email, slide packs, and more.

4. Digital Knowledge

Let alone High-level training in online practices, many students, and teachers lack even basic computer education. Downloading new apps or giving suggestions on them is farfetched. Does operating MS Word, Excel, and PowerPoint prove an arduous undertaking? Are your stakeholders comfortable using a computer and navigating the internet? If not, a lack of digital knowledge – basic proficiency in logging in, taking live classes, evaluating online assignments to making presentations – is your challenge.

Solution : Take periodic training for students and teachers to develop digital dexterity and familiarity in the use of technology to facilitate and enrich learning.

5. Traditional Organizational Model

Recording hour-long lectures in videos and uploading them online is not what constitutes online learning. If you are trying to impose a new framework on the old order, that is doomed to fail. You need to overhaul your instructional and learning architecture and adopting new pedagogical frameworks.

Solution : Executive education programs for institutional leaders can train and prepare them for effectively leading online learning management processes.

6. Time Management

Mapping in-person lecture hours to online instruction is like comparing oranges with apples. Online classes take more time than face-to-face classes. Are you following the old timetable for online classes? Are your teachers unable to achieve intended learning outcomes? Teachers need to put in more time and effort to engage differently with students and course material. Are you lacking the time commitment needed for online learning?

Solution : Make sure your teachers have the bandwidth to take on such a time commitment. From one-on-one interactions, mentoring, breaking up larger courses, and providing feedback. Similarly, students should be encouraged to become more autodidactic (self-learning) and enforce self-discipline.

7. Foolproof Assessment

Assessment is critical to teaching and learning. It’s an opportunity to gauge the performance and areas for improvement. If your online year-end assessments are laden with students sliding into cheating, then your entire online learning efforts might be in vain.

Solution : Different forms of online assessments, particularly online quizzes and tightly timed-MCQs, should be used. Remote proctoring is another robust option for annual or semester examinations online.

8. Different Learning Styles

Proximity is missing in online classes. You are no longer with the student for seven to eight hours of the day. How then do you understand which student needs that extra push? How do you know everyone has understood what needs to be done? Without this surety, you risk dropouts, lack of motivation, and loss in learning.

Solution : Tracking numbers (student activity and performance) and one-on-one communication with students are the guides here. Train and counsel teachers in different types of learners. For students, AI-based personalized innovations can help.

9. Course Design and Lesson Planning

Are you putting in a lot of sweat in online instruction, but the results are not encouraging? If you are thinking of online education in the same format as in-person teaching, you couldn’t be more wrong. Online courses are not as simple as teaching from a textbook in a classroom. Converting regular curricula in an effective online format takes brainstorming. What’s more, the pedagogy for different subjects must be evidentially different; image teaching Mathematics vs. teaching English online.

Solution : Teachers need to be trained to reinvent the curriculum for online learning, and plan lessons into smaller digestible content with a mix of asynchronous and synchronous modes.

10. Collaboration

Online education is not same as the distance education. The two are often confused. While elements of collaboration are missing from the latter, online learning should always be interactive. Are you unable to promote teamwork in online classes? Are students being passive learners? If so, you are facing a dearth of collaboration.

Solution : Help faculty redefine their role online as facilitators. They must encourage students to talk and take lead. Students with similar pace can be identified and put together in team projects to maximize communication.

11. Adaptability

The psychological barriers (of teachers’ and parents’) toward online learning are at their lowest in recent history. Still, some students and teachers may be having trouble shifting from in-person to online learning. Are your stakeholders withdrawn from the online education process? Are some students falling way behind in the class? They may be facing adaptability challenges.

Solution : Understand the cause of low adaption (technical issues, a lack of digital knowledge, or something else). Create a systemic awareness program for change attitudes. Creating a structure for online classes can also reduce confusions.

12. Student Engagement

Though flexible, the online medium is without boundaries. With siblings popping in the video, and background noises, distractions hinder online learning. These factors not only break student concentration but can lead them to withdraw from learning. Are your students disengaged?

Our research finds that it is harder to keep students engaged in virtual lessons, regardless of the content. - Jered Borup, Associate Professor, George Mason University

Solution : Instruction techniques have a big role to play in student engagement. Fix class schedule, encourage discussions, and prompt students/parents to designate a quiet learning place at home. Laying down course expectations and encouraging debates can engage students in online classes.

Note down the most important and immediate online learning challenges for your institution.

What is your online maturity level? Finding your Achilles’ heel

These challenges of online learning can be coalesced into three categories of online readiness – basic, intermediate, and advanced. Overcoming challenges at each level raises your maturity in online learning.

Progress in online learning maturity can be a slow, even multi-year process. At present, only a few education institutions have strong online capabilities. However, many others are opting for it, with ivy-league institutions adopting online learning alongside regular courses.

So, where do you lie on the online maturity continuum?

online maturity continuum

I. Basic - Providing

This is the stage where institutions lack even minimum basics for online learning, such as a strong broadband (technical issues), or the know-how of accessing the technical tools (digital dexterity). They may also not be ready for the change (adaptability), or teachers may have not been provided with the time the change requires (time management).

Transitioning from the basic to intermediate stage becomes possible when these elementary needs are met.

II. Intermediate – Growing

This stage offers concrete higher-value offerings to the online learning ecosystem. It focuses on developing specific capabilities such as planning, reviewing, and reforming courses for online education (lesson planning); creating robust channels of interaction and information dissemination (communication); adopting online evaluation techniques (assessment); and encouraging student participation in online learning (student engagement).

It is helpful to think about institutions’ transition from this stage to the next in terms of building up from concrete to the abstract.

III. Advanced – Transforming

This is the high-impact stage for online learning. It is where institutions define their pedagogical framework and best practices for online education. It involves creating a new institutional model for online education consolidating the internal changes (organizational model); ensuring active learning in online classes – synchronous or asynchronous (collaboration); enabling a better flow of assessments, criticisms, and advice (continuous feedback); and individualized learning not just by the virtue of flexibility, but AI-led adjustments based on learner’s style and pace (different learning styles).

This marks the advanced transition from a mass education model to student-centered online learning.

Recommendations for Education Leaders

Creative and attentive support from institutions is needed to bring online learning to the mainstream. A few maxims for leaders to not lose sight of.

  • The transition to online learning is not all about technology. As you shift to online learning, work with the technology you have (your basic minimums). Adding technology every time, you strike an obstacle is neither necessary nor desired. Add new tools strategically as you progress to an advanced level of online maturity.

  • Institute a Learning Management System. LMS has proved an important tool for K12 as well as higher education institutions. It provides one-stop access to resources and information and promotes student engagement and transparency.

  • Place students at the center of this change. Rethink your instructional model, not basis on academic scores, but to enable high-quality discussions, debates, and emulate real-classroom engagement online.

  • Provide goals and means to let go of the traditional constructs of class timings. The rules of successful online learning are a whole lot different than in-person teaching. Support teachers with time and resources to design and implement impactful online learning modules.

  • Conduct quarterly ‘digital swotting day’ to oversee the learning environment. It can include monitoring the access to basic technologies, and thinking about new technologies to improve the online experience – say whiteboards, remote proctoring, etc.

  • Keep education blended for degree and K12 courses. As multifaceted online learning is, it cannot truly and fully replace in-person connection – especially for the current generation. Washington Post-Shar School survey (2020) shows that a high number of parents and teachers support a mix of online and in-person instruction.

  • March forward with a future vision for online education. Though the experience of students and teachers from the past year has been mixed, the change was abrupt and by no means a model of online education. Scott Pulsipher, the president of an all-online university asks education leaders to consider online learners as online consumers of some decades back, and devise strategies to improve the experience of these consumers, the students.

Higher Education and K12 institutions face a future where online learning will be a part of the curriculum; whether blended or online. Underlying this change is a more fundamental question for ed leaders: Are you prepared to take online learning from a stopgap measure to a permanent pedagogy.

Get more Edvantic insights, advice, and tools on education management, here.