The Top 5 Challenges To Online Learning (And How To Solve Them)

January 3, 2019

Compared to the traditional classroom model, digital learning has plenty of advantages for teachers and students. Teaching and learning can take place whenever and wherever is most convenient for everyone.

Of course, digital learning has a unique set of challenges to go with the advantages. Many students who excel in a classroom will struggle with an online course. Even those who have no trouble mastering the material can fall behind on assignments and fail assessments.

It’s important for teachers to be aware of these potential obstacles. With a little foresight and planning, you can help your students get the most out of every course.

How to Overcome Five Digital Learning Challenges

1. Need for Self-Discipline

Many students struggle with self-discipline in a higher education classroom setting. It’s the first time they don’t have parents and teachers actively checking in. They don’t get grounded if they skip homework to go socialize. For some, it takes time to find the intrinsic motivation to buckle down and do the work. In an online course, it’s even easier to “skip class” or put off an assignment.

You can’t threaten to take students’ car keys if they don’t do their homework, of course. But you can equip them with tools to help them develop that self-discipline. A shared calendar for the class with reminders for due dates is a great start. An interactive syllabus, where students can check off work as they complete it, also helps with organization.

Basically make it as clear as possible what students should be doing now, how much progress they’ve made, and what’s coming up soon. Calendars, reminders and organizational tools can provide structure without seeming overbearing.

2. Missing Social Interaction

College is an inherently social time — for many of us it’s where we meet lifelong friends, even our future spouse. The social energy of a physical classroom can help with learning: There’s lively discussion, people bouncing ideas off each other, forming groups, lifting each other up.

The in-person dynamic is hard to capture in an online course, but you can capture the feeling of group learning, collaboration and socialization. Encourage students to introduce themselves and interact with each other outside of the course material. If you have a forum set up for the course, make a space for non-course-related chatting.

Then make collaboration a fundamental part of the course. Encourage students to form groups and work together with shared documents (like Google Docs). Allow (but don’t require) group projects for assessment. Encourage meaningful commenting on both course materials and student work. It will likely take some prompting to get these conversations started, but it shouldn’t take long for collaboration and interaction to build momentum.

3. Lack of Teacher Contact

It’s easy to underestimate how much teacher interaction students get on a physical campus. There’s the instruction time itself, with real-time question-and-answer. Then there’s potential for conversation right before and after class, office hours, chance meetings in the hallway…all opportunities that aren’t available for online learning.

Teachers need to take a little extra effort to be available for online courses. You don’t have to get rid of personal boundaries, of course; you don’t have to give students your cell number or friend them on social media. But it’s worth making a class-specific chat account for students and setting hours during which they can expect a prompt response. It’s important to answer email quickly as well.

Most importantly, be present in the conversations students are having about the course material. Reply to comments, answer questions, ask follow-up questions. That way, you can be present for students, but also prompt them to learn from each other as well.

4. Poor Time Management

This challenge is related to the self-discipline piece, but it deserves its own entry. One of the major advantages of online learning is that students can learn at their own pace. That advantage can also be a liability, though. There’s a point at which “their own pace” turns into “procrastination and a mad rush at the end of the semester.” It’s important to help students manage their pace well before the deadlines hit.

It’s best to allow some flexibility with the course progression, but to still provide structure. Set goals for student progress for every week or two weeks: “By January 4th, students should have read X pages, made X comments on the forum, and chosen a topic for the final project.” Make sure students know they’re free to work ahead, but will be expected to hit the milestones to stay on track for the term.

5. Technological Difficulties

We tend to take it for granted that everyone has access to a recent-model laptop or desktop computer. However, even for a generation of digital natives, not every student has had the same access to technology. Many rely on their smartphone or a tablet for all of their online activity. Some will have limited access to broadband or Wi-Fi, even — all of their data comes through their phone plan.

It’s important that course materials evolve from the PC-centric model of the early 00’s. Downloading files, printing pages, even using Word documents may be obsolete for the mobile-first generation. It’s important to choose course materials that are easy to navigate on smartphones and tablets, as well as laptop and desktop.

Help Your Students Stay on Track, Online

Online learning can make education more accessible and convenient for teachers and students, but it’s not without its challenges. It’s important to anticipate the potential obstacles and give students the tools to overcome them. The right structure, technology, and course materials can better equip students to succeed, in your class and beyond.

Caduceus creates interactive, multi-dimensional health curriculum that engages students and promotes learning. Explore our courses here.

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