Online Learning: Challenges and Opportunities (Part One)

Recently, several colleges and universities have invited me to campus to address their administration and faculty on the challenges and opportunities of online learning today. While I can’t give away everything here (feel free to inquire about bringing me to your campus for a very fair rate!), I’d like to share some of the highlights with my readers.


The challenges of online learning are myriad. While this list is far from exhaustive, I think they are representative. The number one challenge in online learning is overcoming skepticism.


The number one challenge in online learning is overcoming skepticism– from basically everyone. We are all aware of the public’s skeptical views on the quality of education student’s receive in online programs. While largely the result of poorly conceived efforts of for-profit early adaptors (like the University of Pheonix), the public still treats all digital learning with a wary eye. And rightly so. Many traditional public and private non-profit schools ran headlong into the same low-quality, mass-produced online program offerings attempting to head off this disruption to the higher education market. Alone, this skepticism might still be the greatest challenge to online learning. But teamed with the skepticism that students and faculty view the venture with it becomes the clear cut number one problem.

Negative student perceptions of online learning have several sources. Like the public at large, students are unsure of the quality and value of these programs. For many, their experiences in online courses only exasperate the issue. Students routinely complain about absentee faculty, confusing course construction, a lack of “teaching” in the program, and the high volume of “busy work” they are assigned in their courses. These criticism are well-founded. Graduate programs were some of the earliest adaptors within the traditional higher education landscape and have become the model for online course development at many universities around the country. They also happen to be among the worst offenders of these student complaints, with courses designed to be guided readings programs with tepid discussion board posts poorly imitating “class discussion” and almost zero faculty interaction. This model leaves students rightfully asking “why am I paying an instructional fee for this self-taught course?”

Faculty skepticism takes on more conspiratorial tones. Many administrators pitch online learning as a potential revenue source, which almost always makes faculty cast a skeptical eye on a subject. Faculty are concerned that quality is being sacrificed for quantity (of butts in seats) and that faculty will be asked to do more work for no increased compensation. These fears are well-founded– most colleges and universities ARE pumping out low-quality courses with similarly low enrollment standards while offering faculty little in the way of increased compensation (or hiring an appropriate number of tenured faculty). They also fear their institutions will take their lectures and run them in perpetuity (yes– what university doesn’t want to use your poorly shot and edited 15-year-old lecture on the origins of the US Civil War?). This fear is nonsense.

To be blunt, skepticism in online learning is largely justified and should remain in place until a massive culture shift takes place in how colleges and universities view, build, and teach online courses.

Some of the faculty skepticism comes from how poorly we prepare and support faculty for teaching online (hell, teaching in general). Few faculty have ever been trained in the basics of course design, creating effective assessments, or any number of pedagogical approaches to teaching and learning their subject. The lack of faculty professional development in teaching is made more acute when pushed into the online venue. In addition to struggling with the basics of course construction, faculty are then asked to become their own Learning Management System administrators, graphic designers, content developers, copy editors, videographers/editors, voice actors, and forum moderators. Oh, they also need to figure out how to “flip” their classroom and engage their students in active learning (or whatever the pedagogy du jour is). At best, their college might provide an instructional designer who can help them create basic screen capture videos or cheesy Articulate Storyline content pieces, but most IDs lack the production experience, pedagogy expertise, and classroom experience necessary to really support faculty (not to mention how overloaded most ID shops are with course to ID loads that can easily push over 20 courses a semester).

Most institutions answer to these major professional development deficiencies? Monthly “workshops” aimed at teaching the technical use of some tool or application and the occasional presentation of how one particular faculty member used an approach or template for learning. These are about as effective (and well thought out) as the typical HR training in sexual harassment or internet security we’ve all “next” buttoned our way through.


Misplaced institutional intentions and poor faculty support both play into a third challenge, achieving a consistent and high-quality level across all programs. Most schools cannot even define a notion of quality for themselves. Instead, many rely on third-party rubrics like Quality Matters. While programs like QM can help raise the quality of “on paper” course design, it does next to nothing in guaranteeing quality teaching and learning in the course. It evaluates the best-laid plans rather than the course as it actually exists. Ask most deans, department chairs, or instructors what their goal for a given online course is and you’ll hear at least three answers (none of which are likely to be “will have a QM approved design”). I’ve worked with faculty in designing courses at higher education institutions of nearly every size and mission, and while course design was rarely perfect (asking for clear and measurable course objectives from faculty is about as infuriating as asking for well-written thesis statements from students), it pales in comparison to the real deficiency in most online courses: the content.

Content matters.


Knowing what technologies to adopt and when to do so causes more administrators to have sleepless nights than any other topic. Major decisions, like renewing or replacing a Learning Management System, are the online version of renovating or building a new physical structure. Wait too long, and you are stuck with a dated system that doesn’t integrate well with your other systems or the newest (supposedly greatest) apps and has declined (or completely lost) technical support.

Most schools seem to be getting savvy to this issue. Instead, many schools are jumping systems too frequently. Moving from a slightly dated, but well-developed system to a flashier system that promises a host of future changes has a lot of unseen risks. From institutional knowledge decay to functionality losses (like gaining a much more streamlined and intuitive quiz tool while losing confusing, but important testing options), change for the sake of change is often more harmful than helpful.

All of these issues tie into the ultimate challenge– student success and student retention. Retention rates lag far behind traditional brick-and-mortar students. There are many causes here, be they low admission standards, lack of student support, non-existent learning communities, poor course quality, or the complicated life issues of our non-traditional students. Better results require a more focused and intentional approach to online program building.

Later this week I’ll outline a few of the opportunities that exist in online learning and how we can react to these challenges and opportunities to create learning environments that not only meet the high standards of our traditional campuses but in some ways actually surpasses them.


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