Documentation:Teaching Challenges: Online/Learning Modules

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Online learners are still human beings, and display as many differences of style, approach and behaviour as learners in classrooms! This module uses case studies of ‘real’ difficult situations in online courses, to help you think about and share strategies for communications ‘repair’ in virtual learning environments.

Learning Objectives

This module introduces the concept of “Online Teaching Challenges”, briefly looks at what can cause teaching challenges, discusses how to manage difficult learners, and provides case studies for further consideration and reflection.

These objectives are intended to be an introductory exploration of some common online challenges.

At the end of this module, participants will be able to:

  • describe common scenarios that may cause difficulties for the online instructor.
  • describe what constitutes a difficult learner.
  • formulate strategies for managing online teaching challenges and conflict.


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Listen to Heather Stewart (New York University) as she reflects on the core competencies required for online educators. She highlights the importance of using rapid and rich feedback to develop a productive faculty/student relationship in order to enhance the educational dynamic and learning process.

More video from: COTS Competencies for Online Teaching Success World Campus Penn State PSU Faculty Development

Managing Difficult Learners

The material that follows is substantively taken from a 2003 article by Kate Butler (2003), and made available through the website of the Australian Flexible Learning Network. It has been modified for the UBC context, and to reflect more common issues with adult learners. There are a variety of definitions of what makes a ‘difficult’ online learner, and there are no infallible ways of avoiding or dealing with incidents of bad or disruptive behaviour. In the context of online learning, the following are examples of learners who could be considered ‘difficult’. A learner who:

  • Doesn’t keep in contact regularly
  • Consistently doesn’t do what they say they will
  • Doesn’t achieve set goals or maintain their commitment to study
  • Doesn’t respond to specific requests and questions
  • Ignores advice
  • Contributes inappropriately to group tasks
  • Doesn’t work as an active and supportive group member
  • Disrupts other learners through their behaviour
  • Makes offensive remarks
  • Challenges the facilitator’s/instructor’s authority, either publicly or privately
  • Submits work that is plagiarized or not their own

Instructor/Facilitator's Role

There are no foolproof ways of preventing difficult behaviour online and, as with other delivery methods, the key is that you need to:

  • Be aware of what might happen
  • Make sure you are as aware and informed as possible
  • Make sure learners are as aware and informed as possible
  • Know what procedure is expected of you
  • React objectively and supportively
  • Seek support from colleagues when necessary

It is also possible that some challenging experiences might prove to be a positive learning experience for you and the learner alike. Some challenging behaviour is deemed so simply because it makes the job of the facilitator/instructor harder. In other cases, behaviour is more consciously disruptive and detrimental to the learning experience of other learners. These definitions could apply to learners in any delivery medium but it can help the online facilitator/instructor to look more specifically at ways to prevent them and respond to them in the online environment.


Make sure the learner knows what to expect when embarking on online study. Irregular contact, failure to achieve goals or respond to requests may be caused by the learner’s ignorance of what is expected. Make sure that your expectations are stated very clearly at the beginning of the course, to ensure learners know what they are getting themselves in to. This should include guidelines on appropriate behaviour and detail as to the expected time commitment and technological requirements.

Model the behaviour you expect

The way you relate to learners will have an impact on their understanding of how to behave in an online environment and can be the best way to demonstrate what is expected. Establish a good relationship with learners where you stay open to ideas and problems, respond promptly and always communicate in a considered and considerate way.

Know when to intervene and refer on

Sometimes it becomes clear that a learners' challenges require additional support. UBC's Counselling Services offer these Guidelines for Faculty and Staff for referring at risk learners.

Strategies for Online Class Management

Lack of response or expected activity

  • Have a process for monitoring learner input and progress so that you can intervene quickly
  • Respond quickly and clearly if work is unsatisfactory or if a learner is not meeting course requirements.
  • Regularly remind the learner as to what you expect
  • Use back up communication such as email or the telephone for persistent non-response
  • Make sure you understand the procedure for dealing with consistent non-participation. To whom should you refer the learner?

Disruptive behaviour or offence to other learners

  • Intervene quickly and supportively so that other learners know you are involved and they are being protected
  • Contact the learner privately to try and ascertain what the reason for their behaviour is. This may be best done face to face or by telephone so that they have to engage with you.
  • Keep showing support to the other learners
  • Withdraw the offending learner from the discussion forum if necessary


Like any place where people interact, Cyberspace has its own culture with its own range of expected and appropriate behaviours. What makes effective online communication sometimes difficult to achieve is the lack of gestures, facial expressions, tone of voice and other forms of body language that guide face-to-face communication, and which most of us take for granted. This can easily lead to a breakdown in communication, or worse, damaged social relations. These challenges can also be compounded by cultural and linguistic differences. What a student or instructor might consider clear, open and confident online communication might be misconstrued as rudeness, apathy or aggression.

The most important step in establishing effective online communication is to take a moment to consider the audience and what effect the message will have. In other words, consider ‘Netiquette’ and don’t simply assume that familiar everyday modes of written or verbal communication are fully applicable in an online environment.

Most of all, remember the human at the other end of the message. When responding to a difficult or contentious post, take the time to summarize the points in question to minimize the risk of misunderstanding, and when challenged, clarify your position and respond to the points raised, not the personality. Doing so can help to avoid many challenging situations before they arise and become serious or difficult to manage.

For further information and resources on netiquette, have a look at The Core Rules of Netiquette


Most adult learners enroll in courses because they are genuinely interested in learning more about the topics under study, and perhaps because they believe that the material will help them in their personal and/or professional lives. This makes it less likely that course participants will engage in behaviour that we might call “cheating” – a phenomenon that is more common where learners are extremely time stressed, or feel pressured to complete work for ‘bureaucratic’ reasons rather than in pursuit of personal learning goals.

On the other hand, accepting plagiarized material from learners denies them the opportunity to engage in the meaningful critical reflection and writing that contributes to good learning. Moreover, learning to accurately assess the credibility and authority of information sources, and learning to accurately attribute material and ideas to their original authors contributes to a learner's personal and professional skill set. There are various strategies for trying to prevent plagiarism, such as giving clear information on what is unacceptable, and building a relationship with learners so you get to know their skill levels.

If you suspect plagiarism, it can help to:

Remember that some learners may not understand what plagiarism means, or why you have concerns about it. This detailed Resource Guide teaches learners how to correctly cite their work.

  • Direct learners to UBC Library resource pages on Evaluating Information Sources
  • Give the learner the opportunity to explain themselves.
  • Give the learner the chance to resubmit work.
  • Consult the course coordinator or your department head to develop a plan of action.

Case Studies

Case Study 1

In this exchange, Susan (a rather naïve young woman) offers her first response to a course reading about the challenge of determining and protecting the ‘rights of citizenship’ in a multicultural society:

Susan: Citizenship as solidarity suggests citizenship provides a solid ground that people can identify with. THere is a lack of solidarity due to multiculturalism. In an era of globalization where people move freely throughout the world, it is difficult to form solidarity anywhere.

In N and k article they argue there is a common complaint of groups demanding multicultural rights that in many ways the dominant group is often favored. The first question this brings to mind is who is the dominant group? Whoever the dominant group may be I don’t feel they are favoured because in Canada for example all people have freedom of speech. All citizens have the same rights. At the university we have a women’s room, a gay room, a native room are these the dominant groups because in my mind these are the groups that are favored. And at the same time choosing to segregate themselves.

I don’t think solidarity can be found within our globalized world.

…and then Brian, a rather ‘combative’ learner, joins the discussion, ostensibly to answer Susan’s question. He writes:

Brian: I’ll tackle this question, if no one else wants to.

Let’s take a look at UVic, for example, as a typical university. “Equity in hiring of the regular faculty hires during the past nine years, 102 have been men (46%), 120 have been women (54%).” ( So which gender would be dominant at UVic (in terms of faculty hiring), from a historical perspective, you would say Male, over the last 9 years, Female. “Student enrolment (2006/07): 19,475 (including 2,514 graduate students); 60% female, 32% part-time students; 72% of undergraduates come from outside Greater Victoria. Full-time equivalent students: 14,442”. ( So again you could ask which gender is dominant in university (in terms of enrolment numbers), probably from a historical perspective you would say Male, from a 2006/2007 perspective, Female.

In terms of segregation, I would say personal attitude has a large part to play. I’m classified at UVic as a student with a disability, I went to the disability room…once. I didn’t feel comfortable being segregated, I see myself as a student who has to overcome a certain amount of adversity, but don’t we all. I didn’t think I deserved a ‘special’ room and I don’t understand those who wanted one. I thought of creating a ‘mature’ student group, we might have some interesting things to share, but I wouldn’t ask for special resources. Why the ‘Chinese chess club’, what’s wrong with the chess club (well unless you are playing chinese chess).

Circle question.png Questions for Reflection:

  • Why do you think the online facilitator found this exchange challenging?
  • How would you respond to Susan? What assumptions or misunderstandings does she seem to express, and how would you explore them with her?
  • Are Brian’s arguments valid? Why might he have presented the statistics that he has chosen, here? How would you respond to Brian? Should you respond at all?

Case Study 2

Peter is an older learner in a group that by chance is mostly composed of younger participants. Having taken early retirement, he freely admits that he is taking an online course to fill up some of his masses of free time, and learner tracking statistics quickly show that he is logging in to the course up to twenty times a day. Moreover, it quickly becomes clear that Peter is extremely comfortable in the online milieu. He tells the group that he participates in numerous online discussion forums where he is regularly involved in debates about political issues. In the first week or two, most other participants are hesitantly coming online, and struggling to become familiar with the new environment and style of communication. Peter, however, is peppering all available discussion forums with messages, routinely posting messages 8-10 times per day, although he often responds helpfully and in a thought-provoking manner to classmates. In response to a gentle first request from the facilitator to perhaps ‘go easy’ a little until others had caught up, Peter responds publicly with:

“I have to say that as someone who has recently taken online courses in Humanities (philosophy) and Fine Arts (film studies) this course has an emerging culture to it that is a more controlling and restrictive. I don't know if that is something specific to Sociology or just this course but it's manifest in the structure and the instructor feedback… I'm very passionate about freedom of speech and freedom of thought and it will be difficult to "hold my tongue" but I will make a concerted effort.”

Circle question.png Questions for Reflection:

  • Why do you think the online facilitator found Peter’s online communications challenging?
  • Might Peter’s communication practices have an impact on other learners, and if so, how?
  • Why do you think Peter posted his response publicly?
  • How would you communicate with Peter about this?
  • Should anyone else from the department or institution be involved in this conversation?
  • What outcome would you seek from these communications?

Examples in Practice

Butler (2003) offers the following stories about how she or a colleague handled some tricky situations in online courses. She writes:

Learner who doesn’t contribute, makes many promises to improve but doesn’t act until threatened with withdrawal from the program.

A learner I worked with contributed fairly well initially to individual and group tasks but then was consistently late with work and gradually missed major deadlines, putting him well behind his peers. I sent emails to him asking for explanations and improvements and he responded with promises to change, which didn’t eventuate. His inaction meant extra work for me, as I had to continually remind him of deadlines and also disrupted his work group who tried to accommodate his lateness in-group activities. Finally, after several weeks of non-activity, I informed him that he was being withdrawn from the course (whereupon he suddenly expressed a keen intention to mend his ways).


  • Keep in regular contact with the learner and make it clear what you expect and how he or she needs to improve in order to have the best chance of success.
  • Have a clear policy of minimum required participation so a learner can be withdrawn after a certain point if they consistently fall behind.
  • Don’t wear yourself out if it becomes clear the learner is not going to participate, as they should. Ultimately it is their choice and responsibility to manage their own progress.

Learner whose work is variable in quality and is suspected of being inauthentic.

A learner that a colleague worked with (Learner A) contributed work of widely varying quality with discussion contributions showing a poor level of understanding but written reports that were of a high standard. On investigation, it turned out the Learner A cohabited with another learner on the course (Learner B), whose own contributions were consistently of a high standard. The facilitator/instructor suspected that Learner B was contributing substantially to some of the work of Learner A. This was a difficult situation as it was very hard to prove collusion and Learner A proved reluctant to give any explanation or response. The learner also, when challenged, lodged a complaint against the facilitator/instructor.


  • Ask learners during enrolment if they are likely to be working with anyone.
  • Have an ethics policy and make this clear to learners at the start of the course.
  • Build various assessment formats into the course to get a better sense of each learner’s understanding and way of communicating.
  • Build assignments around learner’s personal experiences to ensure work is not copied.
  • Use synchronous chat or a face-to-face meeting to question the learner on particular issues to ascertain their level of understanding.
  • Have a third party intervene and investigate if there is a strong suspicion of unethical behaviour.

Learner who posts a first contribution to a discussion that answers all the questions.

A learner I worked with, who had contributed well in the past but had a certain lack of confidence about online group work, had to lead a group discussion for the first time. She began the process with an extremely lengthy contribution that answered all of the topic questions and proved very difficult for others to reply to. Responses from other learners were equally as lengthy as they attempted to react to all points and the discussion as a whole stagnated. This affected the experience of all the learners in the group and meant extra work from me.


  • Give early information on the best ways to lead a discussion.
  • Contact the learner privately and supportively to voice your concerns.
  • Intervene quickly by briefly summarizing the key points made and asking follow on questions or ask the learner to do this.
  • Turn this into a learning experience by having a follow up discussion on the best way to lead and participate in online group work.

Learner who ignores requests for amendments to work

A learner I taught consistently submitted work that didn’t meet the assignment brief and was below standard. In my feedback I would give follow up questions and request additions and amendments. The learner seemed to ignore these and would continue sending in subsequent assignments. This meant a certain amount of extra work for me but also indicated the learner might reach the end of the course without having met all the assessment criteria.


  • Be very clear when giving feedback as to what needs to be redone or amended and state overtly if the assignment has not been successfully completed.
  • Send regular reminders
  • Follow up by phone to ensure the learner is actually receiving your emails
  • Be clear if the learner is reaching a point where they might fail the course
  • Like the first case study, there is only so much you can do as a facilitator/instructor and it is ultimately the learner’s responsibility to ensure their own progress.

Learner who challenges authority

One of the best learning experiences I have had as an online facilitator/instructor was when a very confident and forthright learner sent me an email that openly denigrated a particular aspect of the course and the general validity of the program. I was lucky that she did this by private email as it allowed me to also respond privately. My first reaction was to be defensive and somewhat angry but I wrote and rewrote my response several times and sought feedback from colleagues. In the end I was able to separate the valid comments the learner had made from the misunderstandings and respond in a positive way that acknowledged the validity of her opinions.


  • Give learners the opportunity to give feedback on the course or the facilitator/instructor to a third party to try and prevent challenges that arise from frustration.
  • If this happens in a public forum, it may be beneficial to respond publicly in a general way but to also follow up privately to discuss in more depth the various issues the learner may have.
  • Consider your response carefully and seek other opinions before sending.
  • Stay open minded as the learner may have a point.
  • Acknowledge their opinion and be positive about their input and their desire to improve the course or their learning experience.
  • State your own opinion clearly and add context that the learner may not be aware of.
  • As with other delivery methods, there are no fail-safe ways of preventing or resolving difficult behaviour online. It is essential to be as prepared and informed as possible and you may find you can turn a challenging situation into a positive experience for both facilitator/instructor and learner.

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