MET:Challenges for E-Learning

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This page was originally authored by Stuart Allen Davidson (2009) UNDER CONSTRUCTIONPlease do not edit this page or make additions to it at this time


The emerging research in the field of E-learning boasts of the many advantages and affordances that it holds for 21st century learners. The rich scholarly content that is available, diverse modes of content, ability for students to actively be in command of their own learning, and the unprecedented ability to communicate and interact with other learners are acknowledged as advantages to online learning. In his work towards a theory of online learning Terry Anderson (2004) outlines several of these potential affordances:

  • Provides flexible, ubiquitous learning that bridges current cultural, social, and physical barriers.
  • Can deliver universal access to scholarly research in all academic fields
  • Meets diverse learning needs through multiple modalities
  • Current, real-time, on-demand content delivery
  • Increase in communication and interaction

Yet, is online learning truly the educational panacea that it claims to be? As with all advances in education and society there are some cautions that need to be considered. Many institutions offering online or E-Learning programs of study indicate, for prospective students, the differences between traditional 'brick and mortar' learning environments to that of the virtual learning environment. For instance NAIT a Polytechnique in Edmonton outlines some of the perceived disadvantages for learners in e-learning courses. The disadvantages outlined here are similar to those presented for other learning institutions and enterprise based organizations. Those who design E-learning environments must consider these challenges from a learning perspective.

Sociocultural Limitations

Difficult to determine cultural perspectives

When E-Learning is considered against existing educational theory including the constructivist socio-cultural theories of Jean Piaget, Lev Vygotsky and Jerome Bruner where the cultural pre-conditions for learning are imperative to meaningful learning, there are distinct challenges for E-learning. The cultural and socio-linguistic background necessary to gauge learner readiness and perspective are far more difficult to determine in a virtual environment (Anderson, 2004; McNaught & Vogel, 2004) Thus, designers of E-Learning environments must be innovative in overcoming this obstacle. One way this is done is through course introductions and activities that promote initial social interaction. The effectiveness of this design aspect in determining cultural perspectives is a potential area for further study.

Can be class specific

Among the advantages that are often suggested with the future of E-Learning is the idea that, with reduced geographic constraints and reduced infrastructure costs, E-learning has the potential to be the global liberator in providing educational opportunities to non-traditional students. However this is yet to be realized as large costs needed for communications infrastructure in order to facilitate effective E-Learning is prohibitive to the very populations that are to be liberated by these technological advancements (Westbrook, 2006; Haugen, LaBarre, & Melrose, 2001).

Inhibited social developmental learning

One of the greatest perceived drawbacks associated with E-learning is the lack of social interaction provided in a traditional classroom setting. Overcoming a sense of individual isolation is at times difficult for learners when removed from the highly social environment of traditional classrooms, professional development environments, and campus based learning. Further, the opportunities for social developmental learning that have been a byproduct of campus based/classroom learning are limited in the virtual learning environment. Shoaf (2004) reports findings that indicate student dissatisfaction with the absence of peer-group relationships. Depending on the curricular purpose and the age and level of study of the learners this is an important area of consideration of those who design E-Learning opportunities.

Communities of Practice Limitations

The ability for E-Learning environments to produce and replicate rich Communities of Practice is certainly a challenge for the design of these educational environments. Anderson (2004) outlines some of the potential hurdles that online learning faces from a communities of practice perspective including a disconnect between community members with the absence of place and ability to meet synchronously. As well, a virtual Community of Practice can lack the trust and collegiality that is often developed in groups who have physical proximity to each other. (Anderson, 2004; Fontainha & Gannon-Leary, 2008). Again, the opportunities for synchronous communication must be considered by course designers when attempting to capitalize on Etienne Wenger's model of Communities of Practice.

Technological Limitations

Lack of ICT skills

One area that impedes E-Learning for all learners is that it requires an advanced level of technological skill. Haugen, LaBarre & Melrose (2001) suggest that students must be competent in technological skills suggesting that the level of skill required to be successful in E-Learning environments goes beyond mere literacy. Similarly, the previously mentioned collaborative nature of E-Learning requires accessibility and competence with emerging web based technologies.(Fontainha & Gannon-Leary, 2008). ICT skill and support is also a challenge for instructors who are required to maintain technological proficiency in a rapidly advancing field.

Suitability for students with disabilities

The functionality of many E-Learning courses are unable to meet the needs of all students. Students with particular disabilities are at a disadvantage when interfacing with some of the needed educational technologies found in E-Learning courses. (Burbles, 2004 in mcyclopeida)

Other Limitations related to learner/instructor needs

Lack of 'independent study'

The opportunity to learn independently is a perception that draws many learners towards E-Learning as a mode of education. Similar to some attracted to distance learning there is a portion of the learners who seek online learning based on their independent learning style. However, the highly collaborative nature of many E-Learning courses, designed with the affordances of constructive interaction as an underpinning theory, result in a learning environment that is often more collaborative and less independent than traditional learning experiences. (Anderson, 2004). The Collaborative Learning design of such courses can have unintended consequences. Westbrook (2006) points out that many students experience 'collaborative fatigue' from the intensive collaboration required in E-Learning course work. Therefore, designers and instructors of E-Learning environments must make accommodations for this in their courses.

Dillema of Specialized Subjects

Not all subjects, curricula, and fields of study are ideally suited or transferable to a virtual environment. The need for real face to face interactions are part of many areas of study from counseling to car repair. The ability to duplicate this in the online environment is difficult. Additionally, specific academic subjects require highly specialized expertise that is difficult to replicate in an on-line environment. (Fontainha & Gannon-Leary, 2008)

Increased time requirements

Because of the text-based nature of E-learning, where almost all communication must be word processed, actually increases the amount of time needed for learning. Additionally, E-Learning courses at all levels often include in their design a requirement for students to make posts to discussion forums. The increased level of discourse encouraged through E-Learning environments can be a potential disadvantage through the perspective of some learners. (Haugen, LaBarre & Melrose, 2001)Moreover, the increased time demands placed upon faculty and instructors in E-learning environments, where faculty can be contacted ubiquitously by students, has been a noted area of concern for the design and development of E-learning courses. (Westbrook, 2006)

Communication obstacles

One of the difficulties with all online communications is the misinterpretation of meaning. Fontainha & Gannon-Leary (2008) identify this as a disadvantage for learners in an online environment. The lack of non-verbal cues and the familiarity that comes with face to face communication can cause significant problems for learners in an E-learning situation. The design consideration for overall communication within E-Learning courses and schools must be attended to in order to minimize potential miscommunication.

Pedagogical Limitations

Mentioned often in the research is the inability to adapt teaching models to the online environment. (Anderson, 2004; Fontainha & Gannon-Leary, 2008; Westbrook, 2006). Professor of E-Learning at University of Leicester speaks to some of the challenges currently faced by instructors... {{#ev:youtube|jcIPLiGHozc}}


Anderson, T. (2004). Toward a theory of online learning. Theory and practice of online learning, 2, 33-60. Retrieved June 13, 2008, from ETEC 512 course readings.

Fontainha, E., Gannon-Leary, P. Communities of practice and virtual learning communities: Benefits, barriers and success factors. Munich Personal RePEc Archive, 1-15. Retrieved July 2, 2008 from ERIC EBSCOhost research database.

Haugen, S., LaBarre, J., & Melrose, J. (2001). Online course delivery: issues and challenges. IACIS. Retrieved July 8, 2008 from ERIC EBSCOhost research database.

McNaught, C. & Vogel, D.R. (2004). The converging streams of globalisation and eLearning: Stretching the comfort zone. In R. Atkinson, C. McBeath, D. Jonas-Dwyer & R. Phillips (Eds), Beyond the comfort zone: Proceedings of the 21st ASCILITE Conference (pp. 637-646). Perth, 5-8 December. retrieved February 23, 2009 from

Shoaf, L. (2007). Perceived advantages and disadvantages of an online charter school. The American Journal of Distance Education, 21(4), 185–198. Retrieved February 4, 2009 from ERIC CSA research database.

The Virtual Classroom – Disadvantages. In mycyclopedia of new media. Retrieved Feb 24, 2009 from

Westbrook, V. (2006).The virtual learning future. Teaching in Higher Education, 11(4), 471-482. retrieved July 8, 2008 ERIC EBSCOhost research database.

External Links

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