Some Problems with Online Courses

As of Fall 2010, 6.1 million students in the United States were enrolled in at least one online course; this translates into 31% of all higher education students taking at least one course online. Of the 2,500 college and universities surveyed, 65% stated that online learning is critical to their long-term strategy (Allen & Seaman, 2011). However, a survey published by Pew Internet shows that students are not satisfied with their online learning. According to the survey, students taking online classes were asked if the educational value for an online course was the same as a face-to-face (f2f) class. Sadly, 57% of those taking online classes did not feel the online class provided the same educational value as F2F classes (Parker, Lenhart, & Moore, 2011). In addition one-third of all academic institutional leaders believe that the learning outcomes for online education are inferior to those of face-to-face instruction (Allen & Seaman, 2011). According to Zemsky and Massy (2004), students want to connect but with each other; they want to be entertained, but with movies, games, and music. “E-learning at its best is seen as a convenience and at its worst as a distraction” (Zemsky & Massy, 2004, p. iii).

With this concern about the quality of online learning, why are online classes a growing trend in education? Online students have been found to value convenience and flexibility over classroom instruction. Some students are likely to think (mistakingly) that online classes are self-paced and are low in interaction (Peterson & Bond, 2004). Online students, especially in the graduate programs, often have jobs and families which, except for online instruction, would otherwise prevent them from gaining the additional education.

Studies show that online learning can meet course objectives (Peterson & Bond, 2004).  A professor can provide students with activities that encourage more critical thinking and student engagement (Ingram, 2005). So why are most online courses considered sub-standard? Part of the answer is that most online classes mimic the classroom (Norton & Hathaway, 2005). According to Boettcher and Conrad, as online tools are becoming easier to use, getting assistance with teaching online is getting more difficult . “These expectations reflect a belief that teaching online is not much different from teaching in a face-to-face environment. This is not the case. Teachers who are effective in the face-to-face environment will be effective as online teachers, but it is not automatic and it will not happen overnight” (Boettcher & Conrad, 2010).

Part of the problem with online instruction may be in the learning management systems (LMS) themselves. Learning management systems often foster linear learning by encouraging instructors to populate the LMS with static resources and content within weekly blocks or modules (Herrington, Reeves, & Oliver, 2005). The result is that these types of online courses rely heavily on PowerPoint, computerized assessments, and online readings, all which focus on the content rather than education. Utilized in this way, the LMS emphasizes the passing of information rather than fostered learning (Norton & Hathaway, 2005).

Most instructors appear to have little interest in technology even though they know their students would prefer it. Studies have shown that students believe that technology improves their efficiency, helps with motivation and confidence, and helps prepare them for their future. However, many instructors are still reluctant to consider the idea of engaging students in computer supported activities (Li, 2007). Teachers often use tools that are teacher-centered rather than student-centered because that is how they were taught. Although software such as word processing and PowerPoint can be student-centered, they are mostly used for low level skills and to distribute knowledge. This is true even in online environments (Park & Ertmer, 2007; Zemsky & Massy, 2004).

What instructors believe about technology also effects their decisions on whether they use it or not. The teachers which have more student-centered beliefs tend to use online learning in more meaningful ways, utilizing the technology with more inquiry-based activities.  On the other hand, if the instructor doesn’t believe that the technology aligns with the curriculum, if the instructor doesn’t feel that he is prepared, or is not confident with using the technology, then he tends not to use the technology. Personal development does help with this problem. Instructors very comfortable with their subject matter are more likely to take risks using technology (Penuel, 2006).

So we have established that online courses can be very ineffective with content that is no more interesting online than it was in the classroom. Instructors need to change how they believe in order to be stellar instructors in the classroom, whether it is a F2F classroom or an online classroom. Either way, content needs to be engaging, student-centered, and with effective pedagogy. “Unless you get instructional design right, technology can only increase the speed and certainty of failure” (Horton, 2012).


Allen, I. E. & Seaman, J. (2011) Going the distance: Online education in the United States, 2011 (ninth annual report on the state of online learning in U.S. higher education.) Babson Survey Research Group and Quahog Research Group. Retrieved from

Boettcher, J.V. & Conrad, R.M. (2010) The online teaching survival guide: Simple and practical pedagogical tips. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Herrington, J., Reeves, T., & Oliver, R. (2005). Online learning as information delivery: Digital myopia. Journal of Interactive Learning Research, 16(4), 353-367.

Horton, W. (2012) E-learning by design. San Francisco, CA: Pfeiffer.

Ingram, A.L. (2005) Engagement in online learning communities. Elements of Quality Online Education: Engaging Communities, 6, 55-67. [Sloan Center for OnLine Education].

Li, Q. (2007). Student and teacher views about technology: A tale of two cities? Journal of Research on Technology in Education, 39(4), 377-397.

Norton, P., & Hathaway, D. (2005). Exploring two teacher education online learning designs: A classroom of one or many? Journal of Research on Technology in Education, 40(4), 475–495.

Park. S.H. & Ertmer, P. A. (2007). Impact of problem-based learning ( PBL ) on teachers’ beliefs regarding technology use. Journal of Research on Technology in Education, 40(2), 247–267.

Parker, K., Lenhart, A., & Moore, K. (2011). The Digital revolution and higher education: College presidents, public differ on value of online learning. Pew Internet. Retrieved from

Penuel, W. R. (2006). Implementation and effects of one-to-one computing initiatives: A research synthesis. Journal of Research on Technology in Education, 38(3), 329–349.

Peterson, C. L. & Bond, N. (2004). Online compared to face-to-face teacher preparation for learning standards-based planning skills. Journal of Research on Technology in Education, 36(4), 345–360.

Zemsky, R. & Massy, W. (2004). Thwarted innovation: What happened to e-learning and why? (A Final Report for the Weatherstation Project of the Learning Alliance at the University of Pennsylvania.) Retrieved from

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s