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In my opinion

The loneliness of the online learner

Taking an online course may be convenient, but as a fulfilling learning experience it fails us in several ways.


I am sitting at a desk in one of the consultation rooms of the university writing centre talking with a student (let’s call her Jane) who is asking for help with an assignment she has been given in an online course. After shuffling some papers, she shows me a short paragraph, which is her brief response to a reading. She tells me that she is taking a psychology course which is only offered online through the university where I work to fulfill the requirements of a Bachelor of Arts degree. She admits to having trouble understanding the assignments.

Jane tells me she is feeling anxious and isolated and wants me to help her with general learning strategies, that is, how to interpret certain questions, and how to gain a higher standing on the course rubric – those commonly used assessment charts that aim to categorize levels of achievement. She confesses to spending too much time surfing the Internet for information and wandering into overly tangential areas. Jane also mentions that she is obliged to send her written responses to assignments to another online classmate for peer review prior to sending them to the instructor.

“Is this helpful?” I ask.

“No,” she replies, “I don’t get much feedback.”

“Can you email your instructor for help?”

She explains that she also has a part-time job which requires her to work late at night and on some weekends. Her instructor has online “office hours” but is rarely available when she has questions.

I check her paragraph and offer a few tips. For example, I suggest that she stick to the course content and focus on the question at hand by reading it several times and breaking its requirements into chunks. At the end of our conversation she says, “Thank you so, so much – it’s great to talk to a real person. You have really made my day.”

After the consultation, I think about how appreciative Jane was to talk to a person in real time about her course and her frustrations with online learning. Although there can be several advantages to blended learning, which involves a combination of on-site and online instruction, I have major concerns about the efficacy of the solely online platform. Jane is experiencing the profoundly lonely existence of the online learner. And as an instructor who has designed, taught and taken online courses over several years, my questions are: If learning is a process of acquiring new knowledge and skills, as well as exploring values and ideas over time, can the online format – arguably one of the greatest revolutions in contemporary education – really fulfill that mandate? And, can its benefits outweigh the limitations?

A matter of convenience

The magical thinking and, to be frank, the preponderance of spin on the benefits of online learning in colleges, universities and other educational institutions addresses itself to pragmatics. We hear that online learning is convenient; students can log into their courses at any time of day and anywhere there is accessible Wi-Fi. Online students (and instructors) are working in cafes and libraries, on a cottage dock, or in their own bedrooms dressed in their pajamas – the online school uniform of choice.

We hear that time zones don’t matter, Jane’s experience of office hours notwithstanding. Students can complete courses while travelling or working in overseas destinations. In fact, I have designed and taught courses while sojourning elsewhere in Canada and abroad. We also hear that students can generally work at their own pace and develop community and networks as they interact with their classmates through discussion forums.

No doubt, there are advantages to online learning; however, as a vehicle for transmitting knowledge and engaging students in a fulfilling learning experience, it fails us for a number of reasons.

My experience has predominantly been in the field of education. I have taught online courses to teachers who are either acquiring additional qualifications or enrolled in a Master of Education program. Participants are already qualified teachers. My students might be reading carefully chosen, topically relevant and current research presented in online articles, book chapters or a course package. Sometimes they are required to watch a video clip such as a TED talk or instructor-created lecture.

In the online courses I have taught, students generally answer questions based on mostly theoretical material and post their responses to a discussion board. This forum gives them the opportunity to exchange ideas and share their teaching and learning experiences with their virtual classmates. They are also required to elaborate on their responses by researching and referencing other topic-related materials they find on the internet, which can be very informative.

The thing is, some students fully engage in the course material by critically reflecting on the topics, posting work in a timely fashion, and responding to their classmates’ posts with quality feedback. Others require more encouragement from their instructor to keep on track and to avoid mere summaries and regurgitations of content. They may also be requested to participate more; indeed, I have chased around many a student who for some reason (and there are many) disappear into virtual space, only to return toward the end of the semester with promises to catch up and complete all assignments by the time the course closes. It is the latter who are the most demanding and time consuming and, depending on their numbers, cause no end of frustration to an instructor already stunned by the class size and the amount of work, mostly unpaid, such teaching requires.

The mirage of community

What’s more, I wonder about the so-called online learner community that develops as students read and respond to their classmates’ posts. Such a community, in my mind, is deceiving. In fact, the warm promise of vibrant and trusting “community” may be the most overrated and egregious oversell of online learning. These are people who have only met each other online through, for example, an introductory assignment in which they are required to answer interview-type questions, and perhaps post a picture or link to a personal website or blog. Strange to me that they could be sitting beside each other on a bus totally unaware of the fact that they are classmates.

To foster more casual communication, some platforms offer a “space” (an online café or general discussion forum) where students can post random bits of personal or professional information not required by the course itself. From my experience, the space is generally underutilized as it requires students to expend extra energy they would rather preserve for graded assignments.

Connected to that false sense of community is the fact that the online platform does not inspire students to provide any kind of honest, engaging commentary. I notice that most of the comments in peer reviews have been rather terse and, for the most part, positive, which is fine when quality work is presented. But what about work that is mediocre or less than mediocre or, in fact, outright bad or obviously copied from some other post? Will an online classmate spend the time it takes to offer detailed suggestions for improvement, for learning-rich encouragement? I have my doubts.

It is no surprise that Jane had found the feedback she received futile and unhelpful. Because constructive criticism in text form can appear to be offensive, most students will try to avoid commentary that seems too direct. Moreover, a written comment by a classmate or instructor can easily be misinterpreted, which can affect an individual’s ability to improve their performance or actively contribute creative ideas to a group project. So much for the “learning community.”

Authentic human interaction

To be frank, the online class lacks features I feel are fundamental to teaching and learning. Compared to face-to-face classroom instruction in which teachers can clarify, explain and interpret content on the spot, online learning just doesn’t cut it. Authentic human interaction is limited, even non-existent, which means that no matter how adept teachers and students may be at navigating the online format and its ongoing innovations, the human vibe is simply not there.

One of my most memorable professors during my own Bachelor of Education program not only gripped the class with her superb storytelling but she also had us uproariously laughing at her off-hand comments and jokes about classroom shenanigans. Laughter can be a welcomed release, especially when experienced by a group of people all sitting together in real time and space – hard, if not impossible to manufacture in the online format.

Along with the human vibe and humour, incidental learning, which is the informal learning that takes place outside the confines of a set curriculum, is also absent. Such learning happens when a teacher or student digresses, when they go off topic or expand on a point not included in the curriculum or lesson plan. It also includes the learning that can take place on a coffee break or lunch hour when students have the opportunity to socially interact with each other outside the classroom or school environment. And what about unintended outcomes? Again, online learning by its very nature does not inspire spontaneous interactions that can lead to a creative, interplay of ideas among students.

And finally, I am sure any instructor will attest to the fact that online teaching can be sheer drudgery. Course development can be time-consuming and finicky, involving an endless search for sound resources and engaging activities. Moreover, with technology changing all the time, the learning curve is often steep and onerous when instructors are faced with new and not always user-friendly software.

Despite all this, I do believe that students should have choices. Some may appreciate the option to either attend a course on site or complete it online. However, from my experience as an academic writing consultant, I have met many students like Jane who have told me that their only option was to take a particular course or courses online to complete their program.

Empathy, compassion and collaboration

Most importantly, we are all hardwired to be social, cultural, collaborative beings. We develop empathy and compassion for one another by looking into each others’ eyes, shaking hands, sharing a joke over coffee and just spending time together. I truly believe that establishing genuine rapport with others and experiencing “aha” moments evoked through learning something new cannot solely be achieved through manufactured simulations and “pretend” communities on online platforms. It is time to think about learning as more than the dissemination of subject matter through screens displaying colourful graphics and endless text. The human vibe plays a key role. Our students, like Jane, deserve more options. It can be lonely out there.

Johanne Mednick Myles (PhD) has been an online instructor in the faculty of education at Queen’s University. She is presently semi-retired, working part-time as a writing consultant at the Queen’s University writing centre.

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  1. Alana / February 17, 2020 at 10:43

    I really appreciate this article, and echo your concerns. I declined to continue teaching first year online courses because it didn’t sit well with me ethically. I’m glad to hear that others have the same misgivings I do.

  2. Josh / February 18, 2020 at 18:08

    Interesting read: I am not sure that I agree with the notion that all online courses run into these same challenges, and thus by definition are creating poor representations of (or, “pretend”) learning communities. I do not disagree with the author’s points for SOME online courses I have seen; yes they can be formulaic, rigid, uninteresting, and bereft of any level of human interaction. So too can in-person classes be guilty of these exact same sins (anybody spend a semester in a 500-person lecture hall?). For every online course that fits the mold described in this article, I have seen countless more models for online learning that is personal, with strong instructor presence, individualized feedback, and opportunities for direct connection. Simply creating in-person courses does not translate these components– all courses must be well designed, regardless of the modality.

    Now, this does take work. Instructors need resources, tools, and a community that supports leveraging technology for an immersive online classroom. We sometimes fall short, and that needs to be remedied. If we advocate to discard online learning, we are also implicitly discarding those students (like Jane) who have said that online is the only way they can come to our institutions. So rather than throw it out, I vote we do better. Let’s be critical of poor quality learning (again, in any modality) when we see it. But let’s also examine the structural and systemic deficiencies that are often the root cause of poorly designed courses, particularly the lack of resources, the lack of training, and the lack of capacity (time) to engage in this work.

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