4 critical unresolved issues of online learning

Worldwide, many programmes have been implemented to increase learning through the Internet, but there are a number of consequences in unduly relying on this medium. Four are discussed.

(Source: Sigs24065, Flickr)

Last week, LIME announced it would be involved in delivering an interactive curriculum, based on the Caribbean Secondary Examination Certificate (CSEC). The curriculum, called “Learning on LIME”, will be distributed through mobile devices, television and the Internet. LIME is partnering with FaberVision Studios and Pearson to develop the programmes. A key approach that will be employed to deliver the curriculum is storytelling. According the collaborators, and as reflected in statements made by Gary Goldberger, President of FableVision Studios,

[b]lending technology and storytelling is a powerful way to improve education… by adding leading edge mobile devices, LIME is moving learning beyond classroom walls to where learners live and play.

Without a doubt, Internet proficiency is absolutely essential in today’s world, and students can benefit from new and different learning tools and approaches, including those that can be implemented in an electronic format. Benefits that can be realised from using online tools include:

  • providing remedial assistance to slow learners
  • encouraging students to participate more fully in their own learning by engaging in knowledge creating activities
  • catering more fully to students’ varying learning styles or preferences, and
  • using modalities (e.g. images and sound) that are more appealing to learners.

However, we must also appreciate that there are a number of issues that remain unresolved and are even exacerbated by an unduly high reliance on the online environment, not just for learning, but also for other activities. This post highlights four key issues that should be considered.

1.  Lack of face-to-face interaction. Even today, computing devices – PCs, smartphones, tablets, etc. – are designed for individual use. Although social networking has eroded some of the boundaries between people online, use of computers and similar equipment is still an individual pursuit. There are a number of essential social and collaborative skills that are inherently learnt in a classroom, and when working in groups. These skills are not only essential to everyday life, they are crucial in the workplace, where complex working relationships often exist, and persons are regularly required to work in ad hoc or established groups to achieve desired outcomes.

2.  The risk of isolation and stunted social development. Coupled with the previous point, the absence of face-to-face interaction does lead to some degree of isolation, which, for students, could undermine the entire learning process. Over the last 10 years or so, the link between the Internet and social isolation has received wide debate.  Some of the findings suggest that the medium can provide a platform for building new relationships, especially among the middle-aged population, who otherwise might be isolated. However, the risk of stunted social development is of a particular concern with today’s children,. They are not as active as previous generations, and increasingly, are choosing to spend whatever free time they have online and/or playing virtual games, which is reduces their physical exposure and contact with others. The anticipated result, which is already becoming evident, is socially inept citizens, which in turn can exacerbate feelings of isolation, can increase stress and potentially, can trigger depression.

3.  Writing is still an issue. Although literacy applications do exist to help persons to improve their reading and comprehension skills, the ability to express oneself in words: to present one’s ideas in fluent, coherent and well-constructed sentences, is becoming a dying art.  Typically, learning software applications are developed for subjects and topics where there is a “right” answer. Composition and essay writing are subjective: they require practice and feedback for those skills to develop and improve.

4. Costs. Across the world, and even in the Caribbean, the cost of quality education, at all levels of the education system, is high. Although Governments across the region readily acknowledge the importance of education, frequently they end up cutting the budget for this sector in order to make ends meet. However, key initiatives currently being implemented across most Caribbean countries, are expanding Internet access to schools and providing students with low cost computers (laptops). Although these schemes arguably usher education and learning into the digital age, they are extremely costly to implement (to expand infrastructure and procure equipment), and to maintain those systems once established.

In summary, the online environment is becoming increasingly integral to our every day lives. However, it ought not to be considered a panacea or a replacement for physical interaction or learning in the “real world”. With regard to education, computers and the online space should not be considered a replacement for teachers and the physical classroom. That setting not only fosters academic learning, it also provides a crucial backdrop for developing and mastering social and other essential life skills.



  • Interesting points – Caveat Emptor! Surprised, though, that mention wasn’t made of what I’d consider an even bigger problem – the tendency to use online learning content and recruit content creators from outside the end-user’s culture and location. Nowhere did I read that the content will be created and delivered by Caribbean educators, empowered through training and knowledge-creation in the Caribbean. I am not convinced that this is as altruistic as the education moniker might suggest. The more children LIME can have using its bandwidth and services the better – for LIME’s profits. LIME seems to be growing a new market and it’s brought in some external firms to likely deliver cookie-cutter content that will either be bereft of culturally relevant content at worst or filled with the usual trite iconography and simplistic content.

    I’d only add that these are not insurmountable issues for the Caribbean and indeed online distance educators; indeed, most of the ones you mentioned have greater resonance in large, rich countries. Re: 1) Resolution: Blended learning – the use of e-learning – to supplement face-to-face instruction will be in great demand in the region in future. No teachers in the Caribbean are being trained to sit back and let the computer do the work; no education ministry is either, to my certain knowledge. 2) Wrong elephant: Our Caribbean countries risk social alienation through the fragmentation of the family and the breakdown of institutions not e-learning. 3) Scapegoat: Writing has been an issue since the advent of television. At least the computer demands what the TV could not – reading. So half of the problem is solved; again, blended learning and e-learning are not the enemy here. 4) Solved, excitingly so: This is why Free Open Source Software, Open Educational Resources and an Open Distance Learning and the Creative Commons movement are making a huge difference – software that’s free, collaborative in writing and use and contribute to the creation of high-quality content. Indeed, e-learning can cut costs, particularly in textbook production. Content can be updated and made relevant and accurate faster than a sapling can grow. Save a tree!

    E-learning won’t replace teachers. But do they need as much help as they can get – and how! And so do their students.

    Nonetheless, good points worthy of further discussion and debate.

  • Great post Michelle! Also agree with Julius’ comment above.

    I get the impression, and maybe the realisation, that the benefits of e-learning are dependent on the age of the e-leaner. Most of the issues you mention arise from the needs of young e-learners (for example, to develop certain social skills). Educators and policies aim to help children and young people develop these skills as early as possible. If I had to go over the issues keeping in mind a more mature/adult e-learner, I doubt whether the same issues would crop up. It might be interesting to explore these issues with regards to different age groups and hence, different needs of e-learners.

    (Have a look at Mary’s blog post which refers to a few recent surveys on online learning: http://edip.diplomacy.edu/plug_in_and_learn)

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