Barriers to Online Learning

I chose the article “Student Barriers to Online Learning: A Factor Analytic Study’ by Muilenburg and Berge, because I was interested in the weekly writing question that asked whether the online environment holds instructional challenges that are distinct from the traditional classroom. The Muilenburg and Berge (2005) article was written to address the possible barriers that students might encounter in online learning. The purpose of their study was to identify which students would face barriers when attempting to learn online, what those barriers would be, and how individuals can be helped in their learning by understanding and ameliorating their particular obstacles (Muilenburg & Berge 2005).  I felt that the study addressed what the perceived barriers to online learning are, but failed to adequately identify which students would face the barriers or how those obstacles could be overcome.

This was a large scale study (n=1,056), that was mindfully constructed after an initial pilot study was conducted to refine the barriers chosen for study. The authors chose 11  independent variables to represent the perceptions of the students surveyed. These included: gender, age, self-reported ethnicity, type of learning institution they attended, ability and confidence with online learning technology, learning effectiveness in the online environment, learning enjoyment in the online classroom, the number of online courses completed, the number of online courses dropped, likelihood of taking an online course in the future, and whether or not students experienced prejudicial treatment in the traditional classroom due to cultural background, disability, or other personal characteristic (Muilenburg & Berge 2005). The overall results indicated that the greatest perceived barriers to online learning were a lack of social interaction, administrative/instructor issues, time and support for studies, and learner motivation. Surprisingly, respondents rated a “lack of technical skills and academic skills’ as very low obstacles to learning online (Muilenburg & Berge 2005).

I thought this article was informative and the study was well designed. I was not surprised that the greatest perceived barrier to online learning was a lack of social interaction. This is something that I have experienced when taking online courses myself. I think that instructors have come a long way in trying to ameliorate this barrier and the improvements in technology have allowed for better synchronous and asynchronous online social interaction. However, I do feel that something is lost when students cannot interact with their instructor and peers synchronously. Perhaps this perception diminishes with the number of courses taken as indicated by the study. The study was successful in collecting a relatively conclusive set of responses on student perceptions of barriers and I was impressed by the results showing a dramatic decrease in perceived barriers amongst students who had taken one online course.

The study did not adequately identify the students that face online barriers, primarily because the methods for selecting respondents were based on electronic mailing lists for people involved or already affiliated with online instructions. The survey respondents were primarily graduate students, which might be better equipped through experience and previous education to overcome some of the learning barriers that exist. The study also showed the respondents were overwhelmingly female and caucasian/non-hispanic.    The study raises excellent questions but should focus on students that experience barriers. If the authors wish to test if students of different gender and ethnicity may experience greater barriers to online learning, than these user groups should be better represented. Selection of the respondents could have been done in a more balanced way. I think that further study could focus on the perceptions of secondary students, at-risk students and more freshman undergraduate students. If the purpose of the study is to identify students with potential barriers, it seems natural to target students that may be new to online learning or more likely to drop online courses. I also think that it would be interesting to survey  online educators to see if they have the same perceptions as their students.

The study also fell short in its proposed goal of determining how barriers to online education could be overcome. The authors suggest that educators provide better, more frequent social interaction in courses, but fail to suggest practical means to doing so. While the authors themselves indicate that none of the results in the study indicate causation and that further analysis is needed, some immediate steps to increasing social interaction might be scheduling more online discussion and using collaboration tools such as VoiceThread or Google Hangouts.

While the study is just a beginning in identifying barriers to online learning it does offer valuable insights into the perceptions of students and encourages educators to provide better social interaction opportunities within their courses to create greater confidence in, and retention of students.

Works Cited

Muilenburg, Lin Y., and Zane L. Berge. “Student Barriers to Online Learning: A Factor Analytic Study.’ Distance Education 26, no. 1 (May 2005): 29—48.

14 thoughts on “Barriers to Online Learning

  1. lsowa

    An interesting article, and an insightful review. I am aware of quite a bit of skepticism and even disdain from some higher education faculty members regarding online courses. It can be difficult for those of us who attended school before the advent of online courses and teach in traditional face-to-face classrooms to envision what teaching and learning could really look like in an online course. Last year I took my first 3-credit online course, and then co-taught an online course for the first time in the Spring. While I felt I had an open mind to the idea, and an appreciation for the need and demand for online learning, my understanding of the specific benefits, and challenges, of online learning increased greatly with these experiences. Returning to the idea of novices vs. experts, having at least one direct experience with online learning helps tremendously in evaluating the pros, cons, and possibilities.

    As you describe, the study result that students rated “lack of technical and academic skills” as a barrier is not surprising since the study population was primarily graduate students… indicating they have already completed an academic degree and thus are likely to have relevant experience. A closer look at specific populations would provide better, more actionable information.

  2. Bob

    The overall results indicated that the greatest perceived barriers to online learning were a lack of social interaction, administrative/instructor issues, time and support for studies, and learner motivation. Surprisingly, respondents rated a “lack of technical skills and academic skills” as very low obstacles to learning online (Muilenburg & Berge 2005).

    I have to say I am perplexed by these results. How are these barriers unique to online education? I recall a great loneliness in many classroom classes where the teacher lectured, questions may even have been asked and answered but no sense of social interaction was achieved. I wonder what “administrative/instructor issues” really means? We of course have the happy luxury of Brighton Brook’s cheerful e-mails helping us navigate the UAF administrivia, but other organizations do not. I suspect that is part of what this is about, but again how is that unique to online courses? Perhaps this is as well a breakdown in technology support — where “lack of technical skills and academic skills” is not a barrier we have to imagine that this is more subtle, or more gross then operator error. However, why again is this an issue particular to online education? I see large and small technology issues daily in the residential campus I work at. I see customer service fumbles regularly too. What does “time and support for studies” mean? Is this the cost of tuition? Online courses and face-to-face courses cost very similar amounts. Is this struggling to fit coursework around real life? How can that be…? I mean the course is online hence is available 24/7 and with the pervasiveness of mobile devices available anywhere the person can get wifi… so what does this mean? I wonder as well how “lack of social interaction” connects with “learner motivation.” I have seen lack of social interaction sink online courses and I have seen it work just fine — so I want to ask more questions here. What were the differences between the failures and the successes? I have also taken online courses where social interaction… forums even (wink) was required and the class was terrible because the skill level differential between students was too extreme. This failing is not about social interaction this failing was about administrative/instructor issues but the symptom was seen in social interaction. Again, I want to ask are these barriers unique to online learning or is “learner motivation” a more pervasive problem? I can’t imagine classroom teachers ever encounter motivation issues, right?

    I am afraid this article perplexes me. Perhaps I will have to read it.

    1. Owen

      Great questions, Bob. I look forward to hearing the thoughts of some of your peers on these. Also, I’d like to come back to some of these during our upcoming synchronous session.

    2. Jenny

      Thank you for your insightful comments. I agree that most of these issues are not exclusive to online learning. As a teacher at an alternative high school I am well aware that motivation issues transcend the method of course delivery. I don’t think that the authors described their intention well, with this particular aspect of the study. I believe that they were trying to establish whether peer interaction, perhaps worked as a motivational factor in course completion. At the time of the study, I wonder what types of online venues for interaction were available to the instructors.

      To answer your question “What does “time and support for studies” mean? Part of the study was dedicated to part time community college students, that were considered to be already in the work force and often had families. I think they were trying to quantify the relationship between time dedicated to study and to other commitments.

  3. Owen

    Jenny, nice review. While I’m curious as to your thoughts on some of Bob’s questions, I’m also curious as to what you think regarding the timeliness of this article. Does it matter that this is now about nine years old. Probably the research is at least a decade old. Does timeliness matter when it comes to research about online education? Which gets to the larger question, how much do things really change?

    I like that you pointed out that they chose a research sample comprised mostly of grad students. Some significant sample bias there. One might retitle the study, barriers for grad student online learning… 🙂 and would you also then have to have a subtext identifying the subject areas and socioeconomics of the sample? …and on and on. Where does it end?

    How would you design a study, in research utopia, to determine barriers to online learning?

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