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.
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.