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8 common challenges of online learning (and how to solve them)

Online learning has become the new normal, but it isn't without its challenges.
challenges of online learning
Credit: Elena Poritskaya; guteksk7 / Adobe Stock

The growth of online learning in recent years can only be described as explosive. Fueled by advances in technology, cost-cutting initiatives, and above all, the transition to remote work during the COVID-19 pandemic, online learning has become the norm. 

But it isn’t without its challenges. As more organizations experiment with new approaches to online learning, missteps are to be expected. 

The technical challenges of online learning

Many of the problems with online learning are technical in nature, related to the delivery of programs to learners in various locations. Below, we’ll dive into a few of the most common and share practical solutions. 

1. Internet access

Many organizations have a geographically diverse workforce but in some parts of the country, particularly rural communities, Internet access can be problematic. The digital divide is not only geographic, but socioeconomic as well. It affects approximately 43 million Americans. 

Even when there is Internet access, bandwidth and speed can be limited, which makes file transfer and page loading speeds excruciatingly slow. When online learning programs are produced in-house, IT and learning design staff can work together to find the right balance between file size and quality. As a workaround, large files may need to be compressed. 

2. Compatibility

Compatibility is another one of the most common challenges of online learning. Compatibility issues arise when learners in various locations use devices with different operating systems. Devices from the same manufacturer may run on different versions of the same operating system, as well. This can be problematic when trying to identify the range of devices that must be accommodated.

From a development perspective, try to ensure the broadest possible compatibility. This may require surveying employees to determine which devices they’ll use for online learning. Organizations can also choose to issue laptops, tablets, or smartphones to streamline compatibility.

3. Accessibility

Employees with certain disabilities or special needs may not benefit from online learning unless programs provide appropriate accommodations. This is not only the right thing to do, but it is also mandatory from a legal standpoint. 

Accessibility must be top of mind when designing or purchasing learning programs. Even if an organization doesn’t have employees with disabilities or special needs at the moment, that could change with future hires, or with a change in the health of a current employee.

Common accommodations include captions for the hearing impaired and narrated descriptions of visual elements on the screen for those with visual impairments. Given the relatively high incidence of color blindness (one in 12 men, according to the National Eye Institute), it’s important not to rely solely on color to distinguish between visual elements. 

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Other online learning challenges

The remaining obstacles below have more to do with design and content. Although this isn’t a comprehensive list, solving these five would go a long way toward ensuring an effective online experience for all.

4. Limited interaction 

It’s long been a tenet of adult education that much of the learning that occurs in a group setting is the result of interactions between learners. Such interactions are opportunities for exchanging best practices, addressing common frustrations, celebrating successes, and expanding one’s network. An online setting can make this kind of learning difficult.

However, learning and development professionals can design opportunities for interaction into online programs. When designing group sessions, for example, they can include discussion boards or activities to be completed in virtual breakout rooms. Online forums and bulletin boards enable those completing self-instructional programs to connect with each other as well.

5. Issues with navigation and user experience

Anything that makes it difficult to navigate and interact with an online program interferes with learning. Unintuitive layout, too many links, unclear directions, a lack of interactivity — all of these are challenges of online learning that need to be addressed during development.

One way to keep issues with navigation and user experience from impeding learning is through agile learning design. The emphasis on reviews and the iterative nature of agile design helps ensure that obstacles like these are addressed before a program is released organization-wide. 

6. Lack of personalization

All too often, the assumption is that everyone in a certain role needs the same training. The result is that employees find themselves enrolled in programs that don’t adequately meet their specific needs or learning style. 

More and more organizations are moving away from one-size-fits-all online learning to personalized learning paths that give employees a say in what they learn and how. Giving employees more autonomy improves learning outcomes, which benefits the organization as a whole.

7. Time management 

It’s unusual for employees today to have more than 20 minutes in the average work week to devote to learning and development. This makes microlearning an ideal design strategy for online learning programs. 

Microlearning divides content into small chunks of no more than five to 10 minutes, each chunk addressing a single learning objective. Short lessons or modules provide maximum scheduling flexibility and hold learners’ attention when time is of the essence. 

8. Unmotivated learners

This is one of the biggest challenges of online learning, or any type of learning for that matter. Without the physical presence of a facilitator and fellow learners, participants in online programs can easily lose motivation. Even in a virtual instructor-led training environment, they can end up multitasking — fielding emails and Slack messages, and getting distracted by unfinished work.

The solution? Engagement, engagement, engagement. First and foremost, there needs to be some anticipation that the learning program will be worth the time investment required. “What’s in it for me?” needs to be answered in the messaging prior to the start of the program and made clear throughout. Every element of a program needs to be connected to that message. 

Additionally, extensive research has gone into the effects of adding gamification elements to increase engagement. A little friendly competition can go a long way in motivating online learners. Designers can build in opportunities to earn points or badges through the completion of activities. A leaderboard that shows their relative standing can also be motivating. 

Final note

The above challenges of online learning are among the most common ones organizations face, but there are others. The only way to know for certain which challenges are the most problematic in any organization is to ask. 

Formative and summative evaluations of online programs should go beyond the measurement of learning outcomes to explore what, specifically, hinders learning. Following up post-training evaluations with individual interviews or focus groups that dissect the user experience may also uncover information that can be helpful in addressing the challenges of online learning.

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