Behind the Scenes Blog

Challenges of Online Learning

What are the Challenges of Online Learning?  In my previous article, I looked at ‘Five Key Dimensions of Online Learning’, which explored what makes it popular.  But there’s a downside too – things that put students off.  What are they, and can they be fixed?

“Top reasons cited by students who do not intend to enroll in online education programs include fear of distraction, lack of discipline, and lack of motivation.”

McKinsey Article[1]

Why do Students Hesitate to Enrol in Online Learning?

Many students remain hesitant to enroll in fully remote programs, with students worldwide citing the following top three reasons: fear of becoming more distracted by studying online, boredom if the learning experience is not motivating, and a lack of discipline to complete the online program. Although these perceptions may be partially anticipated, they appear to show that for a segment of students, online programs have not been able to provide a compelling learning experience (see Exhibit 2).

Social factors influence opinions toward in-person, hybrid, and entirely remote models. Students who prefer hybrid learning say they value the combination of flexibility and peer-to-peer connections, whereas students who prefer in-person learning say it provides greater support and peer-to-peer chances. In 80 percent of the countries polled, students stated that the primary reason they prefer face-to-face education is that it is simpler to seek support from professors in person rather than online.

Barriers to Online Learning

But All is NOT Lost – We Can Fix This!

“Our research suggests that higher education institutions can increase their online learning, identifying a correlation between higher satisfaction levels and growth in online learning”

McKinsey Article

An Aside: What Doesn’t Matter?

Before we go on to look at some fixes to problems, it’s helpful to review what don’t we need to worry about.

Expensive qualities are not always valued. Most students do not place a high value on pricey online qualities such as virtual reality (VR), simulations, and complex visual content. This conclusion may indicate that educational institutions and students are still figuring out how to use these tools effectively. Nevertheless, investment in them is increasing. According to one estimate, the global market for education VR is expected to grow.  Networking aspects including “peer-to-peer learning in online settings” and “institution- or student-led networking” were likewise scored in the bottom quartile of relevance in most countries.

Interestingly, this suggests that the investment to achieve Levels 3 and 4 of E-Learning[2] may just not be worth it for most subjects.

Student age and program type had no substantial influence on the perceived quality of online learning experiences. McKinsey’s poll discovered that what students valued most about online learning did not differ significantly across age groups, fields of study, or levels of education (undergraduate versus graduate). Although there are some variances, the consistency of perceptions among groups within each geography might help schools build learning experiences that require less customization for certain student communities.

So What Does Matter?

As already stated, students fear that their online education program may be undermined by distractions at home, a lack of self-discipline, or a lack of motivation.  Let’s look at each of these issues in turn, examining the problems and some possible solutions.  There are also many useful resources at the end of this article.

Fear Of Distraction

If we are not in class then it follows that we are studying somewhen or somewhere else, in a time/place that may not dedicated to learning.  It is quite sensible to worry about being distracted.   

Relevant questions include:

  • Can I study in a place where I can read and work on assignments without distractions?
  • Can I ignore distractions around me when I study?
  • Can I study around people who will not try to distract me?

I have had to revise and study for many exams and qualifications over the years.  I’ve found that doing so in the same place and at the same time every day helps to build a robust studying habit.  (If you can, do schedule a day or days off where you don’t study at all – this will help too.)  

I also found listening to instrumental music (i.e. no vocals) helped me to shut out distractions and concentrate.  Mozart was especially good for maths.  Incidentally, in the modern open-plan office, I’m using this tactic again!

If your friends or family don’t help then tell them that you must withdraw from them for a set time and go to your study chair, corner, or other place.  Put the headphones on / earbuds in.  These are signals to them as well as yourself that you are not available for anything but study.  Take regular breaks and engage with them until your 15-20 minutes are up (set a timer).

If you have a significant other and/or children, then this all becomes much harder.  You will need your partner’s support; perhaps they could be studying or practicing a hobby at the same time.  If you have small children then studying after their bedtime is your best bet – but I know how hard that is.  My daughter was at preschool when I did my master’s degree. 

Can you take an hour off for lunch and find somewhere to hide and study at work?  Can you study on your commute (on public transport) or at least listen to audio while you drive?

Lack Of Discipline

If we are not accountable to someone else, then we may struggle with a lack of self-discipline to study.  Relevant questions to ask ourselves are:

  • Am I good at setting goals and deadlines for myself?
  • Do I finish the projects I start?
  • Do I quit just because things get difficult?
  • Can I keep myself on track and on time?
  • Am I willing to spend 10-20 hours each week on an online course?
  • Do I keep a record of what my assignments are and when they are due?
  • Do I plan my work so that I can turn in my assignments on time?

Just answering these questions honestly will help you be more disciplined.  If you recognize that you struggle with certain things, then you can put in place things to support your weaknesses.

Can you find a study buddy who is different from you?  If you’re always enthusiastic to try new things but they’re not, and they are good at completing tasks then you’re not – you complement each other.  You’re a good match!

Lack Of Motivation

Perhaps this is the most difficult problem to overcome.  Some of the tips we’ve just gone over will help, but there are other questions to ask, such as:

  • Do I have a good reason for taking an online course?
  • Will my online course be just as rigorous as a face-to-face course?
  • Will my online course take less time than a face-to-face course?
  • Will my online course require more than just memorizing content?
  • Can I get my assignments done and turn them in on time?
  • On an online course, I probably will not receive as much personal attention from the instructor (compared to a face-to-face course): does that bother me?

Naturally, if we have a specific reason for taking a course – some goal or reward – then we will be more motivated.  Can we imagine those rewards, those benefits?  Is there a poster or some other reminder of our dream that we can put in our study space?

I remember a world-champion snooker player revealing how he motivated himself to practice.  He would have a favorite snack or drink in reach, but he wasn’t allowed a bite or sip until he had completed a practice shot ten times.  And so on, until the treat was gone.  Could you reward yourself with ten minutes on social media?

A course that just gets you to cram facts is not exciting.  Can you choose a course with regular review sessions and self-assessment tests?  If not, can you add them?  Can you insert review periods when you reflect on what you’ve learned and try to apply it to something that you know about?  Use the model [3] below:

Finally, remember that this period of study, and self-denial, will not last forever.  Do it for a season, set an end date, and promise yourself a reward – if you succeed.  Perhaps you will find it easier to study during a particular season?  There are usually fewer tempting distractions in Winter (unless you are a skier, so do the opposite).

Technical Factors

It’s interesting to note that a mobile phone can help solve all these problems!  Only a few years ago, getting access to a computer with internet access was challenging for many.  These days, even a cheap smartphone will do most things that you need.  There are thousands of free and paid Apps that can teach you subjects or support your learning.

The problem with IT, phones, and Apps is that often we are just not aware of all their features.  It is said that most users exploit only a fraction of the features of their devices.  With some research, and a little practice, could we find the tools and skills to dramatically increase our productivity?

It is still always a good idea to identify a technical support group before taking an online course.

Online Learning Resources

Here are some resources to help you prepare for online study (acknowledgment of source at the end of this article).  

Self Direction

If you would like to pick up a few more time management skills, here are some tutorials.

 Learning Preferences

Here are some tutorials if you would like to pick up a few more relevant skills.

Active Reading

 Active Listening


 Study Habits

Here are some tutorials if you’d like to pick up a few more good study habits.

Note Taking

 Writing Reports

 Online Learning Expectations

It is helpful to have realistic expectations about what it means to be an online learner. If you want to read more on this subject, please refer to the following:

My name’s Simon Di Nucci. I’m a practicing system safety engineer, and I have been, for the last 25 years; I’ve worked in all kinds of domains, aircraft, ships, submarines, sensors, and command and control systems, and some work on rail air traffic management systems, and lots of software safety. So, I’ve done a lot of different things!


I gratefully acknowledge that the Section “Online Learning Readiness Help” is derived from the Online Learning Readiness Questionnaire[4] by Penn State University, which is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.  Vicki Willams of Penn State devised the original version of this assessment, which is available at



[3] From


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