Online Learning Efficient But Not Always Effective

To get my college counseling certificate through UCLA, I had to complete a program that was 100 percent online. I quickly realized the benefits, particularly the opportunity to exchange ideas with students from around the world. But there was also a great deal of responsibility: figuring out the software, submitting my work and taking quizzes online, checking to see when assignments were due, monitoring the automated gradebook, and constantly reading updates and responding to peer comments. With online learning, the onus is clearly on the student.

According to eLearning Industry, an online community of professionals, about 46 percent of college students took at least one course online in 2014. By 2019, they expect roughly half of all college classes to be e-learning–based.

What does that mean for college students, particularly a student who is new to the college experience or struggles with staying on task? To find out, I spoke with a parent whose daughter had struggled in online classes at a major research university, a freshman at a community college, and Romaney Berson, a life coach with specialization in ADHD, executive function issues, organization, and time management. Since so many of us recognize the benefits of online learning, I would like to share some pitfalls that came up in conversation.

Freshman Transition Problems

An out-of-state freshman began her college career at a major research university, which required her to take Psychology Majors Pathways for 2.0 credits — online. She also took a Travel and Tourism Management class offered by the business school — online. Learning was “flipped” in her biology class, so the lesson was — online. Moreover, pre-calculus was too difficult for this student, so she switched to an introductory math class instead. All introductory math classes are virtual, with students seated at workstations in a converted department store. (Others circulate to provide help.)

The online learning environment didn't suit this student, and she became increasingly homesick. Stated her parent, “I think the virtual classes isolated her in her room, and she met far fewer freshmen than she would have in a classroom. As she didn't get along with her roommate and had so few classes, she had no one to eat with and ate virtually every meal in her room. She was unhappy with the academic and social situation and transferred to another university.”

Textbook Issues

Another student is taking macro- and microeconomics at a community college using blended learning. Textbooks are only available online. As assignments pile up, so have the reading requirements. Fortunately, this student has found the search feature to be “exponentially easier” than using a book without such a function. The student believes there should be no online classes during freshman year:

“You have to learn how to learn on a college level (interact with the professor, how to become self-sufficient in an educational sense)…. Personally, I find it really offensive. I’m sort of renting a room on their campus so I can sit in my room and take classes.”

To gain perspective, I spoke with Romaney Berson, a coach to ADHD students. Berson explained: “There is a problem for a lot of kids, but particularly for kids with ADHD who learn with difficulty if the only text is an online text. They need an actual book to retain concentration and do the reading. It's not feasible to do it yourself and print out entire textbook.”

Transferring Credits

Stated the parent of the student who eventually transferred: “... we have found out the hard way that other universities do not like to give transfer credit for online classes, although they themselves will offer the same course online. So, the classes were a waste of time and money.”

In my career advising rising college students as well as creating content for those students, I certainly appreciate the benefits of e-learning. But are students getting shortchanged? The transfer student's parent advised, “I would suggest to other parents for the kids to take as few online classes as possible for freshman. There is plenty of time to do this in the summer and in later years. Universities should not mandate that certain classes must be taken this way.”

Added Berson, “These [concerns about online learning] should be added to the list of questions that people ask when they visit schools.” (See the recent blog post Parent of an ADHD Student? What to Ask When Touring Colleges.) “Schools are going to have to provide coaches, or parents are going to have to look for supplemental help for students.”

In The State of E-Learning in Higher Education: An Eye Toward Growth and Increased Access, EDUCAUSE reported, “E-learning provides a greater range of educational opportunities for students. However, information from our focus groups suggests that these opportunities are not without risks in terms of the skills students bring to the online learning environment, faculty online teaching skills, the quality of pedagogy and instructional design, and equal access to the online learning environment.” EDUCAUSE cited these pitfalls: a difference between how students perform in class and online, faculty responsiveness, the tendency to use adjuncts in online courses, as well as “reading, following instructions, … distractions, and exercising self-discipline.”

Commented Berson, “There’s going to be an impact on the workplace. These kids are losing the growth and learning that goes on through interaction with teachers and other students.”


Nina Berler is founder of unCommon Apps. Previously, she developed e-learning programs and served as a director with KPMG, where she led the firm’s Executive Education business and developed curriculum for its partner and manager business school. She also taught language arts and math to numerous middle school and high school students before starting her college counseling practice. Berler has an AB with Honors from Brown University; an MBA from the Stern School of Business, New York University; and a Certificate with Distinction in College Counseling from UCLA Extension.

© 2015 Nina Berler. The text of this EDUCAUSE Review article is licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International.