4 Misconceptions of Online Learning

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How can faculty and instructional designers address misconceptions about online learning as they transition from reactivity to proactivity following the COVID-19 pandemic?

4 Misconceptions of Online Learning
Credit: Mark Carrel / Shutterstock.com © 2022

In March 2020, the shift to online learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic occurred quickly, leaving many higher education institutions with just a weekend to prepare. The result was online courses that focused on lecture-based, synchronous options. Rather than being given the opportunity for problem-posing learning and knowledge transformation, students were presented with education in the style of massive open online courses (MOOCs), driven by lectures and assessments. Ironically, early "distance education" and correspondence courses also focused on a lecture-based, teacher-centered pedagogy and were the cause of the failure of these previous online learning attempts. Research shows that this style of learning is simply not conducive to online student success and critical thinking.Footnote1

As we move from reactive to proactive in online learning for higher education, we need to distinguish emergency remote teaching from intentional online courses.Footnote2 The former resulted in four common misconceptions about online learning.

Misconception #1

Faculty can't assign group work online to students. Research shows that interaction in online courses can lead to an increased feeling of community, as well as "increased academic achievement" and "greater retention rates."Footnote3 One study found that implementing student-to-student and student-to-content interactions had the largest impact on students' learning.Footnote4 According to the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky, students reach a deeper level of learning when working collaboratively than would be possible if they worked individually.Footnote5 Interaction in online courses gives students the opportunity to connect with and learn from students with diverse backgrounds. Learners bring their own perspectives, backgrounds, and prior knowledge to student-to-student interactions. These interactions have the potential to improve interpersonal skills and broaden the minds of students to viewpoints that differ from their own. Learning from others opens up students' minds to new perspectives, enhances their ability to learn new lessons, and allows them to rethink their beliefs and form their own opinions.Footnote6

Possible Solutions:

  • Group Discussions. Students can be assigned instructional materials (e.g., readings, videos) to review individually. Then, the instructor can use the learning management system (LMS) to create groups and provide discussion questions. Students then meet synchronously in their small groups to discuss. Finally, students individually reflect on the discussion and consider the knowledge they gained from working collaboratively.
  • Group Projects. Scaffolding and detailed instructions are the keys to group work. This allows online students to incorporate the group work plan into their schedules ahead of time. Instead of expecting weekly group projects, instructors should assign a group project that lasts many weeks and aligns to multiple module objectives, along with giving detailed instructions/deadlines for groups to accomplish each week and a final assignment after three to five weeks. If faculty are concerned about procrastination, they can ask students to submit weekly reflections and/or check-ins.
  • Google Docs. Google Docs are a great collaboration tool for both students and faculty. Not only can faculty see a revision history to track individual contributions, but students can be working on a project or paper at the same time while providing feedback. Google Docs can be encouraged by incorporating tutorials for students in the course as well as providing templates that students can use to submit their assignment.

Misconception #2

Faculty have to lecture in a synchronous format for students to learn the content. As online learning has evolved, pedagogy has shifted into "discussion-based constructivist methods." This shift has resulted in increased confidence for both students and teachers and an opportunity for higher-quality online education. As this shift continues, higher education leaders have realized the importance of creating a knowledge-transformative online environment full of problem solving and critical thinking. Practically, this means that instructors must provide opportunities, through assignments, for students to critically examine the world around them. Further, the use of the problem-posing method in online learning allows students and instructors to grow together and increases opportunities for communication and interaction. Rather than focusing solely on lecture-based and/or discussion-based instruction, instructors can begin incorporating assignments that allow students to critically analyze the answers given to them and provide alternative solutions.Footnote7

Possible Solutions:

  • Chunked Instructional Materials. Lecturing is still acceptable in online courses. However, rather than lecturing for three hours straight twice a week, instructors should provide topic-based, short (5 to 10 minutes) instructional videos. These quick videos tend to be more concise to the topic and allow students to spend more time thinking critically. Further, students can go back and review content on a topic-by-topic basis if they are still struggling.
  • "Muddiest Points" Reflections. If faculty are worried about being unable to discern students' confusion by seeing the looks on their faces (possible with in-person teaching), instructors can ask students to reflect on their "muddiest points." These muddiest points provide insight into where students are struggling and allow faculty to address those areas in a weekly announcement and/or a supplemental video.

Misconception #3

There are no "Aha!" moments in online learning. Asynchronous online learning is defined as instruction that is "through a connection to a computer system at a venue distant from the learner's personal computer" and that does not occur simultaneously.Footnote8 This means fully asynchronous online courses are devoid of any real-time communication components between peers and the instructor. Due to the lack of direct interaction, many assume that "Aha!" moments or sudden realizations and comprehension are impossible to re-create in the online environment. However, those breakthroughs in learning can occur during reflection.Footnote9 Thus, while "Aha!" moments may not occur instantly, there are ample opportunities to encourage students' comprehension.

Possible Solutions:

  • Pre- and Post-Reading Journals. Journals are a way for students to reflect on their learning as they interact with the instructional materials. By thinking about the topic before interacting with the content, they can quickly assess their level of growth and comprehension. Furthermore, they may clear up misconceptions and questions they had before diving into the content.
  • Student Follow-Up. There are two ways to follow up with students: as a whole and individually. After each week, instructors can post an announcement or write an email that focuses on the breakthroughs faculty observed from students. These breakthroughs can come from students' discussions with their peers, 1:1 meetings, self-reflections, or the assignment that week. Faculty can include direct quotes (with permission from the student), reiterate the specific points the content was intended to convey, and comment on the students' reflections. Students may discuss how they realized their "Aha!" moments. If they don't, instructors can point this out in the feedback section of the assignment and reiterate that the students are on the correct track and praise their ability to learn and grow.
  • Video Discussion Boards. If faculty are still worried about being unable to see students' "Aha!" moments, they can use video discussion boards (e.g., Flipgrid) to have students react to the content. This allows instructors to associate a name with a face, to decipher if students are truly mastering the content, and to have a visual of where students were before interacting with the content and where they are after.

Misconception #4

Faculty can't teach as much content online as they do face-to-face. Many scholars debate whether online learning reflects the "characteristics of an academic discipline of its own."Footnote10 Unfortunately, this mindset is fueled by online course development by instructors who are not given the time for, "or are not provided with, the pedagogical and technological training necessary to maximize the online experience for both teachers and students."Footnote11 For online courses to be successful, content cannot be automatically moved from face-to-face to online. Instead, teaching in the online format requires a different set of pedagogical approaches.Footnote12 Preparing and planning content for the online format takes time. However, when prepared with the right mindset and approaches, online content has the potential to be just as rigorous as its face-to-face counterpart.

Possible Solutions:

  • Main Course Objectives. Before beginning to create a course plan, faculty should ask themselves: "What are the most important concepts that students need to grasp by the end of the course?" This focused mindset will help in determining the amount of breadth and depth to include for each topic within the course.
  • Alignment of Content. When faculty teach face-to-face, they are often given specific time constraints for learning each week. Because of this, they find content that "fills the time" and only slightly aligns to the overall course objectives. When creating instructional materials for online, faculty should directly align each piece to a course objective. This will help narrow the included course content to the most important and will help students grasp the specific content to be taught.
  • Visual Brainstorming. For faculty who need a visual, tools such as Lucidchart can brainstorm alignment between objectives and activities. Before diving into a highly detailed course design, instructors can use these tools to list all of the course objectives, module objectives, and assessments. This will help them visualize the course and see how each component truly connects and contributes to the overall goals of the course.


As we move away from emergency remote teaching to intentional online courses in higher education, we need to reflect on and implement best practices for the online modality. By addressing the four misconceptions listed above and discussing possible solutions, we can create positive and engaging learning environments that promote success for online students.


  1. Olaf Zawacki-Richter and Som Naidu, "Mapping Research Trends from 35 Years of Publications in Distance Education," Distance Education 37, no. 3 (2016); Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (New York: Seabury Press, 1968); Drick Boyd, "What Would Paulo Freire Think of Blackboard: Critical Pedagogy in an Age of Online Learning," International Journal of Critical Pedagogy 7, no. 1 (2016); Zeus Leonardo,  "Critical Social Theory and Transformative Knowledge: The Functions of Criticism in Quality Education," Educational Researcher 33, no. 6 (2004). Jump back to footnote 1 in the text.
  2. Charles B. Hodges, Stephanie Moore, Barbara B. Lockee, Torrey Trust, and M. Aaron Bond, "The Difference Between Emergency Remote Teaching and Online Learning," EDUCAUSE Review, March 27, 2020. Jump back to footnote 2 in the text.
  3. Krystle Phirangee, "Students' Perceptions of Learner-Learner Interactions That Weaken a Sense of Community in an Online Learning Environment," Online Learning 20, no. 4 (2016); Kim Flottemesch, "Building Effective Interaction in Distance Education: A Review of the Literature," Educational Technology 40, no. 3 (2000), p. 46. Jump back to footnote 3 in the text.
  4. Allison M. Truhlar, Kimberly M. Williams, and M. Todd Walter, "Case Study: Student Engagement with Course Content and Peers in Synchronous Online Discussions," Online Learning 22 no. 4 (2018). Jump back to footnote 4 in the text.
  5. Lev Vygotsky, Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978). Jump back to footnote 5 in the text.
  6. Diane L. Schallert and Debra B. Martin, "A Psychological Analysis of What Teachers and Students Do in the Language Arts Classroom," in Handbook of Research on Teaching the English Language Arts, ed. James Flood et al. (New York: Macmillan, 2003); Roberta Symeonides and Carrie Childs, "The Personal Experience of Online Learning: An Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis," Computers in Human Behavior 51, part A (2015); Prudence L. Carter, "Student and School Cultures and the Opportunity Gap," chapter 10 in Prudence L. Carter and Kevin G. Welner, eds., Closing the Opportunity Gap: What America Must Do to Give All Children an Even Chance (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013); Michele S. Moses and John Rogers, "Enhancing a Nation's Democracy through Equitable Schools," in ibid. Jump back to footnote 6 in the text.
  7. Boyd, "What Would Paulo Freire Think," p. 169; Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed; Leonardo, "Critical Social Theory and Transformative Knowledge." Jump back to footnote 7 in the text.
  8. Jorge Larreamendy-Joerns and Gaea Leinhardt, "Going the Distance with Online Education," Review of Educational Research 76, no. 4 (2006); Richard Andrews and Caroline Haythornthwaite, "Introduction to E-Learning Research," The SAGE Handbook of E-learning Research (London: SAGE Publishing, 2007). Jump back to footnote 8 in the text.
  9. Joanne C. Caniglia, Lisa Borgerding, and Scott Courtney, "AHA Moments of Science and Mathematics Pre-Service Teachers," The Clearing House: A Journal of Educational Strategies, Issues and Ideas 90, no. 2 (2017). Jump back to footnote 9 in the text.
  10. Zawacki-Richter and Naidu, "Mapping Research Trends," p. 251. Jump back to footnote 10 in the text.
  11. Edward H. Perry and Michelle L. Pilati, "Online Learning," New Directions for Teaching and Learning 128 (winter 2011), p. 101. Jump back to footnote 11 in the text.
  12. Lisa E. Gurley, "Educators' Preparation to Teach, Perceived Teaching Presence, and Perceived Teaching Presence Behaviors in Blended and Online Learning Environments," Online Learning Journal 22, no. 2 (2018); Mansureh Kebritchi, Angie Lipschuetz, and Lilia Santiague, "Issues and Challenges for Teaching Successful Online Courses in Higher Education: A Literature Review," Journal of Educational Technology Systems 46 no. 1 (2017). Jump back to footnote 12 in the text.

Blair Stamper is Instructional Designer at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

© 2022 Blair Stamper