Challenges of Distance Learning for Students

Distance learning enables students to access and engage with quality educational content, all from the comfort and convenience of home. Though COVID-related restrictions will likely begin to relax as the pandemic wanes and vaccination rates rise, it seems unlikely that the e-learning industry, which experienced explosive growth in 2020, will become obsolete in 2021. On the contrary, the virtual education industry had a value of $171 billion in 2019 — that is, prior to the coronavirus pandemic — “and is expected to grow [by] 10.85% by 2025,” according to PR Newswire

While it’s easy to see both the benefits and relevance of distance education, such as increased flexibility, mobility, and affordability, it’s equally important to acknowledge the potential challenges with distance learning for students. From grade-schoolers to graduate students, e-learners at all age levels must overcome obstacles that are unique to virtual education, such as asynchronous communication and ever-present opportunities for time-wasting distractions. E-learners also face challenges that, while often present in the traditional classroom, can be amplified in a virtual setting, such as delayed or unclear instructor feedback. 

As an educator or aspiring teacher, it’s important for you not only to understand and empathize with the challenges of online education for students — but even more critically, to help implement effective solutions. While e-learning may pose certain difficulties for students, it also creates exciting educational opportunities, opening doors for young and adult learners alike. To help your students seize these opportunities, learn about the challenges of online distance learning they face — and what steps you can take as a digital instructor to help your e-learners succeed. 

woman on laptop

What Are the Challenges of Online Learning for Students?

What are the challenges of distance education for students who attend classes online? Here are nine virtual learning disadvantages that educators need to be aware of. 

1. Ineffective Time Management 

Research has proven that successful “time management is associated with greater academic performance and lower levels of anxiety in students.” Unfortunately, the same research also uncovered that “many students find it hard to find a balance between their studies and their day-to-day lives” — and worse, that ineffective time management was associated with outcomes like “poor sleep patterns” and “increased levels of stress.” Effective time management can be especially difficult in a distance learning environment, where students are challenged to pace themselves — without the support from friends and peers that would help them stay focused in class. 

2. Lack of Communication 

In an in-person setting, communication happens instantaneously, making it easy for students to get answers and clarify points of confusion. In an e-learning setting, communication is often asynchronous, which means there’s a gap between teacher and student. It’s easy for misunderstandings to develop in these gaps — sometimes, allowing a problem to snowball before it can be corrected. 

3. Not Receiving Timely Feedback  

Providing feedback is one of the most important and meaningful ways that a teacher engages with a student. When feedback is delayed by additional days or weeks because of an online format, students can become confused or uncertain about your expectations, their progress, and their performance in your class. 

4. Not Receiving Clear Instructions or Expectations

It’s always crucial to set clear expectations for students. Otherwise, they can only guess at whether they’re performing tasks and projects correctly. While setting clear standards is a challenge in any classroom, asynchronous communication can make it a greater obstacle. 

6. Technical Difficulties

Technical issues represent a significant barrier to effective online learning. Many students face challenges related to inadequate access to technology or unreliable internet connectivity. These technical difficulties can disrupt the learning process, leading to frustration and disengagement. Institutions and educators must ensure that students have access to the necessary technological resources and provide support for those who encounter technical issues. This may include offering alternatives for students with limited access to high-speed internet or providing technical support hotlines.

7. Isolation and Lack of Social Interaction

The absence of physical presence in a classroom setting can lead to feelings of isolation among online learners. The lack of face-to-face interaction with peers and instructors can diminish the sense of community and support that is often found in traditional educational settings. To address this challenge, educators can create opportunities for social interaction through virtual study groups, online discussion boards, and live video conferencing sessions, helping students feel more connected and supported.

8. Adapting to New Learning Styles

Online learning requires students to adapt to new styles of learning that may differ significantly from traditional classroom experiences. This adaptation process can be challenging, as students must become proficient in navigating digital platforms and learning resources. The shift to online learning necessitates the development of new skills, such as researching online databases and effectively communicating through digital mediums. Educators can facilitate this transition by providing comprehensive guides and tutorials on using online learning platforms and digital tools.

9. Distractions at Home

The home environment, while comfortable, is often filled with distractions that can impede the ability to focus on studies. From household chores to social media, numerous distractions can detract from the learning experience. Students must find strategies to minimize these distractions, such as setting up a dedicated study space and using time management tools to allocate specific times for studying. Educators can support students by offering advice on creating an effective learning environment at home and encouraging regular breaks to maintain focus.

Challenges for Adult Learners

Adult learners face a unique set of challenges when engaging in online learning. Balancing work, family responsibilities, and education is a complex juggling act that requires significant time management and organizational skills. Moreover, re-adapting to an educational setting after a prolonged absence from formal learning environments can present additional hurdles. Let’s delve deeper into these challenges and explore strategies to navigate them successfully.

Balancing Work, Family, and Education

The task of balancing work and family responsibilities with educational pursuits is a significant challenge for many adult learners. Unlike traditional students, adult learners often have full-time jobs, family obligations, and other life responsibilities that demand their time and attention. This can make dedicating time to coursework and studying a challenge.

Now that we’ve explored the challenges of online learning for students, let’s focus on something even more important: how to overcome them.

woman in video meeting

6 Practical Solutions to Distance Learning Problems for Students

Fortunately, it’s possible for educators to mitigate distance education issues and challenges for students. Here are four steps that teachers can take to help position e-learners for greater success in the virtual classroom.

1. Share Time Management Apps and Resources for Students

Effective time management is a fundamental skill for distance learners. Encourage your students to take advantage of the numerous time management apps and resources that are available to e-learners — many of them for free. For example, National University offers a comprehensive suite of time management resources for students, including daily planner worksheets, infographics, links to apps, helpful time management tips, and even a time management calculator. 

Education experts also recommend periodically surveying your students, which provides you with actionable insights into how your students allocate their time toward various tasks. Once you identify the trouble spots that are slowing your students down, you can offer them tailored guidance — especially if you notice patterns emerging in your survey data. 

2. Overcoming Technical Challenges

To mitigate technical issues and boost digital literacy, it’s crucial for institutions to offer robust technical support, guiding learners through any technical difficulties encountered. Furthermore, providing digital literacy training enhances students’ ability to navigate online platforms and digital tools with ease. Ensuring that learning platforms are accessible on mobile devices allows students the flexibility to engage with their coursework from anywhere, at any time, making online learning more adaptable to their lifestyles.

3. Building a Community

Cultivating a sense of community is vital in online learning environments. By promoting the creation of virtual study groups using tools like Zoom or Google Meet, students can collaborate and support one another academically. Online forums and platform-specific social media groups offer spaces for learners to connect, share insights, and foster a supportive network. These initiatives are key to making online education a more interactive and socially connected experience.

4. Utilize Educational Technology (“EdTech”)  

Just because communication occurs over the internet doesn’t mean it has to be lagged or asynchronous. In fact, there are countless tools — many of them free to use — to help students and teachers communicate in real-time. For example, you can use video conferencing software to have live conversations with your students, either one-on-one or in group settings. This gives your students a chance to ask you questions, raise concerns, and work through complex course material more successfully. In addition to video conferencing software, you can also use instant messaging apps for students who prefer to communicate via text. Examples include Skype, Google Meet, FaceTime, Zoom, and Google Hangouts. 

5. Increase Peer Review 

Students need timely, meaningful feedback in order to gauge and improve their performance. There are several ways you can improve the feedback your students receive. 

One method is to schedule one-on-one or group sessions with your students — for instance, on a weekly or bi-weekly basis — that are dedicated to providing feedback on recent assignments. Providing verbal feedback lets you save time on writing and editing documents, without sacrificing the detail or quality of your evaluation. As a result, your students receive better feedback, sooner. 

Another method is to let your students engage in more peer review, or the process of providing feedback on each other’s work. In one fascinating experiment, a Duke University instructor permitted 100% of grading to be handled by a peer review process, with unsurprising results: increased satisfaction for students, and decreased stress on instructors. 

Want to take a deeper dive into this subject? Here are even more tips on providing effective feedback to online students.

6. Provide Clear Grading Rubrics  

Rubrics and syllabi are important tools in the traditional classroom. Make use of them in the virtual classroom, too! Be sure to provide your online students with a clear and detailed overview of the course, including information about: 

  • What type of material you’ll be covering
  • What items each student will need
  • How each type of assignment will be graded
  • How to share or upload documents
  • What to do if they experience technical issues
  • Deadlines, exam dates, days off, and other special calendar events 
  • How to contact you 

While there are many distance education issues and challenges for students to overcome, there are also countless opportunities for them to seize — and the approach you take as an educator can make all the difference. We hope that, by sharing some of these solutions and strategies, we’ve made it a little easier for you to help your e-students turn their challenges into success stories. 

Future of Online Learning

Addressing these challenges can significantly shape the future of online education, making it more accessible, engaging, and effective. Innovations in technology and pedagogy will continue to transform online learning, offering personalized, flexible learning experiences that meet the needs of diverse learners.


Become a Teacher and Advance Your Career with a Degree or Certificate in Education from NU 

The state of California is facing an unprecedented teacher shortage and needs passionate, talented educators like you to fill the unmet need for qualified instructors. As an online or in-person educator, you’ll empower your learners, inspire young minds, and help shape the world of tomorrow. It all starts here, at National University. 

Through the Sanford College of Education, NU offers dozens of NCATE-accredited programs in exciting areas like special education, teacher education, educational counseling, and educational leadership. Whether your goal is to become a teacher in California, earn an advanced degree, or improve your teaching skills so that you can take your career to the next level, you’ll find a program to suit your needs at National University. Whether you prefer to take classes on campus or 100% online, NU gives you the flexibility to learn in the way that works for you. And with credit transfer options, financial aid and scholarships, and a military-friendly student community, reaching your goals has never been more achievable. 

Find out what just 30 days can do for your career in education. To learn more about our accredited teaching programs and how you can apply, contact the National University admissions office today.

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