Pursuing academic success as a student in an international university requires employing a broad range of tools and strategies at one’s disposal. Due to the development of information and communication technology in the last decades, remote education in the form of online learning has become a full-fledged option. Proliferate spread of communication technologies and easy access to digital data facilitate the spread of knowledge and can vastly improve learning efficiency.
At the same time, no educational strategy is without the potential perils and difficulties in its implementation, and it applies in full force to online education. Being a relatively young mode of learning that is, nevertheless, considerably different from the traditional face-to-face courses, it demonstrates more challenges than the well-established learning methods. Online education provides for better accessibility and more efficient assessment but demands more discipline to maintain academic integrity, potentially undermines collective learning, and threatens to increase the grade gap between stronger and weaker students.
Three Key Benefits of Online Education
Online education has a number of notable advantages over traditional modes of learning, the first and, arguably, the most obvious of which is its accessibility in physical terms. Palvia et al. (2018) summarize it aptly by noting that, as the technology advanced forward, “online education has become more feasible technologically, economically, and operationally” (p. 233). It means that, in traditional classes, the students and the teacher have to be in the same physical space. Arriving at this space may range from a mild inconvenience for those residing nearby to a clear impossibility due to purely geographic reasons for the others.
Online classes, on the other hand, allow people to learn without having to travel considerable distances, as everything necessary for education in this case is stable digital communication. This provides access to education to a greater number of people, and, judging by the steadily growing popularity of remote learning, it is a strong appeal. Hence, online classes have an indisputable advantage in availability by eliminating the constraints of physical space as well as the travel time for the students’ benefit.
Another crucial advantage of online education is that it facilitate access to knowledge not only by lifting physical restrictions but also by making it more affordable financially. The impact of online learning is simple in this respect: preparing an online course, even with all the expenses involved, tends to be cheaper than organizing a properly equipped physical space for students to attend. This is why “For-profit colleges enroll just 6 percent of all students, but 13 percent of students taking courses online and 24 percent of fully-online students” (Protopsaltis & Baum, 2019). Focusing on online courses allows an educational institution to lower its expenses and make the educational services it offers cheaper for the customer.
As a result, those who would have otherwise been barred from receiving higher education by the lack of funds have an opportunity to learn that would have been inaccessible if not for online learning. This positive effect on the financial affordability for education is yet another key benefit of online learning as compared to traditional educational approaches involving face-to-face contact between educators and students.
Apart from the factors listed above, the online education of today also has the benefit of robust and efficient frameworks that enhance the learning process. The situation was quite different in this regard when remote learning made its first steps in the 1990s but has changed considerably since then. As noted by Kebritchi et al. (2017), the development of online education has logically led to the emergence of “learning management systems (LMS) such as Blackboard or Moodle” (p. 6).
A contemporary LMS is a flexible educational tool that allows issuing assignments, receiving submissions, providing feedback, and grading. An LMS allows swift and easy access to one’s contributions, overall performance, and the areas to improve. The information is not connected to physical objects, such as papers, but readily available in one place via a digital device and is just several clicks or taps away. Moreover, this centralized data is easy to visualize on the screen instead of having to keep it in one’s head at all times and is also much easier to operate. As such, modern online education provides tools that allow a comfortable and streamlined learning experience.
Three Main Challenges of Online Education
On the other hand, online education has its perils and challenges, and the foremost of these is likely the protection and maintenance of academic integrity. As mentioned above, unlike traditional education, remote learning is based on the presence of all parties in the same physical space. While it provides significant advantages discussed above, it also greatly reduces the degree of control that the educator has over the process, including the academic integrity of those involved.
This is why Brown (2018) rightfully notes that “protection of academic integrity in online environments can be challenging.” Information and communication technologies that facilitates learning across distances and social barriers also make it much easier for the students to plagiarize or hire others to prepare assignments for them. While the educator’s influence over the process is far from absolute even in traditional education, online learning reduces it even further. Ultimately, maintaining academic integrity becomes almost entirely the question of self-control, morality, and discipline in remote learning. Since not every student is necessarily prepared to resist the temptations of academic dishonesty, the lack of control in this respect can be a disadvantage.
Another challenge of learning online is that it requires more than the readily evident methods in terms of assessing the students’ progress or lack thereof. To elaborate, online education requires a particular approach to assessment, and not all educators may be prepared to use it. Immediate contributions, such as postings and written assignments, are not all there is to remote learning, and limiting assessment to grading submissions obscures learning that occurs by observing the participation of others. This is the essence of the concept of “vicarious learning where learning occurs by observing others’ active dialogue” (Kebritchi et al., 2017, p. 10).
Online students do not learn merely by actively contributing to the process in a written or spoken form – they also do that by listening to or reading the contributions of others. A student who has spent several hours reading the peers’ postings has likely learned more than the one who has only read one or two, but this difference may not feature in the assessment. As one can see, online learning challenges educators to recognize and evaluate the students’ vicarious learning, which can be difficult online.
Finally, one more challenge of online education is that it threatens to further the grade gap between stronger and weaker students. As mentioned above, online learning is more demanding toward the student in terms of self-control, discipline, and overall efficacy. As a result, students without strong academic backgrounds and efficient learning routines are at an even greater disadvantage when they learn in an online setting as opposed to traditional face-to-face education. According to Brau et al. (2017), students enrolled in online classes have “a 23.7% to 26.7% chance of earning a half-letter grade lower in an online course than in the matched in-class course (pp. 29-30).
It means that online classes can increase the divide between the stronger and the weaker students by as much as half a grade due to the medium used. A deepening grade gap may serve as a demotivating factor in its own right, creating a vicious circle of worsening academic performance for those who cannot keep up with the best. This is yet another respect in which online education may prove more challenging than traditional classes.
To summarize, there are many benefits to online education, but the challenges of studying online are notable in their own rights. Today’s remote learning may boast greater accessibility in both physical and financial terms as well as efficient frameworks specifically designed to enhance the learning experience. At the same time, online education complicates the monitoring of academic integrity and assessment of the students’ academic performance while also having the potential to exacerbate the grade gap between stronger and weaker learners. This paper does not consider the purely technical aspects of online education, such as the availability of hardware and proper infrastructure, and evaluating online learning from this perspective would require a study of its own.
Brau, J.C., Cardell, S., Holmes, A.L., & Wright, C. (2017). Can I boost my GPA by taking online classes? An analysis of online versus traditional class outcomes for five finance courses. Journal of Financial Education 43(1), 14-31.
Brown, V. (2018). Evaluating technology to prevent academic integrity violations in online environments. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, 21(1). Web.
Kebritchi, M., Lipschuetz, A., & Santiague, L. (2018). Issues and challenges for teaching successful online courses in higher education: A literature review. Journal of Educational Technology Systems, 46(1), 4-29.
Palvia, S., Aeron, P., Gupta, P., Mahapatra, D., Parida, R., Rosner, R., & Sindhi, S. (2018). Online education: Worldwide status, challenges, trends, and implications. Journal of Global Information Technology Management, 21(4), 233-241.
Protopsaltis, S., & Baum, S. (2019). Does online education live up to its promise? A look at the evidence and implications for federal policy. ResearchGate. Web.