Overcoming the Challenges to E-Learning in Higher Education

Faculty whose teaching habits were developed in a traditional classroom setting are faced with a number of challenges when first attempting to create effective e-learning courses.  Most of the challenges identified below are the result of a widespread prejudice against e-learning: that it is inherently inferior to traditional instruction because it puts distance between the learner and the instructor.  Without the close proximity of instructor to student that we find in the traditional classroom, the argument goes, learners are forced to teach themselves the course content.  Inevitably, learners will fall short of the course’s learning goals without an expert instructor to guide their acquisition of knowledge.  Therefore, traditional instruction is to be preferred whenever possible.

How did this prejudice come to be?  Any attempt to employ traditional course content, without modification, in e-learning contexts reveals the key to the origins of this prejudice. For example, the lecture—a teaching method widely employed in the traditional classroom—does not lend itself to e-learning contexts because it can easily change from a dynamic performance for a specific audience to a static recitation when recorded and uploaded to a learning management system.  The lecture becomes a less effective means of delivering course content because its character shifts as it moves to a new environment.  The fact that course content is transformed by its mode of delivery is overlooked by faculty new to e-learning and student learning suffers as a result.  When student performance suffers because of a mismatch between content and technology, the mode of delivery is blamed for the defect rather than the design of the course content.  Thus, the prejudice against e-learning stems from a poor use of the technology that makes online education possible.  The problem of how to create effective course content for online contexts is not an easy one to solve, but it certainly cannot be solved by blaming the technology.

Working under the prejudice that e-learning is inherently inferior to face-to-face instruction, faculty new to e-learning design frequently: (a) think that e-learning is a fad that will soon fade away, (b) complain that e-learning courses require excessive preparation time compared with traditional courses, (c) create e-learning courses with static content and little opportunity for learners to interact with their instructor or peers, (d) fail to understand the contexts that make e-learning vital to the spread of higher education, and (e) suffer from a lack of professional development opportunities.  These challenges can be overcome by a careful examination of the issues involved in e-learning design.  Specifically, faculty must be made aware of the future potential of e-learning, the collaborative nature of e-learning design, principles and best practices guiding such designs, trends in the development of e-learning courses and resources, and the need for professional development to enhance faculty competencies within e-learning design.  Faculty must be presented with the results of this examination with the intent of dispelling the prejudices that inhibit the further development of comprehensive e-learning environments and courses.

The Future of E-Learning

The literature on the future of e-learning is uniformly positive (Hillen & Landis, 2014; Pachler & Daly, 2011; Zhang, 2013).  Although there is much unfulfilled potential with regard to currently deployed technologies, changes are on the horizon that will simplify the creation of highly interactive, collaborative, and immersive learning environments.

Zhang (2013) identified three developmental stages for e-learning that help explain the nature of the coming changes. The first generation of e-learning was driven by technology and consisted of transmitting information from instructor to student via computer networks and static course web sites.  The second generation of e-learning was driven by pedagogy and consisted of delivering interactive course content to students via learning management systems.  The third generation will be driven by a comprehensive mode of e-learning that includes: (a) an integrated and user-friendly platform that acts as a one-stop service for e-learning, (b) course design based on explicitly stated e-learning principles, and (c) comprehensive training in e-learning for instructors and their support staff.  This comprehensive mode of e-learning engages students by asking them to complete collaborative learning activities that are both creative and open-ended, mimicking the Web 2.0 technologies that students use in their everyday lives.

Thus, the notion that e-learning is a fad can be easily dismissed by pointing to these important developments in the field.  Not only is e-learning not going away, it is becoming more like the technologies that people use everyday to engage with the world around them (Pachler & Daly, 2011).  Faculty who continue to believe otherwise would do well to read some of the literature on the subject.

Collaboration in E-Learning Design

Faculty who are concerned about the workload associated with e-learning are right to be concerned.  E-learning platforms are not always the easiest technologies to master and the creation of quality content from scratch is daunting even if you are an expert in your field.  However, by focusing on difficulties rather than solutions, faculty are often unaware that collaboration on e-learning design is a possibility, if not a necessity.

Vandenhouten, Gallagher-Lepak, Reilly, and Ralston-Berg (2014) recommended exposing faculty to the Flexible Framework for E-Learning, a framework designed to promote collaboration among professionals in the field.  The framework divides the task of developing e-learning resources into eight dimensions: (a) pedagogy, (b) technology, (c) interface design, (d) evaluation, (e) management, (f) resource support, (g) ethics, and (h) institution.  Instructors, instructional designers, and support staff are involved in these dimensions in overlapping ways and can benefit from a sense of shared responsibility for delivering e-learning resources to students.  In order to deliver quality e-learning, faculty must give up the idea that they are solely responsible for designing their courses and begin to collaborate with other professionals on their institution’s e-learning team.

Principles of E-Learning Design

In order to avoid the creation of e-learning courses composed solely of static images and text—courses that would fail to maintain student attention and interest over time—instructors must familiarize themselves with principles and best practices of e-learning design.  Because principles and practices of e-learning design are grounded in theory, faculty would be remiss if they did not also familiarize themselves with current e-learning theory.

One of the major currents in e-learning theory is the shared construction of knowledge, whereby an individual learns through engagement with differing and conflicting viewpoints (Pachler & Daly, 2011).  The shared construction of knowledge requires collaboration to be effective.  Thus, one principle of e-learning design would be to incorporate collaborative activities and projects that relate directly to the course content.  Focusing on collaboration as a primary method of instruction would do much to encourage interaction among learners and prevent static content from dominating course materials.

Afifi and Alamri (2014) performed a literature review to determine the most effective principles for designing e-learning courses with reference to current behavioral, cognitive, and constructivist learning theories.  Their findings produced a group of principles that cover everything from course planning to learning contexts.  A key feature of the principles identified is an emphasis on interaction and collaboration for both students and their instructors.  The distance between the learner and the instructor that is blamed for many of e-learning’s deficiencies—real or imagined—is a non-issue when opportunities to interact and collaborate are sufficiently present in an e-learning environment.  Thus, research shows that faculty will need to be prepared for a shift in their practice when moving from the traditional classroom to an e-learning space.  This shift is best facilitated by providing substantial support to faculty in terms of learning resources and professional development.

Trends in E-Learning Design

The two most significant trends in e-learning design are the development of collaborative activities for use in e-learning courses (Hillen & Landis, 2014; Lister, 2014) and the use of e-portfolios as a means by which learners can acquire a deeper understanding of their own learning (Pachler & Daly, 2011).  Collaborative activities stimulate learning through interactions between students as well as interactions between students and content while e-portfolios stimulate self-reflection and meta-cognition of learning processes.

As technology becomes a part of everyday life and people begin exploiting the unparalleled opportunities for shared knowledge construction brought about by Web 2.0 technologies, faculty must keep up with the changes or be left behind.  The integration of collaborative activities and e-portfolios in e-learning contexts is vital to higher education maintaining its relevance.  Faculty who fail to understand that technological development has changed the way people learn, when they learn, and how they learn, are ill-prepared to teach today’s students.  Thus, the spread of higher education depends on continuously adapting instruction to a technology-rich environment.

The Need for Professional Development

The literature on e-learning calls for faculty to engage in continuous professional development due to rapid changes in technology (Afifi & Alamri, 2014; Vandenhouten et al., 2014; Zhang, 2013).  Resistance to new technology is a problem in higher education just as it is in other industries (Pachler & Daly, 2011).  This resistance can be overcome by educating faculty about e-learning design and its potential benefits to instruction.  However, it is up to administrators and support staff to provide the resources and opportunities that faculty need to become adept at e-learning design.  Once again, collaboration—on the part of administrators, instructors, and designers instead of users—becomes key to making e-learning a success.

Making Recommendations to Faculty

It is vital that faculty “make peace” with e-learning and its associated technologies before using them to develop courses.  The results of this study would help faculty understand the issues involved in e-learning design and would provide pathways to better implementation of e-learning from an institutional perspective.  To ensure maximum exposure of faculty to this study’s results, administrators and support staff should make the study available in a wide variety of formats.  The results could be presented to faculty as a handout, a presentation, a video, a web page, a face-to-face discussion, and a web-based meeting.  By multiplying options for experiencing the study, faculty will be more likely to engage the information and make it a part of their professional body of knowledge.


The most common prejudice against e-learning is the result of an error on the part of faculty who don’t teach with technology.  The error is the claim, sometimes implicit and sometimes explicit, that instructor presence is necessary for an authentic and effective educational experience.  This claim is in need of evidence to support it.  There is every reason to believe that the opposite is true.  Engaging e-learning experiences can be designed and delivered to students who never meet their instructors face-to-face.  The key to engaging e-learning experiences is collaboration.  Without it, learners are isolated.

With so much for instructors to consider when it comes to e-learning design, collaboration must also become a habit among instructors, administrators, and support staff.  Instructors would still take the lead in course development, but could also ask for constructive input from administrators and support staff during every stage of the process.

Despite the challenges that e-learning faces, there is reason to be hopeful that the field can meet those challenges.  Professional development opportunities must be made available to all faculty and incentivized if possible.  Once faculty are required to be educated about the issues involved in e-learning design, perhaps only then will the third generation of e-learning be well on its way to fruition.


Afifi, M. K., & Alamri, S. S. (2014). Effective principles in designing e-course in light of learning theories. Turkish Online Journal of Distance Education, 15(1), 128–142. Retrieved from http://tojde.anadolu.edu.tr/

Hillen, S. A., & Landis, M. (2014). Two perspectives on e-learning design: A synopsis of a U.S.and a European analysis. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 15(4), 199–225. Retrieved from http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl

Lister, M. (2014). Trends in the design of e-learning and online learning. Journal of Online Learning & Teaching, 10(4), 671–680. Retrieved from http://jolt.merlot.org/

Pachler, N., & Daly, C. (2011). Key issues in e-learning: Research and practice. London, England: Continuum.

Vandenhouten, C., Gallagher-Lepak, S., Reilly, J., & Ralston-Berg, P. (2014). Collaboration in e-learning: A study using the flexible e-learning framework. Online Learning, 18(3), 1–14. Retrieved from http://onlinelearningconsortium.org/read/online-learning-journal/

Zhang, W. (2013). Entering the 3rd generation of e-learning: Characteristics and strategies. Journal of Educational Technology Development & Exchange, 5(1), 1–12. Retrieved from http://www.sicet.org/journals/jetde/jetde.html

One thought on “Overcoming the Challenges to E-Learning in Higher Education”

  1. Now that’s an extensive write-up – I love reading pieces like that. I’m not sure though I would assume that eLearning is inherently inferior to face-to-face learning – it sure is in some aspects, but not in every one. The whole concept of gamification is pretty much exclusive to eLearning, and look how beneficial it is!

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