Student Success: Voices and Barriers to Online Learning

Concurrent Session 1

Session Materials

Brief Abstract

The purpose of the study was to identify the barriers and strategies leading to success by returning adults that are non-traditional learners enrolled in online programs. The research team was committed to embracing organic student voices and applying their insight and experiences to guide responsive instructional practices.  

Extended Abstract

 This research focused on undergraduate, returning adults in online programs. The purpose of the study was to identify the barriers and strategies leading to success by returning adults that are non-traditional learners enrolled in online programs. The intent of this research to was to embracing organic student voices and apply their insight and experiences to guide responsive instructional practices.     


The primary research survey was adapted from Muilenburg and Berge (2005) and their work on determining the student barriers of online learning. The current study used a convenience sample with a 15-question survey emailed by the program directors to students each of their programs that met the eligibility criteria of either being currently enrolled in courses or were inactive status in the program. The survey sought to identify and describe the barriers faced in online education. 


A total of 205 students completed the survey.   Results of those surveys found that 97% of the returning adults primarily used laptops to complete coursework, 88% reported strong confidence with learning technologies, 70% shared they learned well online versus the traditional classroom, 84% completed up to 29 credits, and 60% have never dropped a class. In addition to the demographic questions, a thematic analysis was completed and found that students rated the following as barriers to their online learning: 1) Quality Instruction 2) Organization/Preparation and Time-Management 3) Technology-Learning Software 4) Communication/Instructor Presence and 5) Relationships.


The information that was gathered from those surveys were then taken a step further.  The program directors reached out to successful seniors (based on a GPA of 3.5 or higher) to get insight on challenges experienced and recommendations for instructors. A total of 28 students shared what they felt a quality online course/instructor looked like.  Again, a thematic analysis was completed, and students shared that communication with instructors is the most important piece of a quality instructor.  In addition, they reported having courses that are easy to navigate with consistent formats was important, as well as clear expectations on due dates, rubrics, and assignments.  Students reported higher quality when they were enrolled in courses in which instructors provided video lectures clarifying main points and summarizing text chapters in addition to having a combination of readings, videos, and activities.  Availability of instructor and approachability of instructor were also discussed.  From the information that was gathered from these students, a tip sheet was created for all online instructors to use as a guide when creating and teaching their online courses.


  In addition to asking the seniors who had a GPA of 3.5 or higher what they deemed as a quality course/instructor, we also asked them to provide feedback/tips on what they have done to be successful in online courses.  Students reported that having time set aside to work on courses was essential.  In addition, having each week planned out with due dates listed help to keep them on track.  Students also reported that making sure that you keep up with course material is essential.  Keeping old course material was also mentioned as a strategy as students were able to go back and check old coursework to help them to relate it to the new material.  These tips were then all put together in a single PDF were distributed to all online students in the university, not just the three programs.  However, the researchers of this study, took those tip sheets and incorporated them into the introduction course.  Incoming students who were enrolled in the introduction course were asked to reflect on these tips during week 3 of the semester and choose 2 that they were going to use throughout the semester.  In the final weeks of the course, students were asked to report how using those strategies worked for them.  In addition, they were asked to provide any additional strategies that they found to be helpful that were not mentioned on the tip sheet.  Students reported that asking questions to their instructor when they were not sure of expectations helped them to navigate their first online semester. In addition, they talked about how important it was for them to feel like they were part of a community with both the other students and the instructors.  New students also mentioned that having some training in the online management system that is used by the university prior to them starting classes helped them to navigate all of their courses.  Finally, they reiterated how important time management is for online students. 


The conclusions from this research highlight the following:  returning adults appear to enjoy online courses as they fit the complexity of their lives, learn well online, engage with the learning platform, and report in-depth experiences. The challenges faced are maintaining quality instruction, providing guidance for the organization and time management of students, adapting to ever-changing technology, and learning software, establishing instructor presence, building relationships/community, and communicating effectively with instructors and classmates.


Level of Participation

This session will be structured so that attendees of the conference can come up and hear a brief overview of the study.  The intention of this session is to have one-one one conversations with attendees about not only what this study found but what they have done in their own online courses to help students be successful. 


Session Goals          

The goal of this session is that attendees can not only discuss best practices for online teaching but also to take away the strategies that successful online students have shared and be able to take those back to their own colleges and universities and implement online training for all online teachers.  In addition, being able to learn what students find to be helpful in terms of their own success and share those strategies with their own students. 


Muilenburg, L. N and Berge J. L. (2005) Student barriers to online learning: A factor analytic study. Distance Education, (1), 29-48.