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Editor’s Note
: Online editor Brent Muirhead has the final statement on ways to make online learning into a rich learning environment through community building activities, shared responsibility, and vibrant interaction.

Contemporary Online Education Challenges

Brent Muirhead


My discussion will note some of the educational concerns about the quality of today’s online degree programs. Relevant instructional advice will be given on how to enhance the teaching and learning process.

Distance Education Dialog Challenges

The online setting holds potential for vibrant interaction and rich dialog. Unfortunately, online educational experiences can become quite wooden and lifeless at times, like a boring traditional classroom. Distance educators and their students can become disillusioned with the teaching and learning process when it lacks a dynamic interactive character. The author believes that part of the problem involves having a rigid learning environment that fails to acknowledge that learning must be context sensitive. Scott Gray (1999, paragraph 7) offers insights into the nature of online interactions:

Good – even great – online teaching will not be –will never be built- because you can not build interaction. You enter into it, like a warm bath (shades of McLuhan) like a familiar suit, like a comfortable home. The online materials are only the tools and components of online instruction hammers and screwdrivers and saws and doorframes and kitchen cupboards and furnaces and wall-to-wall carpeting. They do not – cannot- constitute a home. The pausing, the pacing, the pushing, the pulling, the selection, maybe of this movie, that online resource project, such-and –such project – all of these occur in a dynamic fashion in the classroom, and indeed even to a large degree in online learning. Great teaching adapts and flows. The more personalized, the more context-sensitive such adaptations become, the more full the educational experience becomes, the more like a home, the less like a pile of tools.

Gray’s (1999) comments reflect a keen awareness of the importance of having an educational model that provides adequate flexibility for instructors and students to freely interact. Today’s students want online classes that are enjoyable places where learning expectations are built upon relevant intellectual activities and discussions. It is interesting to observe teachers who claim to be student-centered in their educational philosophy but actually are quite controlling in their classes. Teachers can dominate online dialogs by posting an excessive number of messages that highlights the instructor’s knowledge expertise but undermines the communication process. Instructors can become threatened by the online setting which has an open ended quality which causes some individuals to strive for security through greater control. Sadly, students are receiving a less academically rigorous education because they are not challenged to be independent thinkers. Students wonder about the quality of their ideas because the teacher fails to create a legitimate dialog that affirms the worth of their questions and concerns.

Making Positive Online Learning Connections

Meyer (2002) encourages teachers to take responsibility for properly using technology as a communication tool in their classes. Teachers should create email notes and biographical narratives that highlight their personalities. These are simple ways to integrate the teacher’s social presence into their classes which stimulates interactivity. Teachers can design biographies that offer informative background comments relating to their academic degrees, professional experiences, personal interests and hobbies. Biographies should be designed to establish the professional credibility of the instructor and affirm the personal dimension of their lives. Instructors can enrich their biographies by using graphics, a personal picture and favorite quotes. It is a useful way to help students become acquainted with their teachers. Also, students appreciate having teachers who utilize a university or personal website. The University of Phoenix provides instructors with individual faculty websites that are designed to share basic contact information and biographical data. Students can access their instructor’s website prior to the start of their course which helps them feel more comfortable about taking the class.

Collison, Elbaum, Haavind & Tinker (2000, p. 49) shares eight facilitator tasks that encourage relevant online work and interaction:

  1. Leading introductory, community-building activities

  2. Providing virtual ‘hand holding’ to the digitally challenged

  3. Acknowledging the diversity of participants’ backgrounds and interests

  4. Infusing personality with tone, graphics and humor

  5. Maintaining a nurturing pace of responding

  6. Keeping up with a pace set

  7. Organizing posts and discussion threads

  8. Balancing private email and public discussion.

The eight tasks reveal the need for instructors to take a comprehensive view of interaction by making it a major objective within their curriculum plans. Students want intellectually and emotionally engaging dialogs which have connections to their current and future jobs. Integrating cognitive and metacognitive activities into the online setting remains a challenge for today’s instructors who must deal with issues of student readiness and institutional barriers (i.e. course structure). Peters (1998) believes distance education is often delivered within the context of an industrial organizational paradigm. He voices concerns that distance education institutions use tightly structured courses with lectures and instructional activities that foster passive students learning patterns. “Students should not be the objects but the subjects of the teaching process” (Peters, 1998, p. 98).

Peters (1998) proposes an educational model that is quite similar to Rogers (1969) which places emphasis on having a self-directed, autonomous and informal learning approach. Students are expected take a leading role in their own education and learn to refine their metacognition skills. Garrison (2003, 1997) offers a sophisticated paradigm that classifies self-directed learning into three categories: self-management, self-monitoring, and motivation. The three elements acknowledge the importance of recognizing the need for students to become less dependent upon their instructors to acquire skills and knowledge. Teachers must offer appropriate guidance and a class structure that gives student instructional activities that encourage personal responsibility and accountability for meeting course learning objectives.

Today’s distance teachers often advocate a self-directed learning philosophy because it encourages personal and professional growth. The concept of self-directed learning is vital to creating an educational setting or environment that promotes critical thinking. Moore (1993) advocates learner autonomy in distance education that involves a combination of instructional structure and dialogue. Knowles (1990, p. 135) relates that learners demonstrate self-directed learning skills by:

  • Diagnosing their own needs for learning

  • Formulating their own learning objectives

  • Identifying effective human and material resources for accomplishing their objectives

  • Choosing and implementing effective strategies for using these resources

  • Evaluating the extent to which they have accomplished their objectives.

The level of cognitive maturity will vary among students which will require having teachers to make creative adaptations to their teaching plans and activities (Bullen, 1998). Curriculum changes should not reduce the academic quality of the course work. Online degree program administrators must avoid the temptation to dumb down their curriculum standards to increase their student enrollment numbers. The lowering of educational standards appears to help more students experience a measure of academic success. It really represents a patronizing view of people that questions their ability to effectively take on new intellectual challenges and it reflects an ambiguous view of equity. Furedi (2004) relates “… by treating people as weak and vulnerable individuals who are likely to stumble when confronted by intellectual challenge, such cultural attitudes serve to create a culture of low expectations” (p. 138). Distance education administrators, admission personnel and teachers need to work together to maintain high intellectual expectations for their students and uphold the academic integrity of their institutions.

Distance educators must develop short and long term goals for their students that recognize changing individual learning habits takes time, patience and a willingness to practice. Instructors can assist students through class activities which offer clear insights into their thinking processes. Writing assignments can be an excellent opportunity for students to practice being self-directed and reflective. Students should learn how to effectively select a topic and conduct research on it. The author has graduate online students learn about critical thinking by using this topic as the focus of one of their Power Point presentations. The initial student reaction to this assignment is somewhat apprehensive about teaching something as complex as this topic. The author shares lectures and charts on critical thinking principles which help alleviate their anxiety.

Students are required to develop either a handout, pamphlet or outline notes on their Power Point presentation. Student comments after their presentations indicate that reflective thinking is less of a mystical concept to them and it is more practical than they had realized. Online teachers who want to offer practical advice to encourage more intentional critical thinking in their students should consider sharing the following nine strategies (Paul & Elder, 2000)

  • Use ‘wasted’ time

  • A problem a day

  • Internalize intellectual standards

  • Keep an intellectual journal

  • Reshape your character

  • Deal with your ego

  • Redefine the way you see things

  • Get in touch with your emotions

  • Analyze group influences on your life (p. 40).


This brief discussion has highlighted some of the academic challenges that face distance educators. “Today’s manipulative attitude towards standards is in part a product of disappointment with the experience of reform in education, culture and social policy” (Furedi, 2004, p. 17). Online education is not immune from negative social trends which can undermine the teaching and learning process. Contemporary instructors play a vital role in shaping the intellectual depth of their online communities by helping their students become reflective and self-directed learners.


Bullen, M. (1998). Participation and critical thinking in online university distance education. Journal of Distance Education. 13 (2).Available: http://cade.icaap.org/vol13.2/bullen.html

Collison, G., Elbaum, Haavind, S., & Tinker, R. (2000). Facilitating online learning. Effective strategies for moderators. Madison, WI: Atwood Publishing.

Furedi, F. (2004). Where have all the intellectuals gone? Confronting 21st century philistinism. New York, NY: Continuum.

Garrison, D. R. (2003). Self-directed learning and distance education. In M. G. Moore & W. G. Anderson (Eds.). Handbook of distance education, pp. 161-168. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Garrrison, D. R. (1997). Self-directed learning: Toward a comprehensive model. Adult Education Quarterly, 48 (1), 15-31.

Gray, S. (1999). Message. ListServ WWW Courseware Development. Retrieved December 16, 2004 from http://listserv.unb.ca/bin/wa?A2=ind9907&L=wwwdev&T=0&F=&S=&P=2146

Knowles, M. S. (1990). Fostering competence in self-directed learning, In R. S. Smith (Ed. ) Learning to learn across the life span. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Meyer, K. A. (2002). Quality in distance education: Focus on on-line learning. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Paul, R. & Elder, L. (2000). Critical thinking: Nine strategies for everyday life, Part I. Journal of Developmental Education, 24 (1), 40. Retrieved from the University from Phoenix Online Library and ProQuest Database December 15, 2004.

Peters, O. (1998). Learning and teaching in distance education: Analyses and interpretations from an international perspective. London, England: Kogan Press.

Rogers, C. (1969) Freedom to learn. Columbus, OH: Charles E. Merrill.

About the Author

Brent Muirhead

Brent Muirhead has a BA in social work, master's degrees in religious education, history, administration and e-learning and doctoral degrees in Education (D.Min. and Ph.D.).

Dr. Muirhead is the Lead Faculty and Area Chair for GBAM Business Communications in the graduate department at the University of Phoenix campus in Atlanta, Georgia. He teaches a diversity of undergraduate and graduate level courses in Atlanta and online. He is an Associate Editor for Educational Technology and Society and he has worked as a visiting research fellow to Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen, Scotland.

He may be reached via email at: bmuirhead@email.uophx.edu.

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