Obstacles to Implementing Distance Learning

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With the emergence of technology and distance learning also comes with barriers to its implementation. There are challenges the students face such as higher costs, time management and self-motivated. Instructors face challenges such as supplementing face to face interaction with online interaction, making sure words that are typed come across with the right message, and providing curriculum specific to the distance learner. Administrators face barriers such as policy changes, professional development for instructors, faculty autonomy and student attrition.

Distance Education Enterprises Are Partnerships

They are characterized by the integration of a great many parts working toward a common goal (Schlosser & Anderson, 1994, p. 39) Each school has its own aims, goals, and objectives, both stated and unstated. Each school also has its own culture, urban or rural, as well as its own perceived value of student learning. There are personnel issues, with clerical, technical, and educational support staff forming a vital link between teacher and student. Many facets of the project must be considered, especially linking student needs within the particular school district with current and projected technology resources. As opportunities arise, so do problems which must be dealt with (Issues in Distance Learning, n.d.).

Distance learning programs have potential for being great alternatives to traditional classrooms and with that potential are challenges and barriers for implementation. The following slides will explore challenges administrators face and what strategies propose to meet those challenges to make the program a great success.

Monteiro, Lencastre, Osorio, and Da Silva did a study, Attrition and Dropout in E-Learning: The Development of a Course Design Model ( 2016) where they identified several factors that influence student’s decisions to dropout. 

They listed three categories with their subcategories and percentage results for dropout reasons:

Student factors (55%)

  • Academic background (9%)
  • Relevant experiences (10%)
  • Skills (16%)
  • Psychological attributes (20%)

Course/Program factors (20%)

  1. Course design (6%)
  2. Institutional supports (6%)
  3.  Interactions (9%)

Environmental factors (25%)

  • Work commitments (10%)
  • Supportive environments (14%)

Student retention or attrition is a major barrier to online distance learning. Making sure students stay in the programs is a challenge and it not only affects financial issues but also program accreditation as well. “Despite increasing enrollment percentages from earlier years, online courses continue to show receding student retention rates. To reduce attrition and ensure continual growth in online courses, it is important to continue to review current and updated literature to understand the changing behaviors of online learners and faculty in the 21st century and examine how they fit together as a cohesive educational unit”

Online classes appeal to the workplace student who can take classes in between work schedules. It appeals to the at home mother who cannot afford daycare for traditional classrooms or the new mother who does not want to leave her child with a babysitter. Online courses appeal to the disabled who struggle getting around traditional classroom settings and it appeals to the students who live in remote areas where it is too far to travel to a traditional institutional setting despite all these benefits and conveniences, online retention rates are declining and administrators are struggling to keep up with attrition numbers to maintain financial and academic goals. The question becomes what exactly are attrition rates and are the numbers reliable? “Understanding these studies and their numerous constructs is problematic since each study uses different sets of variables and different types of statistical analysis to predict attrition. Given these many different approaches to examining attrition in post-secondary distance education, it is not surprising that the findings in the research have been mixed at best”

Knowing what the problem is, is half the battle in order to determine strategies to overcome the barriers. The following slides will discuss at length some but not all the issues that are affecting student retention and the impact on administration.

Student Factors

First time online students face the challenge of a new concept in online learning where they will have to self-monitor, manage their time, and must have some technical skills to be successful in the program. “Switching from traditional classroom and face to face instructor training to computer-based training in a virtual classroom makes the learning experience entirely different for students. Their resistance to change doesn’t allow them to adapt to the online learning environment, whereas it takes time for them to get accustomed to Course Management Systems (CMS) and the methods of computer-based education” ('5 Common Problems Faced by Students in E-Learning and how to Overcome Them - eLearning Industry,' 2015). Certain learning styles may be more challenging than others. Audio learners do not have the benefits of listening to lectures or classroom discussions. Kinetics learners may not have that tactile learning environment they are used to. Finding resources in the program’s website may be hard to navigate and sometimes finding the course’s assignments may not be easy for the digital immigrants. Older students may take longer to search online or find website resources. Psychological attributes will also affect dropout rates, if a student is not cognitively mature or does not have the personality for online learning, they will not succeed. A student must be motivated to learn and have a positive attitude towards new and innovative ways of learning.

Course Program Factor

“Distance education administrators must constantly juggle concerns about academic integrity, technology, and student access, along with campus politics and their own learning curve” ('Distance Education Administrators Face Unique Challenges - Faculty Focus | Higher Ed Teaching & Learning,' 2018). Too many students in a classroom does not allow student – instructor interaction. This also poses a problem keeping track of posts of students when there are too many students to respond to and grade. Feedback from instructor is hindered by multiple student posts and papers. Communication is key to all learning but distance learning poses a new challenge on how to manage effective communication when you are not face to face.

Institutions risk loss of accreditation if too many students drop out. First time students have a higher risk of dropping out due to the novelty of online learning. However, some of the research data is incorrect due to including students who are not consecutively taking classes which will then affect the accreditation decisions. Administrators face the new challenge of overseeing the design online course programs verses classroom designed programs. They have to ensure the student learning follow along the program’s student outcomes and course objectives.

Environmental Factors

There are several outside influences that affect student attrition. These factors although important, they are unavoidable and administrators are unable to divert the students from dropping out. Family support is very important to student online learning. If a student works full time, this may also affect how they can manage time to set aside for online courses. Financial issues also come into play on student’s ability to stay in the program. Every online program have different tuition requirements and students may not be able to keep up financially.

Military members receive extra money for housing allowance and online courses do not quality, so they may lean more towards traditional classroom settings to receive the benefits. Student’s ability to pay for internet services may affect if they stay in online courses. Lastly, “ are institutions creating and enabling opportunities that promote the development of effective learning in a digital age?” ('Institutional strategies for supporting learners in a digital age,' 2015). Administrators can reduce retention rates by not only supporting the students but creating a positive environment for faculty as well. Making sure the faculty is paid well is one way. Supporting faculty with program design and implementation is another way. Providing instructional programs for online teaching is another way of support. Teaching online is not only new for students, it may be new for faculty and administrators as well so have good tech support 24/7 is also helpful.

Strategies to Meet Challenges

Student factors

  • Identify at risk student and making sure students are qualified: by utilizing an online survey before the beginning of the course that identifies areas of concern and where focus needs to be directed during and after courses.
  • Mapping out online resources for new students: Pre-brief the students on the school’s recourses such as library, success center, time management programs and navigating through the online website. Finding out what the strengths and weaknesses of the naive distance learner will help identify the at-risk student so that more support can be given ahead of time. Follow up on the pre-briefing by an email that reiterates the school resources as well as outside resources .
  • Fostering a student- faculty relationship helps facilitate communication and leads to students feeling connected which will then lead to reduced retention rates.
  • Institutions should address the needs of students with various learning styles. If students identify as having a physical or verbal learning style preference, greater levels of support may need to be provided to ensure online success.
  • Online Open Houses: Engage prospective students through online Open House events. This is an ideal venue to introduce potential students to the program director, academic advisors, current students, alumni, and future peers. 
  • Mentoring Program: Establish a mentoring program to connect new students with experienced students or recent program alumni who can provide new students with support and networking connections. 
  • Digital immigrants to Native digitals: For the younger audiences are well-versed in the language of the Internet, making communication, and imparting knowledge through training, consider contextualizing the learning by adding a Twitter hashtag to your training . Online tutoring and step by step videos for those who are unfamiliar with technology.


Course/Program Factors

  • Limit the class size to 20 students
  • Offer a cohort-based and team-based learning experience with extensive faculty feedback and interaction
  • Provide content which is relevant to students’ experiences and interests
  • Make course content flexible and self-directive for students to access and explore
  • Make curriculum more interesting and interactive to encourage student participation
  • Reinforce a teacher’s role as a facilitator of interactive learning
  • Increase interaction in classroom using communication technology tools


Environmental factors

  • Work commitments- allowing longer deadlines for classroom assignments
  • Establish “virtual” work office hours
  • Student support services readily available such as outside peer tutoring, you tube videos for classroom support, 24/7 tech support
  • Provide financial assistance and resources for students who struggle financially


There are several factors that influence student attrition that also reflect administrative responsibility to not only identify the factors but also to come up with strategies to deflect the retention rates so it does not affect the institution’s financial state, academic accreditation, student population as well as faculty welfare. This presentation touched on a few influential factors such as student, course program and environmental factors. Students taking online courses come from a diverse background and have different complex issues of why they are not succeeding in the program. Knowing how some of those issues factor into why they are dropping out helps the administrators support staff and program directives to reduce the attrition rate. “Despite the tremendous growth of distance education, retention remains its Achilles’ heel. Estimates of the failed retention rate for distance education undergraduates range from 20 to 50 percent. Distance education administrators believe the failed retention rate for online courses may be 10 to 20 percent higher than for face-to-face courses. Failure to address online course retention will have a significant impact on a program’s bottom line and ability to grow” 


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Obstacles to Implementing Distance Learning. (2021, Oct 12). Retrieved December 9, 2023 , from

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