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Why hasn’t Online Learning Transformed Higher Education?

By: , Posted on: January 25, 2017

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Why are so many educators and researchers disillusioned about the impact of new technology on education?

There is an observable trend in e-learning research from hype to disappointment at the perceived failures of online learning to change educational practice in higher education institutions. This is more complex than the hype cycle associated with new technologies: after the hype and disillusionment, research seems to suggest few examples of an eventual plateau of productivity more often, there is a somewhat uneasy accommodation with existing practices.

For e-learning specialists and educational developers working in higher education institutions, this is a cause of strong concern. What are we doing (or not doing) that has led to this outcome? Why do we see it happen over and over again? How can we try to ensure that investments of time and effort in online learning at tertiary level really can deliver improvements to the experiences of both students and those educating them?

Chapter Download: Challenges and Disappointments of Virtual Learning Environment

In my research, I have examined the adoption of learning management systems (LMS), also known as virtual learning environments (VLEs) like Blackboard, Moodle, Sakai and Canvas. These are mainstreamed online learning platforms in use in most tertiary institutions for almost two decades. The story of their introduction and use can help us to learn some valuable lessons for the future.

A literature of disappointment

Literature examining the adoption of the VLE/LMS in higher education suggests a pattern of under-use, with systems supplementing and supporting traditional lectures and little evidence of impact on teaching methods or student engagement.

Researchers have attributed this to several factors. The design of the software has been blamed, both for its lack of interoperability and frequent use of traditional classroom metaphors and icons. But a surfeit of system features or “systems bloat” has also been criticised, especially since research shows just a few VLE/LMS tools are used by the majority of faculty and students, and that by far the greatest exploitation of these platforms has been for storage and dissemination of course materials. This disappointingly low uptake of the interactive features of the VLE/LMS has led to its pejorative labelling as “shovelware”.

Online learning platforms such as Moodle, Blackboard, Sakai and Canvas have been adopted by the vast majority of higher education institutions. Usage data at many institutions also indicates pervasive use of the VLE/LMS by faculty and students. So how true is it to argue that they are under-used and under-exploited?

From the mid-2000s onwards, e-learning research has tended to decry the lack of impact of online learning in higher education. References to myth, thwarted ambitions and broken promises all appear in the titles of works addressing e-learning at this time. Many researchers have in turn examined the problem, and their findings fall into three main categories:


Researchers, practitioners, and policymakers have all regarded online learning as having the potential to transform higher education pedagogy and practice. But this implies a need for change and a desire for technology to trigger that change. We might ask how much change is enough. Is transformation the same thing as change? Can a technology be expected to bring about change on its own? And how widely shared is the desire for change within higher education institutions? Faculty have tended to be skeptical about new technology, with some justification – the practicalities of using it in the classroom bring challenges. Time for new or additional work is in short supply. Technology may contribute to issues like plagiarism, student distraction and poor attendance in class. Taken in light of these sometimes unclear strategic expectations, but also the practical concerns surrounding technology, a lot has been expected of systems like the VLE/LMS.


How much do we really know about the effectiveness of e-learning in higher education? E-learning research has seen an emphasis on producing case studies about the use of specific technologies in specific subjects or programmes, and a focus on comparing “online” with “offline”. This evidence is undoubtedly very useful, but difficult to transfer from one context to another, and limited in the extent to which it can inform practice with new technologies according as they come along. A further issue has been the well-documented tendency to draw on research in open and distance education when researching e-learning in campus-based institutions. This is simply because it took time to build a body of new e-learning research, but it this has led to some inappropriate comparisons being made. Furthermore, e-learning research is carried out by practitioners from numerous fields with different methodological toolkits. This means it’s a rich discipline but one that has struggled to build a consistent evidence base.


Research indicates that higher education institutions may limit their use of e-learning because of a lack of evidence that it provides financial savings or rewards, or benefits teaching and learning. Moreover, few senior managers have direct e-learning expertise to support their decision-making. Pilot projects may not go mainstream without adequate funding and support.

What can we do next?

Although literature reflects some disappointment about the uptake of educational technology in higher education, researchers have also proposed ways to address the issues they have identified. Renewed calls to focus on pedagogically-driven uses of technology have been made, along with appeals to develop new research methods to explore how people learn with new technologies. Informal networks to develop pedagogical practice, with technology an integral part of this, have been encouraged. Micro-credentialing or badging is currently attracting much attention as a means of supporting the development of digital literacies and skills amongst faculty. Calls for more research into cultures of use of technology have led to work on digital identities as well as learners’ behaviours and attitudes. More sophisticated data such as learning analytics will help us to paint a more detailed picture of how people use technology in teaching and learning.

It is encouraging to see larger scale studies emerging, including one here in Ireland which has built a dataset of students use of VLEs/LMS over nearly a decade. In my own research, I have argued that the framework of Activity Theory used with qualitative methods offers a means for us to examine the adoption of learning technologies in higher education more effectively than we have been doing to date.

But ultimately it may be that we need to ask different questions when it comes to educational technologies in higher education. Campus-based institutions usually prioritise face-to-face teaching events (of all kinds) and therefore the use of online learning within any campus-based institution may be necessarily, and appropriately, limited. Rather than falling prey to the hype associated with each new tool, and anticipating that it will transform our campuses, perhaps it would be more useful for us to research the activities in which faculty and students are engaged and for which they use particular technologies. Rather than condemning the VLE/LMS as a notes database (or worse, a restrictive and reductive system), perhaps we should look at the ways in which it interacts with planned teaching events, scaffolds learners engaging with higher education (perhaps for the first time), and provides a “third space” between classroom, work and home in which learners and those teaching them can negotiate what they will do when they next meet in person. As researchers, practitioners, educators and stakeholders, can we paint a more reliable picture of the use of technologies like the VLE? Broadening our theoretical and methodological frameworks will help us to do this.

online learning and its users

The author of this article is Claire McAvinia, Learning Development Officer, Learning, Teaching and Technology Centre, Dublin Institute of Technology, Ireland. Her book, Online Learning and Its Users: Lessons for Higher Education re-examines the impact of learning technologies in higher education. The book focuses particularly on the introduction and mainstreaming of one of the most widely used systems, the virtual learning environment (VLE) or learning management system (LMS).

We are pleased to offer you a look at the book by providing you with a chapter, “Challenges and Disappointments.” In this chapter, the criticisms of the VLE will be explored. These will be shown to be consistent with a general trend towards disillusionment with the limited impact of new technologies on teaching and learning in higher education

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If you would like to read additional chapters from the book, you can access them here on ScienceDirect. If you would prefer to order a print copy or electronic copy, please visit the Elsevier website. Apply discount code STC317 for 30% off the list price and free global shipping.

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