16 Problems with Online/Virtual Learning

5 senses

Is your child not loving online school? Is motivation is a daily battle?  You want to quit but you are worried your child might get “behind”?  Don’t worry. It is not your child’s fault. The fault is an education delivery method that is not compatible with your child’s brain and how learning works at different ages.

E-Learning, distance learning, virtual schooling and online learning is NOT homeschooling or home education. It is government school in your living room and you and your child have no control over it. For a parent, it can be as painful as overseeing homework. Yet, students are now borderless. In true home education/unschooling, the parent and child controls everything: goals, content, methodology, pace, resources, scope, sequence, and assessment. The parent and child can choose what to learn (the world is the classroom), when to learn it (morning, or night), where to learn it from (many countries have excellent courses online), how to learn it (auditory, visual, kinesthetic) and if (may the child is not interested for now…) a child wants to learn it.

*Listen to the article instead of reading!

Virtual schools

Online learning in the past decade has grown exponentially. Our entire education system seems to be moving toward digital teaching. However, I don’t think it is the only way, nor best way, to go. Children should delay taking online courses for as long as they can, at least until the teen years, and continue instead to learn in the physical, real world. Currently, online learning takes place either in the home, where it is called distance education (not homeschooling, because it is not parent or self-directed), or in a school.

Face-to-face relationships are difficult to foster in the digital world, but are critically needed in the teaching-learning dynamic. In response to that need, a hybrid of online and face-to-face learning called “blended learning” is gaining popularity. All of blended learning is school directed, but some of the instruction takes place directly from a physical classroom, and some occurs through online content and/or correspondence.

Online education has some benefits, but more challenges. It certainly is not for every-one. As well, many asynchronous courses just have the student read text from a screen and do an assignment. Read more text and do an assignment. Much of what is learned is forgotten by the next grade. Some courses are synchronous and have a teacher doing a zoom or live teaching. Those are more engaging and better suited for children ages 13 and up that have enough executive function (self-control) brain development to sit and pay attention for an hour at a time. As well, young children’s brains are wired to learn in 3-dimensions, not 2-dimentions through a screen. That is why children learn best through play during their first 12 years.

For younger children, under age 13, the best solution might be to have the child do a home education program that has hands-on learning and experiential activities, and then the parent or child can choose online learning from a variety of engaging apps.  They can pick and choose from apps that deliver quality, engaging, programming. Thus, they are not locked into a year-long online school course that a child is not motivated into doing and the parent is frustrated while trying to engage the child to pay attention and do the work.

Unfortunately, many schools teach online courses through boring text on a screen because they don’t have the funding for licencing agreements that would bring the new, fun, engaging apps to the student population. For example, my kids loved Kahn Academy.  They learned all their science and math through that fantastic website (no, not getting endorsement funds here!), yet, none of the government school online courses recommended or used any of their content for teaching.

This is  Edgar Dale’s Cone of Learning and it shows parents what the learning retention rate is through various methods of delivery.

Many schools are scrambling to retain their student rosters in order to retain funding, by offering online programming, but is it really in the best interests of the child’s learning abilities?  No.  Do home education or unschooling instead if you want your child to retain what they learn through real life, experiential teaching moments.

Disadvantages of online learning through government schools

There are numerous disadvantages to distance education through online delivery. Let’s go through them.

1. Relationships are difficult to maintain

Online learning only delivers academic content. The physical, social, and emotional needs of the learner go undetected when there is no visual contact between the teacher and the student. Academic content is easy to find anywhere on the internet, but the best part of school is the teachers’ relationships with students that is missing in online courses, especially when teachers have 300 – 800 students in their virtual classes. The teacher role is that of paid marker or accreditation conferrer, and many teachers have assistants who help with marking. The interaction is mostly one way. As mentioned before, it falls to the parent or even the at-home student to switch to the teaching role the moment the learner needs help. A 13-year-old at home can spend his whole “school day” on the computer and may learn the names of his teacher and his classmates, but he does not talk to anyone until his parents get home from work. This is isolating and lonely. Children need relationships.

2. Bussing

Bussing to a school in order to learn online is unnecessary, a waste of time for the student, and harmful to the environment. Children need adult attention daily, not peer attention.

3. Motivation needs monitoring

Successful online education needs structured parental oversight in the home, or daily interaction with a teacher, or an extremely self-motivated student. Very often none of these scenarios exist, and this is the reason online courses have such a high dropout rate.

Teachers are reduced to being pokers, prodders and markers, trying to motivate learners who literally have to teach themselves the online content. This is degrading to the teaching profession.

4. The learner teaches himself but is constrained by the government agenda

Many online courses have no synchronous live instruction from a teacher, so the experience is no different than students self-teaching by reading text from a screen or   a textbook. After reading the assigned screen text or book pages, they churn out short answers, essays, discussion comments, reviews, quizzes, and lab reports to “prove”  they were engaged in the course. There are no oral responses because there is no synchronous interaction. If students have questions, a teacher’s email response often comes far too late—and by that time, kids have often figured out the answer, or no longer care about it. Or they might search for the answer online. Or watch videos from the Kahn Academy, or from other online teachers not affiliated with a school. Or they ask a knowledgeable parent. In some cases, they acquire an external tutor. This is not online learning. Whoever is doing the personalized explaining is doing the teaching—and they should be giving the mark in the course, not the school. And if a student teaches himself, he should also mark himself, because he knows exactly what he has learned.

A true online course that is delivered by a teacher is one in which content is indeed read by the student, with the student then interacting with the teacher by phone or synchronous live video feed equal in time to at least half the number of regular classroom instructional hours. Anything less than this means the student is teaching himself, or the parent is teaching him, outside of the constraints of school.

5. The parent teaches the child but is constrained by the government agenda

I have learned so many new things by searching and finding answers together with my children. Kids today are products of the “instant gratification” generation. They want things right away. When my children took online courses, they didn’t want to wait days for a teacher’s answer, and they asked me. As noted in the previous section, whoever does the explaining is the de-facto teacher, regardless of who does the marking. If a book or computer screen cannot adequately explain a concept to your child in a learning style they understand, and you have to supplement the written instructions with your own explanations, drawings, manipulatives, and further resources, then you are actively teaching the concept and the course. Schools conferring a mark and commenting on the output does not constitute true teaching. If the parent is explaining a concept in a way they know their child will understand, they should also be empowered to bestow the course marks. As the “explainer” I don’t get paid to “teach” the course, but I do it because I hate to see my child driven to tears of frustration. As a byproduct, my unpaid labor subsidizes the education industry.

One parent describes this pretty well: “The course states, ‘Online education works  with students who can work independently without assistance.’ This is the biggest misconception about online education. Those students that succeed have invisible support and assistance at home. I put my daughter in a Grade 7 English class to help her with accountability. While a teacher did the primary program delivery, I was still very much involved with helping to create schedules, identify deadlines, proofreading, ordering library books, helping with technology such as how PowerPoint worked, figuring out how to split files too big to upload as an attachment and other things. I found that I continued to play just as active a role in supporting my daughter as I did when I was delivering the subject under home education. Only, I couldn’t give her the mark.” (Colleen J, 2008) So if the parent is taking over many of the teacher’s duties in a classroom, why not just have the student self-study from textbooks and from videos on the internet, and allow parents to assess the work and give the mark as they do in homeschooling?

6. Online learning only tickles two senses

Experiential learning encompasses sight, smell, touch, hearing, and taste, as well as talking and feeling, which embed learning in the long-term memory portion of the brain. Online learning and textbook learning, the economically efficient methods of delivery, are not the optimum methods for deep learning, because they only involve the sense of sight, and possibly, hearing.

Knowledge gained from online learning is present in the working memory but gets dumped soon after the final exam; it never moves to long-term memory. Pamela Gordon states that “Many studies show that we ignore, forget or misunderstand about 75 percent of all the words we hear.” (Gordon, 2012) Anyone who sends an email and has it misread knows what I’m talking about. To get those ideas to stick, people need to make notes and talk to others about their impressions and reactions. That’s why it is so important in adult education to get adults to write their own handouts or at least fill in the blanks—it helps them to remember key points. As the brain processes images better than words, it is often helpful to write notes with diagrams, mind maps, Prezi, or drawings rather than words. Talking about the concept moves information along neural pathways in the brain and takes it from short-term to long-term memory. That’s why we often say you have to teach a concept to really learn it.

When Ryan was taking an online high school math course, he was having trouble self- teaching linear equations. Neither of his two older siblings who were attending university close by could help my son with his math. They had forgotten how to do these equations, even though they had taken the same math course less than two years before.

Schools try their best to help a child retain information by requiring a written “discussion” component from each online class. They require a learner to write at least one posting on a new topic and respond to three postings from other students to earn a certain percentage of the course mark. This type of discussion is not the least bit purposeful. Students hate it; they learn nothing because tone and intent is lost, so they do the minimum required, and check it off the list. And completely forget what they might have written. No learning occurs.

Now, even if online courses were adequate for visual and auditory learners, what about the majority of learners—the kinesthetic ones? Many children want to dissect a real frog, not a virtual one. Who doesn’t remember forever the familiar smell of formaldehyde? Two of my children couldn’t read well from a screen. Some children can’t write on a keyboard either, especially for math problems. Many kids need a classroom, where the simple act of writing notes helps them remember, and a teacher to explain concepts live and in person on a visual board. Then the kids will get up and actively engage physically.

7. Children need to move

Excessive time spent sitting is not good. For many years, I felt bad that my children were on the computer as much as they were, playing video games and learning by reading. I thought that at least if kids went to school, they would move around in the classroom. Teachers soon quashed that notion! Children in classrooms spend a lot of time on their tablets or watching videos of a teacher explaining a concept. Hands-on learning is very much obsolete, especially in the junior high and high school years. Then they come home and spend an average of seven more hours a day online, according to the Vanier Institute. Where is the balance in their life when the majority of their school day is spent online—and then the majority of their off-time as well?

Increased screen time has detrimental health and social consequences. Continuous viewing causes eye strain and headaches. Even when children request a paper textbook, they often can’t access one because schools will not pay for paper copies.

8. Online kids can not hand-write

Many kids cannot hand-write anymore because of their ever-increasing reliance on key- boards. This handicaps children who use a computer all through their school years, but must write high-stakes exams with paper and pencil, slowing them down tremendously. Many professors at post-secondary institutions will not allow computers in their rooms for exams or even lectures. That means kids who never hand-write will be forced to do so for timed exams, and lose marks because of this physical “disability.”

9. Virtual schools require technology support

It’s not the role of parents or teachers to provide technology repair, upgrades, and computer trouble-shooting, but as more schools go digital, funding for the maintenance of technology becomes more important. Even internet access is now an essential service for educational institutions, and the debate rages on as to who should pay for it.

10. Technology creates errors

Computers are machines. They cannot use discretion when they mark online exams. Learners must get the short answer exactly correct with the right characters, capitaliza- tion, and spacing, as their work is computer marked and the program is designed to receive only a specific prescribed response. A teacher with 60 kids in her class cannot look for discretion in answers that are indeed correct but worded differently than what the computer is programmed to accept. Kids may never even know that a correct response was incorrectly marked wrong, as schools will not release marked exams to students to use as a learning tool. Schools are concerned that children will copy digital exams for their friends. This doesn’t help a child learn.

11. Parents are shut out of their child’s education

Of even more concern is the fact that ever more of their children’s day will become invisible to parents. It’s easy to open a textbook or binder to see what one’s child is learning in school, but much harder to log into a website with the child’s password—if the parent is lucky enough to have it, when the child can so easily change it. Many parents do not have the ability to navigate a website, and they remain locked out of their child’s work and his marks. One school board I know of will not even allow their administrators to communicate with parents outside of their own website. The parent must log in to access the teacher and discuss their child’s progress—the teachers are not allowed to send private emails to parents. This is wrong. Firewalls, compatible software, and passwords all contrive to isolate parents from their own child’s education, in spite of all the research supporting the fact that that children do better academically when their parents are actively involved.

12. Online education shifts costs from the school to the learner

Many schools now require students to bring their own laptop to school. But the initial cost of the laptops is only the beginning. Kids will lose and damage memory sticks. The laptops will be dropped, lost, and stolen. They will get infected with viruses. Who pays for ongoing tech support when kids cannot load videos or exams because of incompatible software? Who pays for help in upgrading software? Or lost or damaged headphones and microphones? Who pays for technology trouble-shooting? Will the school offer orientation sessions to parents to support the learner with hardware, software, and networking?

And of course, textbook companies now want to provide online textbooks rather than printed ones. Think of their cost savings! As an e-book author, I know that printing is half the cost of book production; in addition, there are writing, editing, and layout costs. But the e-book cost savings are rarely passed on to the consumer; rather, the non-existent printing costs are still being passed on to you as parents! Just as businesses shift the cost of printing bills to consumers, charging them if they wish to receive a paper bill instead of an e-bill, parents are expected to bear the cost of the electronic tools to educate their children. If parents accept the financial burden of providing electronics, they should have choice in where the content comes from, and it may not be the government or the school.

13. Poor content

Even though there is no excuse for outdated content in digital courses, they are designed by humans and humans make errors. Factual errors, spelling errors, grammatical and editing errors.

14. Online courses are designed to have a heavier student workload

My children took Grade 10 Physical Education online. The course included 50 hours of writing assignments—three essays, ten quizzes, two projects, three discussions, and more. They had to log and prove 75 hours of physical activity. The kids learned all the vocabulary of soccer—but not how to actually play it. The school justified the excessive writing component by saying that they had to give more marked assignments because of the lack of face-to-face visual cues of absorption and feedback that they would receive from an in-person class. This lack of trust in online students contradicts the usefulness of such courses. Understandably, teachers need output to prove learning, but such excessive written output for a physical education course literally has no context or value.

15. Some components of learning are harder to accomplish on a screen

Math characters, for example. Unless one has a math keyboard, it takes so many more keystrokes to write exponents, fractions, and other characters. It is also harder to do group and collaborative work by computer than meeting in person to discuss the project and organize the workload.

16. Poorly organized courses

Course efficiency and organization depends on the learning style of the course developer. Some courses are structured in a very orderly, linear manner and come with clear instructions and checklists; the assignments are easy to navigate and the due dates are clear. Other courses are scattered and unorganized, with assignments here, additional links there, hidden labs elsewhere, and too much visual overload. My children took an art course that was so poorly outlined that they missed deadlines because links were hidden. It may have worked for the course developer’s learning style, but it did not work for linear students. It is easy for a child to lose a vital bit of information such as an instruction to reprogram their graphing calculators because the test supervisors will clear it before your exam—and if you don’t, your answers will be incorrect—because the notice is buried in “visual noise.” As more and more of our lives are dictated by online instruction, we need more simplicity, not clutter. A book is linear. Online courses can be a scattered mess.

Advantages of government schooling through online learning

And there are distinct advantages to online learning, as well, some of which I list below:

  1. It is portable; the portal can be accessed and assignments submitted from any- where in the world. Caution: learners must account for different time zones for live tutorials.
  2. Text books can be outdated, while online content is easier to update and correct.
  3. Videos and recorded webinars can be watched repeatedly.
  4. Kids can ask questions When they “raise their hand” virtually, class-mates cannot see the hand nor hear the question, so it encourages children to ask questions without fear of embarrassment or ridicule from peers.
  5. Students do not need to socialize with classmates. They avoid being subjected to bullying. This is a relief for introverts who just want to concentrate on the learning.
  6. It is ideal for people with barriers that prevent physical participation: lack of child- care, mobility issues, transportation difficulties, and others.
  7. It works for both visual and auditory learners.
  8. Students can work ahead or fall slightly behind, within reason. Some teachers post the entire course at once, which is great for big-picture learners; however, many teachers will post the course in sections.
  9. Learners do not have to sign up for the full-time school package to get teacher- directed content and personalized feedback on individual courses.
  10. Learning is border-less. Learners can access courses that originate in other countries, if they feel they would be better served.

If kids are going to spend more of their time at school online, why not just stay home and pursue their own agenda on their own schedule? No matter what textbook learners read or which online course they take, they will learn enough math, biology, and literature to pass their exit exams, or post-secondary entrance exams, if they choose that direction.

If the internet were to become the main learner-centered educational hub, schools could provide valuable support as centers for teacher and tutorial help, supervised field trip coordination, technology support, and resource lending libraries. Post-secondary schools could provide the benchmark accreditation for getting accepted, and learners could learn anywhere.

Internet would be the “institution.” Schools would be the support. Not the other way around.

Excerpted from Chapter 19 of Unschooling To University: Relationships matter most in a world crammed with content, by Judy Arnall

Unschooling To University is available at Amazon


About Judy Arnall, BA, DTM, CCFE

BA, DTM, CCFE, Certified child development specialist and master of non-punitive parenting and education practices. Keynote speaker and best-selling author of "Discipline Without Distress", "Parenting With Patience", "Attachment Parenting Tips Raising Toddlers to Teens", and "Unschooling To University."
This entry was posted in Elementary-Primary Children Ages 5-12, High School Children Ages 15-18, Homeschooling, How to Unschool, Junior High School Children Ages 12-15, What is Unschooling?, Why Unschool? and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to 16 Problems with Online/Virtual Learning

  1. Marky says:

    Thanks for sharing great information whenever we are going to online learning for kids we have to keep in mind that you shared with us I like one of your point a waste of time for the student, and harmful to the environment. Children need adult attention daily, not peer attention.
    Nice information to the community.


  2. OPPN MEDIA says:

    Thank you for sharing such valuable information. It will help a lot of people. Keep it up…


  3. Lora palmer says:

    No more school learning, just computer learning. Their will be malls in place of schools.
    No more teachers.It will be between the government and parents that have money.


  4. Pingback: Is Virtual Learning Healthy for Grade School Children? – MelaninMissy

  5. sierra says:

    I agree, TECH ONLINE LEARNING is NOT the healthy way for anyone to do, thanks for sharing. one day when i adopt i will not allow computers, tablets or phones (smartones) unless landline in home due to i want kids to play to learn hence learn to play! Going to public school wasn’t fun and i hate tech yet i use it each day.. trying to use it as little as possible.


  6. Pingback: The Growth Deficits Of Virtual Learning For Students

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