Through the Looking Glass: Student Perceptions of Online Learning

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I logged on to my computer one Sunday evening to find myself immediately greeted by an Instant Message from a 17-year-old student in one of my courses. The message was simple: "Help!" As I later learned, the student had encountered difficulty in conducting Internet research for a class project. She said she felt like Alice in Wonderland, having fallen through the looking glass. A computer novice, she was relieved to find me online that night and eventually finished her assignment.

This is one example of the effect of computers and the Internet on students' learning experiences. As distance education becomes more popular, and traditional courses require more online assignments, teachers must consider students' perceptions of online learning. While many professors and teachers embrace this technology, many students experience confusion and frustration.

Jupiter Communications, a market research firm, reports that 72% of teenagers in the United States will be online by 2003 (Stanton, 2000). This alone indicates that students will learn and communicate electronically more than any previous generation. But digital learners are not limited to teenagers. With the growing number of online courses, the increasing accessibility of computers, and the increasing number of computer users, students of all ages are taking advantage of distance learning or are using computers to enhance the traditional classroom experience.

Two things emerge in the study of students' attitudes towards online learning: individual situations impact students' perceptions of computer-based learning, and students' individual characteristics make it difficult to define their perceptions conclusively. For example, varying computer access can influence attitudinal differences: some students have their own computers, while others rely on computer labs. What's more, the purpose of computer use variesdistance education courses, for example, use computers in different ways than traditional classroomswhich can also affect students' perceptions. The online learner and the traditional student represent "[a] wide variance of achievement and attitudes within groups" (Gold, 1999). [Please provide page numbers for all direct quotes. Also, please include this reference in the References section below.]Although an illusory "typical learner" exists, a variety of factors, including students' gender, age, and motivation, could explain different reactions among the student population. Add to this the variety of modes that distance education employs, and the data collected can be ambiguous, at best. I chose the following studies in this overview because of their focus on students' learning experiences as reflected in attitudes toward education.

Factors Influencing Student Attitudes toward Online Learning

According to a 1998 study, access to computers played an important role in 50% of the variance in identifying computer users versus nonusers in the sample [This sentence is unclear. Can you elaborate somewhat? Also, were the responses about access tied with those who identified themselves as users/nonusers?] (McMahon [Please provide all authors' last names], 1999). Problems with access can contribute to a negative attitude toward online learning: while students who own computers are generally satisfied with access, for those who must use a lab, access can be difficult. Facilities are sometimes hard to find or have inadequate information on how to use the equipment. Traveling to a lab may be inconvenient and decrease a student's motivation.

Negative student responses to online learning are also due to time factors, particularly for students with part-time or full-time jobs. Students who do not have computers in their homes are often irritated by the additional time required to visit a computer lab (Crotty, 2000), a lack of convenience that contributes to many working students' negative reactions. Students who take an online course for its flexibility may dislike online chats or other synchronous activities that occur at fixed times. One professor teaching an online course affirmed this, saying, "I think people gravitate toward a Web model or virtual classroom for flexibility" (Carr, 2000 [This link (from the Carr ref. below) is broken.]). Other complaints include not having enough time to read and send e-mail and perform related online activities.

Responses are further shaped by the level of students' individual computer skills. Students who use computers at home[does most of research you cite apply to high school students (they're the only ones who live at home)? Or by "at home" do you mean in college dorm rooms and apartments?] generally have lower computer anxiety, because they are more familiar with the technology used in their courses. Focus groups have indicated that "students view their lack of training in computers as the strongest inhibitor to computer use" (McMahon et al., 1999). Inexperienced computer users can be intimidated in a lab. According to Ropp's (1999) review of the literature, most research concludes a that there is a positive relationship between prior computer experience and computer anxiety.

These attitudes can extend beyond access to concerns with hardware, such as modem speed and available memory. Complaints about the periodic slowness of Internet connections or server problems indicate that such difficulties can frustrate students (Harrell, 1999). The vast range of possibilities represents a cause for student concern [unclear which possibilities are meant]about computer access and the quality of their experience with online learning. [This paragraph needs to be better situated within the section. You allude both to "concerns with hardware" and "computer access", which makes it unclear what the thesis of the paragraph is. Define the thesis more clearly, and it will become clear where the paragraph fits in.]

A final factor in students' perceptions of online learning is personal contact. Some students who have tried working at home[again, clarify what you mean by "at home" -- do you mean distance learners in this case?]report feelings of isolation and loneliness. These students miss the social contact and face-to-face interaction that school[this word usually applies to high school; if you mean all types of students, please choose a corresponding word -- or you could use a phrase such as "a school setting or college campus"]provides. Students who lack self-motivation dislike having to motivate themselves to do the coursework. The distance learner can experience problems in separating "work from home life, experiencing tensions in relations with their family and spouse" (Harrell, 1999).

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At the same time, we must remember that online experiences are as varied as individual learners. Some students, in fact, see computer technology as a way to connect with peers. For many young people, e-mail and chat represent the Internet's most enticing features. According to a Forester Research Study of participating high school students who use the Web, 28% say they are online for 20 or more hours each week (Stanton, 2000). In some large school settings, direct contact with the instructor is rare, unlike in distance learning situations. One student in a study by Roblyer (1999) said that the distance-learning environment afforded more opportunities for interaction with the instructor than traditional courses. Roblyer also reports that high school students' responses to online learning were generally positive, while community college students enrolled in traditional classes expressed a desire for a live instructor. [What are the implications of this finding -- why do you include it here?] Personal contact affects how students view their online learning experience, though that response is often also framed by their individual needs. [Please expand on this assertion (or consider deleting it), and tie it into the rest of the paragraph.]

Students who choose online courses over traditional courses value control of the pace of the course over face-to-face interaction (Roblyer, 1999). In one exploratory investigation, courses used a variety of educational media, including visual communication, computer graphic design, and Web publishing. Students in these courses found online learning "enjoyable, interesting, and productive" (Edwards [Please provide all authors' last names], 1997). Roblyer has found that the capacity to choose when to complete activities is the most important factor in positive student responses to online learning, because it grants students a measure of control over their learning. Community college students enrolled in distance education courses also responded positively to the online format (Roblyer, 1999). Undoubtedly, choice makes a significant difference in students' perceptions.

Gender does not seem to play a deciding role in student attitudes towards online learning. Both men and women voice positive attitudes toward their learning experiences in an asynchronous environment that employs multimedia tutorials and Web-based information. [? Is this a reference to a study? What "environment" is meant here? Are you referring to a particular course?] In fact, they share a common desire to take more computer-based courses. In one study, 70% of both males and females indicated that they would consider enrolling in another online course (Ory [Please provide all authors' last names.], 1997). [Please provide some context for this study; readers may start to get lost when you refer to "more" computer-based courses and "another" online course, because readers won't know what the students were doing before.]


In a recent study, nearly 68% of students were "satisfied" or "very satisfied" with using the Internet as the primary source of course materials (Beatty, 2000). Reasons for students' satisfaction range from accessibility and convenience to flexibility and student-teacher interaction. With online learning, students control when, where, and what they learn, as well as how often and how quickly—and this level of control is what makes for satisfied students. Whether students are involved in full-scale distance learning programs or dabbling in online activities for a traditional classroom, their perception of the experience profoundly affects the process of education. Learning varies with each individual, as do preferences for the methods used to learn. Given the appropriate tools, students can become lifelong learners with a passion for knowledge. The challenge for educators is the same as it has always been: how to help students learn. The difference between the blackboard-bound classroom and the cyber-connected classroom is just a matter of space, and educators must learn how that space helps to define student perceptions of education.


Beatty, W. A. (2000). Student perceptions of the internet as the primary source of course information. ERIC Digest. Mobile, AL: University of South Alabama. [Please provide the ERIC document number, unless this is a published article in a publication called "ERIC Digest." In that case, provide page numbers.]

Carr, S. (2000, April 7). Two professors find that online chats are unpopular. The Chronicle of Higher Education. [Please provide page numbers from the print edition of the April 7 Chronicle.] Retrieved June 15, 2000, from the World Wide Web: [This URL does not return the article. Once you've repaired it, please enter a more recent "retrieved" date.]

Crotty, T. (2000, April 7). Constructivist theory unites distance learning and teacher education. [Is this manuscript within a publication? If so, please provide the publication name.] Retrieved May 12, 2001, from the World Wide Web:

Edwards, C. et al. [Please provide the last names and first initials of all authors in this reference.] (1997, April 6). Evaluation of three educational online delivery approaches. Proceedings of the Mid-South Instructional Technology Conference, 16. [If this is a regular conference with regularly published proceedings, we need to treat it as a periodical, i.e. give the issue number.]

Harrell, W., Jr. (1999). Language learning at a distance via computer. International Journal of Instructional Media, 267. [Are there volume numbers for this journal? Is this a one page article?]

McMahon, J., et al. [Please provide last names and first initials for all authors.] (1999). Barriers to computer usage: Staff and student perceptions. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 15, 302.

Ory, J. C., et al. [Please provide all author names.] (1997). Gender similarity in the use of and attitudes about ALN in a university setting. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 1 (1), 1-17. Retrieved May 12, 2001, from the World Wide Web:

Roblyer, M. D. (1999, Fall). Is choice important in distance learning? Journal of Research on Computing in Education, 157. [Are there volume numbers for this journal?]

Ropp, M. M. (1999, Summer). Exploring individual characteristics associated with learning to use computers in preservice teacher preparation. Journal of Research on Computing in Education. [Please provide the page and volume numbers.]

Stanton, T. (2000, March 26). Wired for future. Access, The Tampa Tribune[Is the periodical named "Access, The Tampa Tribune," or is the article titled "Wired for future access"? This may be correct as you have it--but please double-check.] pp. 6-8.