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Overcoming The Downsides of Online Learning: Accessibility, Isolation, and Cheating, Oh My

As institutions accelerate their digital transformations, there’s an opportunity to leverage technology in ways that both tackle the downsides of online learning and also invigorate engagement.

frustrated female graphic

She’s part time at school — full time at home. She goes to work, runs errands, cooks dinner, puts the kids to bed, and is now ready for her coursework. He’s worked since he was 16 years old and contributes his income to the household. He takes classes on campus and online and is a part of your work-study program. He’ll become a first-generation college graduate — as long as the downsides of online learning don’t overwhelm him.

These students, like many of the students who take your online courses, are nontraditional, working, or first-generation students looking to earn degrees, grow their skills, and advance their careers. But when any student begins learning online, they become susceptible to a host of challenges — lack of access, a growing sense of isolation, and the temptation to cheat — that could threaten their progress. As institutions accelerate their digital transformations, there’s an opportunity to leverage technology in ways that both tackle the downsides of online learning and also invigorate engagement.

Issues of Accessibility in Online Learning

One of those challenges is access: access to inclusive opportunities that support diverse learners as well as access to course materials.

Inclusive classrooms support the diverse academic, social, emotional, and communication needs of all students. In order to provide all students with better opportunities to learn online, it’s critical that institutions ensure that the tools used to administer online courses address a broad range of abilities and learning styles.

The tools themselves are only part of the story. The disparity in online access is also apparent in what has been called the “homework gap” – the gap between students who have access to high-speed internet at home and those who don’t. In 2015, 35% of lower-income households with students did not have a broadband internet connection at home. Many rural students also struggle with low bandwidth internet. That gap is growing.

This impacts the effectiveness of online learning. A study by Muhammad and Kainat (2020) found that internet access problems challenge the efficacy of online learning. And according to a study conducted by Hazwani et al. (2017), an institution’s infrastructure also plays a role in ensuring that online learning operates successfully. Poor infrastructure and restrictive tools will limit students’ ability to access course materials. For nontraditional students who are often moving between work, home, or school at any given time, having access to their courses 24/7 and from any device is imperative for success.

To properly address access and academic inclusion, institutions — to the best of their abilities — should ensure all students have access to both quality software and hardware.

To Fix this Downside of Online Learning: Find Tools & Services that Increase Online Learning Effectiveness

As online learning increases in popularity, tools have emerged to better address accessibility and inclusion. The most effective ones align with the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework, giving all students an equal opportunity to succeed. This approach to teaching and learning offers flexibility in the ways students access material and demonstrate what they know.

For example, tools that allow students to access their online courses from a smartphone or mobile device make participation in online discussions more accessible – even if the student is working at a full-time job.

Further, free public internet, though presenting some data privacy issues, is available in libraries and community centers. Students can also use hubs via Comcast LiftZones to access high-speed internet regardless of their location. However, institution-sponsored 1:1 laptop and internet programs are also gaining momentum, along with government-funded and non-profit programs. Resources to point students to include:


EveryoneOn is a nonprofit that connects low-income families with affordable internet options through their provider partnerships. Since 2012, they have helped more than 700,000 people find an internet option based on their needs. They also offer digital skill training classes and help families get computers.


Lifeline offers a discount on either phones or internet costs for families that are at or below 135% of the federal poverty guidelines.

Human I-T

Human I-T is a nonprofit that has partnered with Frontier Communications and its Affordable Broadband program. Instead of recycling electronics, Human I-T reuses donated technology to close the digital divide. They also offer affordable internet connections.

What Fully Accessible Online Course Tools Means

Evolving technologies in online learning will expose instructors and students to new ways of engaging in a virtual classroom. However, that innovation doesn’t matter if it’s not built to be fully accessible.

In our online world, web accessibility is when websites and tools are properly designed, specifically for people with disabilities, so everyone can understand, navigate, and interact with the content presented. Currently, many sites and tools are developed with accessibility barriers that make them difficult to use.

When thinking about accessibility and the kinds of tools to implement that support academic inclusion, ask these questions:

  • Can the user easily perceive the elements presented in the tool?
  • Can they operate the various functions of the tool easily?
  • Can they easily consume/understand the content presented in the user interface?

Consider the different types of students you serve and a diverse set of learning needs. For example, does the technology powering your online learning programs offer capabilities for visually- or hearing-impaired students?

For hearing-impaired students, video content is a challenge. That means making sure you take an inclusive approach to this set of learners’ needs by using tools that have closed captioning. A content delivery feature like this makes it easier for those students to access and actively participate.

Don’t neglect the importance of color either. More than 350 million people in the world, or 5% of the population, are colorblind — making it challenging to distinguish certain colors, like red from green. Plus, small screens make it even more difficult to separate these colors. Be sure to keep these considerations in mind so you can accommodate a broader student population.

Finally, every student learns differently, and while it may be impossible to support every student’s unique needs, it’s important to consider the diversity of learning styles among your online students. With tools that allow students to create and share rich multimedia, such as video and annotation, images, GIFs, and audio in online discussions, instructors can appeal to a broader range of learning styles. This creates a wider runway for students to demonstrate what they are learning.

Meeting students where they are and supporting them this way is important because online students are at higher risk for isolation. Learner loneliness is real, and it can lead to decreased engagement.

Learner Loneliness & Social Isolation in Online Learning

In a 2017 survey of 48,000 college students, 64 percent said they had felt “very lonely” in the previous 12 months — putting them at greater risk for severe depression — according to the American College Health Association. That stat is likely even  higher for online students.

Without the built-in social interactions of traditional classrooms and campus life, online learning can make students feel isolated, leading to decreased motivation, a potential decline in mental health and academic performance, and increased attrition.

Distance education and online courses present unique barriers to more traditional interaction and student engagement, which is only amplified by the actual distance between the learners, their peers, and the instructor. These barriers include:

  • commonly text-heavy, one-way transactional delivery of material
  • a lack of direct connection to others
  • minimal opportunities to collaborate and build community

To Fix this Downside of Online Learning: Design Opportunities for Online Collaboration

Beyond the basics needed to access an online course, digital learning tools that provide additional capabilities for instructors and students to interact in the online classroom are key to combating isolation and building community.

While some may argue that facilitating student collaboration in an online environment is difficult, consider that when students receive attention from their peers, their level of engagement rises and motivation improves — a key indicator of student success and achievement. With more engaged students, you’ll see participation increase, which is the fuel for creating community in your online course. And it isn’t difficult to facilitate if you pull on the right levers.

Incorporate Multimedia-Based Discussion Boards to Build Community

A common area for dialogue and connection in online learning is the discussion board. Researchers at Duke University found that students who participate in online discussion boards are more likely to feel engaged with the course content and each other. Yet, despite the large amount of research conducted on the use of discussion boards, many online courses fail to effectively use the board to encourage social interaction.

One way to drive interaction and help students connect is through the use of multimedia. Instead of long, text-heavy threads, consider how much more interesting and engaging online discussions will become when you introduce multimedia options. With video, image, annotation, audio & captioning, text, and even the ability to launch and respond to polls, you’ll empower students to express themselves in the ways that work for them. Plus, your digital discussion tool should mimic the familiar ways people build connection online outside of their studies. Think social-media based features like tagging/mentions, notifications, and reactions to stimulate interactions.

Aside from these multimedia and social elements, your course discussions should allow for small-group as well as student-facilitated discussions. Studies show that these kind of online discussions enhance community and encourage other students’ participation, while also being beneficial for learning outcomes — generating innovative ideas and providing a risk-free, more relaxed atmosphere for discussion.

In short, using discussion boards like this provides a connection to other humans and acts to humanize online learning — and that’s huge for online learners!

Using a modern discussion board tool that includes multimedia and polls will spur engagement and connection. Using a modern discussion board tool that includes multimedia and polls will spur engagement and connection.

Set Expectations & Guide Peer Interaction

Setting expectations for how students will interact in the course can help mitigate the feelings of loneliness or isolation students might anticipate at the start of an online course. Instructors should outline their approach to collaboration and their expectations for participation in online discussions in the course syllabus, and continue to reiterate it throughout the course.

One of the most effective ways to set expectations and provide clear guidance is through the use of multiple due dates or milestones. With milestones, instructors can specify peer review due dates or a number of discussion posts by a certain date as well as additional responses and reactions by another date. This keeps students on track, while spurring ongoing interactions.

For example, in an online speech course where students are required to write a narrative speech and submit it for peer critique, milestones prompt students to provide at least three posted comments on a certain number of students’ speeches. They use the course’s built-in text-like chat feature to work with one another. Students strengthen their evaluative skills, practice articulating constructive feedback, and become receptive to feedback — all the while building connection and community amongst each other.

With the right tools, instructors can incorporate a wide range of collaborative activities, including facilitating peer reviews, discussions by section or groups, breaking students out into groups by topic, and student-led discussions. This approach encourages more student-to-student communication, creates deeper connection, and builds stronger class community — all while honoring the asynchronous communication needs of most online learners.

Using multiple due dates or milestones in Harmonize will help guide students through a series of different interactions. Using multiple due dates or milestones in Harmonize will help guide students through a series of different interactions.

Issues of Academic Misconduct  in Online Learning

They say there’s an app for everything — and they weren’t wrong! But it isn’t just one app. It’s hundreds of apps that actually can be used to complete students’ homework, tests, writing assignments, and even dissertations and exams. How bad is it?

In a study from Marshall University, 33 percent of the 635 students surveyed admitted to cheating in an online course — and according to OnlineCollege.org, 55 percent of college presidents said plagiarism has increased in recent years, most likely due to students’ increased access to online resources.

Around the world, companies are making billions of dollars selling test answers, trading tests, hawking pre-written essays, or writing entirely new work for students. There are even people who can, for a fee, take entire classes or a student’s tests. Australia has published research exposing practices of contract cheating companies. The United Kingdom recently passed its Skills and Post-16 Education law, which has legislated for landmark reforms that criminalize essay mills.

Thwarting cheating in online courses is no easy task. But in addition to government intervention, there are steps instructors can take to reduce the likelihood of academic dishonesty in their courses.

To Fix this Downside of Online Learning: Educate Students & Leverage Plagiarism Detection Tools

Remember, students may not always understand what counts as academic misconduct. And if they do, they may not realize the consequences of those decisions.

That’s why it’s important to communicate expectations clearly in the syllabus. At the onset of the course, consider creating and posting a video that explains what constitutes cheating, why academic integrity is important, and what the consequences are for failing to uphold it. Reiterate the benefits of academic integrity throughout the course, and assure students that you will be evaluating the authenticity of the work they submit.

Varying assignment types and choosing learning activities can make cheating more difficult. For example, instead of using tests that can be saved and shared or multiple choice quiz questions that can be searched online, use discussion forums that ask for personal reflection, custom problem sets, and writing assignments, such as creating outlines and multiple drafts. These kinds of assignments are more likely to require personalized inputs.

From a tactical standpoint, instructors should leverage tools to check student work for authenticity, right from within the course discussion or activity being evaluated. To do this, your plagiarism detection tools should be a part of the suite that powers your online course assignments. That suite should be integrated with your LMS.

This means it automatically checks every student post for originality, eliminating the need for instructors to copy and paste student work into separate tools. What’s better, it surfaces the originality check to students so they have an opportunity to address it before submitting. The plagiarism integration saves instructors time and easily passes grades back to the LMS, giving instructors the chance to flag sourcing issues for students to learn from for future coursework.

Integrated plagiarism detection helps student proactively correct plagiarisms and saves instructors times. Integrated plagiarism detection helps student proactively correct plagiarisms and saves instructors times.

One Tool to Overcome the Downsides of Online Learning

The bottom line is that having access to the tools and services that power effective online learning is paramount. Making sure the technology you employ to deliver online courses meets accessibility needs, is inclusive of different learners’ styles, fosters social connection and community, and is designed to help instructors more easily curtail plagiarism could spell the difference between student success or attrition.

To do all of this, some institutions rely on a variety of disconnected tools that aren’t  integrated with the LMS — creating additional barriers for instructors and making it more difficult to take full advantage of a tool’s capability.

Harmonize is a suite of digital discussion and collaboration tools that integrate seamlessly with your LMS to facilitate a more engaging online learning experience. It’s everything an instructor needs to increase student engagement online, while saving time and eliminating manual tasks.

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