2012. Vol.3, No.8, 1332-1335
Published Online December 2012 in SciRes (http://www.SciRP.org/journal/ce) http://dx.doi.org/10.4236/ce.2012.38195
Copyright © 2012 SciRe s .
Online Learning: Trends, Potential and Challenges
Rose Liang, Der-Thanq Victor Chen
National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore City, Singapore
Email: rose.lian email@example.com
Received September 27th, 2012; revised October 28th, 2012; accepted November 13th, 2012
This paper examines trends, potential and challenges in online learning. We consider 6 online learning
trends and the issues associated with the trends. These include a one sided emphasis on the technology;
physical versus online presences; formal face-to-face versus distance/workplace education; mono-versus
multi-lingual online learning; open source versus proprietary software; and the open standard oxymoron.
The potential of online learning include 4 factors of accessibility, flexibility, interactivity, and collabora-
tion of online learning afforded by the technology. In terms of the challenges to online learning, 6 are
identified: defining online learning; proposing a new legacy of epistemology-social constructivism for all;
quality assurance and standards; commitment versus innovation; copyright and intellectual property; and
personal learning in social constructivism. The authors contend the necessity of developing new ways of
thinking to face the challenges relating to the development of online learning.
Keywords: Online Learning; Trends; Issues; Potential; Challenges
Online learning has become an important consideration par-
ticularly in higher (Kim & Bonk, 2006; Al-Adwan & Smedley,
2012), adult education (Olesen-Tracey, 2010; Cercone, 2008)
and also in schools (Cavanaugh, Barbour, & Clark, 2009;
Nicholas & Ng, 2009). These institutions are engaged in efforts
to make online learning engaging and effective to learners. In
order to do this, it would be apropos to consider the trends or
tendencies of online learning as well as the potential. These
trends bring forth new opportunities in light of the potential yet
simultaneously pose challenges such as requiring more research
We contend that it is necessary to develop new ways of
thinking in face of the trends and challenges presented. In sup-
port of our contention, we explore trends in online learning in
terms of 6 issues and 4 potentials of online learning and 4 chal-
lenges for practitioners to keep in mind when designing online
activities and course.
Chasing the Technology
Unfortunately, the most visible issue of online learning is
still the focus on technological considerations. Historically, it
has always been the case that when a new type of technology
arrives, people will try to think of ways to use it in education.
This was how slide projectors, overhead projectors, televisions,
and computers came onto the school scene. More recently,
multimedia and the Internet have dominated the field of educa-
tion technology. Many research projects have been devoted to
finding the effectiveness of these new technologies. The latest
development of mobile devices such as the hand phones and
PDAs has again aroused interest in so-called mobile learning or
m-learning. Continued from the conventional “wisdom” of
chasing the development of technologies, it is common to ex-
plore how these mobile devices can foster a more flexible ap-
proach to learning. Note that we are not suggesting that these
technical considerations are unimportant. Rather, we are rec-
ommending a more thoughtful approach; we strongly believe
with many writers (Smith, 2008) that sound educational foun-
dations, not cutting edge technologies alone, should underpin
the development of new approaches to learning.
Physical versus Online Presences
The predominance of online learning is breaking down tradi-
tional physical boundaries and creating a online culture, unique
in its own right. We are in a situation where an online presence
over the Internet could be more communicative and engaging
than a physical presence. In other words, the relative advan-
tages of these two worlds—the physical and the online—are
fast converging. According to research, online presence can so-
metimes be felt by the participants as much more intimate than
physical presence. For example, attending a face-to-face lecture
may only involve one-way communication whereas an in-depth
discourse using a text-based discussion forum can be very in-
teractive. However, we note that richness of media and its tech-
nological affordances does not necessitate or guarantee the qua-
lity of online learning. This trend in the convergence of physi-
cal and online presences is likely to change the way we interact
Formal Face-to-Face versus Distance/Workplace
As a consequence of the trend just noted, the distinction be-
tween formal and informal education is fast diminishing. Tradi-
tionally, distance education had been perceived as a secondary
choice to formal face-to-face education. It was believed that the
latter provided more opportunities for students to interact with
the teacher and peers (other students) and could, therefore, be
more beneficial for learning. However, this conventional ad-
vantage no longer holds. The decrease in formal education/tra-
R. LIANG, D.-T. V. CHEN
ining settings resonates with and is congruent with the recent
emphasis on authentic workplace learning because of the con-
textual nature of cognition (Brown & Duguid, 2000). In most
instances, learning can take place in the workplace and in on-
line learning activities that can be more engaging as pointed out
earlier. The trend is now towards the mixed-mode approach
where opportunities are provided for learners to meet face-to-
face at certain milestones or points in the course (for an exam-
ple of this mixed mode approach, see Smith, Reed, & Jones,
Mono- versus Multi-Lingual Online Learning
The English language has dominated the Internet. This domi-
nance provides a common platform for communication but it
has also created a divide between those who understand the
language and those who do not, that is, those who know Eng-
lish are likely to enjoy the benefits of online learning. Due to
recent developments in multi-lingual technology, it is now pos-
sible to access the Internet using one’s native language. Con-
sequently, the dominance of English is gradually fading in light
of this trend. Those who do not speak English can increasingly
access resources and online learning in their native languages.
Currently, there are intelligent Web pages which are able to
detect the preferred language of the user and to present infor-
mation in that particular language. These systems are in their
infancy (the accuracy of interpretation is still the main devel-
opmental bottleneck) and the implications of these develop-
ments are still largely uncertain. Ideally, these interpreting sys-
tems would diminish English language dominance and grant
access to more people. However, the tradeoff is that the com-
mon communication platform is gradually disappearing. It is
still debatable whether or not we should maintain the develop-
ment of both of these two seemingly opposing trends.
Open Source versus Proprietary Software
The open source movement aims to tackle the long-term sus-
tainability issue of any major development project. Open source
invites people to use the developed system and grants people
access to the source codes free of charge. People are free to
develop the system further based on their needs in their respect-
tive local contexts. To prevent there being too many versions of
the same system (with minor differences), a consortium will
usually be set up to host the “authoritarian” version of the sys-
tem. Only approved additions will become part of this “autho-
ritarian” version. Long-term sustainability is therefore secured
by the many participants from all over the world. The risks and
development costs are also shared by the consortium partici-
However, there is a proviso. Even though development costs
and risks are shared, maintenance may cost more (due to the
programming bugs, etc.), and there is no guaranteed long term
development once individual institutions may run out of money
and decide to withdraw from the consortium. In contrast, the
proprietary products have characteristics of lower maintenance,
higher upfront capital commitment and are less easily custom-
ised applications in local contexts. The debate between open
source and proprietary software is likely to continue for some
The Open Standard Oxymoron
Among all the online learning initiatives, the Open Standard
movement is the underlying theme. There is a trend to great
emphasis on developing learning objects, which conform to an
open standard so that they can be shared within education sec-
tors. One problem in regard to this issue of “standard” is whose
“open standard” do programmers of online learning follow? For
example, IMS or IEEE for learning objects? HTML or XML
for web pages? How do we prevent history from repeating itself?
The infamous war between beta and VHS video tapes is a clas-
sic example of how “standards” can divide. The term “open
standard” itself is an oxymoron. How can a standard be open
since one must follow a particular standard? One is either in or
out. Paradoxically, standards are always closed, are they not?
The issue of standard is not likely to go away. History has
taught us not to keep standards closed, because once we are
stuck in a fixed standard, innovations are stifled. However,
keeping a standard open is prone to much additional adminis-
trative and coordination efforts. Probably a radically different
approach is needed.
In the above sections, we have articulated online trends and
some of the implicit issues which underpin these trends. With
regard to decisions made and any direction taken, there are
usually pros and cons to any implementation. We hope the rea-
der will be able to recognise the assumptions which accompany
each direction. However, we also wish to highlight the unex-
plored potential in the development of online learning.
In our mind, the potential of online learning lies in four fac-
tors: accessibility, flexibility, interactivity and collaboration.
The very first step to online learning is access (Salman,
2002). No matter how well the instruction is designed, if the
learner cannot gain access to the course learning materials via
the technology due to physical or financial constraints, the in-
structional design is rendered useless and non-existent. This is
especially true for continuing education or staff training. In the
past, training has been predominately conducted outside of the
workplace context such as in training schools and centers—
commonly referred to as formal training settings. Increasingly,
this ready access to learning materials and to Internet has the
potential to blur the distinctions between formal and informal
training. Today’s emphasis on “on-the-job” training with avail-
able resources via the Internet is diminishing this virtuality di-
vide between formal and informal training.
A second potential of online learning is flexibility. For ex-
ample, traditional distance education relies heavily on paper-
based materials. Interactions are supplementary to content and
are commonly achieved via telephone conferencing. Video con-
ferencing came onto the scene in recent years. However, this
technology is expensive and seldom interactive and therefore
never very popular. There are at least two problems: the set-up
of videoconferences is expensive and it only makes the place
flexible, but not in terms of time or timings. That is, people
must be together at the same time for the interaction to take
place. With the use of the Internet, interaction with people can
now achieved with a very cheap set-up. Nowadays, anyone
with access to the Internet can participate in e-tivities (Salmon,
Copyright © 2012 SciRe s . 1333
R. LIANG, D.-T. V. CHEN
2002). In addition, because these e-tivities are asynchronous in
nature, they give learners the flexibility of when to participate
and now they have more time to process the materials before
It should be noted, however, that flexibility always comes at
a price (Chen, 2003). Highlighting one aspect of flexibility will
inevitably make other aspects inflexible. For example, in order
to create a sense of learning community, all students will need a
fixed timeframe to interact with one another. This inevitably
imposes inflexibility on the time. If we want flexible time and
space, we will have to compromise on the flexible content. If
we want a flexible pace, we will have to forgo the ease of flexi-
ble access to resources and experts (for they are not always
Interactivity and online learning are separate issues although
online learning environments can be interactive—that is, the
learning environment allows learners and users to interact ac-
tively with the objects in the online environment. Interactivity
is not just an issue with the user-interface but also involves the
design of the learning environment. If the design is learner-
centered, it caters for learner-involvement such as learner-navi-
gation and exploration—aligned to constructivist notions of
learning. The proliferation of applications that makes it easy for
programmers to design for interactive environments facilitates
such active forms of learning environments. Interactivity also
involves people interacting with people via the Internet in the
context of online learning. The various communication tools af-
forded by online learning management systems foster instruc-
tor-to-student as well as student-to-student interactions.
While interactivity deals primarily with inter-actions with the
learning environment, collaboration is a construct that encour-
ages learners to work with other learners on a common project
or activity that an individual alone would find difficult to com-
plete. Social collaboration between individuals is now recog-
nized by many educators and researchers as an integral process
in online learning rather than just as an instructional strategy. In
this process, humans are viewed as social beings not just as
individual beings. Because they have access to resources and
experts and learners from different backgrounds and places,
students are presented with more opportunities for collabora-
Having reviewed the trends and potential of online learning,
we articulate challenges which we recognize as important to
online learning and its proliferation. We describe possible chal-
lenges which currently confront our quest for quality online
Whose Definition of Online Learning?
Increasingly, we are witnessing a host of different online
learning definitions: from those that include CD-ROMS to
web-based applications, etc. It seems that the medium of deliv-
ery often drives the definition. One reason for this is the strong
push from commercial companies to sell their products and
services. Online learning is an evolving phenomenon, and as
companies and academics in universities attempt to make sense
of this trend, we need to construct definitions on a common
platform. We believe that the definition of online learning must
seriously consider issues such as what learning is, how learning
occurs through e-means and the implications that online learn-
ing pose for flexibility, accessibility, interactivity, and collabo-
A New Legacy of Episte mo lo g y —S o c ia l
Constructivism for All?
Underpinning many of the online learning developments, a
similar orientation towards implicit or explicit notions of active
learning and social constructivism is evident, for example in
Computer-Mediated Communication (Romiszowski & Mason,
1996) and in the Santally, Rajabalee, and Cooshna-Naik (2012)
study to design and implement a social-constructivist environ-
ment for distance e-learning. Constructivism and social con-
structivism seem most popular and relevant as the emerging
theoretical underpinnings of these online learning developments.
Our concern is that we may be creating yet another legacy of
learning that seems to be value-laden in terms of its benefits
rather than its limitations. The tension between the newer ap-
proaches (e.g., constructivism and active learning) and the tra-
ditional (e.g., didactic) is increasing because of distinctive
learning paradigms. We would like to maintain that there is a
place for differing paradigms of learning, including the cogni-
tivist or even behaviorist approaches (Hung & Chen, 2000).
Quality Assurance and Standards
The number of online learning courses is increasing rapidly.
However, due to the ill-defined nature of online learning, the
quality of online learning courses vary. There is a well-estab-
lished (though not perfect) structure to safeguard quality of
transitional face-to-face courses. The workload for both the tea-
cher and the student, and how the course is charged can be de-
fined (with limitations). In online learning, activities can hap-
pen at any time of the day. Reporting to the classroom or for
work becomes irrelevant. The so-call standards of practice and
quality will need to be reconsidered and perhaps require a para-
digm shift in our thinking.
Commitment versus Innovation
Online learning is still a developing field. Tools involved in
the learning process such as learning management systems are
constantly changing. Before an institution can comfortably
settle on a decision to commit to a system, a better product ap-
pears on the market. It is always a difficult decision to commit
to a system. This is exacerbated by financial considerations,
since most often the financial commitment to such a system is
not insubstantial. Once many online learning courses use the
chosen system, the institution will face the obligation to stick
with it, or the investment in the design and development of the
courses may be wasted. This poses a problem. On the one hand,
the institution needs to commit to the same product to ensure its
longer-term development in online learning. On the other hand,
the institution should also be constantly looking for better solu-
tions. Perhaps, the latest innovation will meet their needs better.
How much can one single institution afford to try and experi-
ment with ne w system s?
Copyright © 2012 SciRe s .
R. LIANG, D.-T. V. CHEN
Copyright © 2012 SciRe s . 1335
Copyright and Intellectual Property
Another key challenge of online learning is copyright. The
very ethos of the Internet, that is to share, is almost the opposite
philosophy to that of copyright and intellectual property. In
education, we constantly need access to existing work, be it
papers, artworks, etc. It becomes a logistical nightmare to ask
for permission to use every single material used in a course.
However, if we simply make copies for students or upload it on
a password-protected web site, existing copyright law may still
be infringed. We need a new set of rules to govern these copy-
right and intellectual property issues.
In addition, due to the collaborative nature of online learning,
most courses are now no longer developed by just one instruc-
tor. Usually, a team consisting of the instructor, the instruc-
tional designer, the programmer and the graphic artists is in-
volved. Most of them are being paid to develop the courses. So,
whose intellectual property is it, the institution, the key mem-
bers of the team, or everybody who was involved? There does
not seem to be an easy answer.
Personal Learning in Social Constructivism
Finally, from a learning psychology perspective, individual
or personalized learning (Polanyi, 1964), in our opinion, needs
to be balanced with the social dimensions of learning. Currently,
there is a swing towards social levels of learning because of the
trend towards social-cultural dimensions. However, it is neces-
sary to balance this with the Piagetian notion that learning is
ultimately a change in behaviour individually (Chen & Hung,
2002; Hung & Nichani, 2001). How do we know that online
learning environments designed for social collaborations will
ultimately lead to a change of thinking, understanding, and be-
haviour of the individual as noted by Redecke (2009). Clearly,
more research is needed. For example, studies such as Jou and
Shiau’s (2012) which designed web-based learning systems for
self-directed learning and another one (Jou & Wu, 2012) for
self-reflection is a move in this direction of bringing back the
individual within the social-cultural dimension in learning.
In this paper we have introduced the current trends of devel-
opment in online learning. They are:
Chasing the technology.
Convergence of face-to-face and distance education.
The joggling between monolingual and multilingual online
The war between open source software and proprietary soft-
Open source vs proprietary software.
The open standard oxymoron.
We also briefly discussed four factors of the potential of on-
line learning, namely, accessibility, flexibility, interactivity and
Based on our analysis of the trends and the potential, we high-
light challenges that currently confront online learning. They
Whose definition of online learning?
A new legacy of epistemology—social constructivism for
Quality assurance and standards.
Commitment versus innovation.
Copyright and intellectual property.
Personal learning in social constructivism.
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