When studying online, students can learn from institutions and teachers across the globe. It can be an international experience connecting them to expertise and networks far afield while affording them the freedom to study when and how they want. But e-learning platforms can lack the rich and interactive educational environment that is central to in-person classes. As a result, the greater independence of distance learning can also leave learners feeling isolated.
Students often cannot interact with their teachers and peers because online courses are sometimes asynchronous. This means communication between instructors and learners does not happen in real-time but through indirect methods like prerecorded lessons, e-mail, and computer-based evaluations like multiple choice quizzes.
Even when there are live (or synchronous) elements to online learning, such as through live virtual group seminars or discussion boards, students often feel that something is missing. One of the biggest reasons why students find online learning dissatisfying is the lack of community and contact characteristic of many online courses.
In this article, we will look at why this is the case while also considering potential solutions which can make the experience more engaging and interactive:
Table of Contents
Reasons for social isolation in e-learning
1. Lack of face-to-face and nonverbal communication
Most online learning occurs virtually either synchronously (i.e., live) through online seminars or lessons or asynchronously (i.e., not live) through prerecorded videos, readings, and discussion boards. Students generally do not meet with their learning peers or teachers in person. And even in live group seminars, non-verbal communication, such as hand gestures and body language, can be more challenging to express.
Although e-learning means that people have the flexibility to study international courses wherever and whenever is convenient, the lack of communication in e-learning can have several downsides.
It can make online education a rather lonely experience, negatively impacting students’ learning experiences and outcomes. Students who have questions or are struggling with a given topic cannot simply raise their hands or visit their lecturer after class, so support is less accessible. The lack of interaction can also make lessons less engaging, which in turn, decreases learners’ motivation.
This experience can also be isolating emotionally and physically. Students might spend much time studying online at their computers without benefiting from social connections and community throughout the day. This isolation can increase vulnerability to mental issues such as depression, anxiety, and stress.
Solution: It is sometimes possible to have the best of both worlds when it comes to education. Blended learning combines some e-learning platforms with in-person classes and interaction. With this combined style, students can benefit from the flexibility of online study while retaining the advantages of live interaction and its engaging environment.
For e-learning courses that are more international in terms of their students and faculty, a blended learning experience is often not possible. In these cases, as mentioned in our article about the lack of student feedback in e-learning courses, teachers can learn to emphasize their nonverbal cues during live online sessions. They can do this by angling their camera correctly, maintaining eye contact with students, and using more hand gestures. Communication can also be encouraged using online discussion forums between peers and their instructors.
2. Reduced engagement with teaching faculty
When studying online, learners can benefit from exciting and diverse multimedia, from videos to quizzes to live seminars. While this can be stimulating, the more e-learning relies on these formats, the fewer instructor-learner interactions there are.
Students cannot seek advice or guidance as easily, and they also miss out on personal connections that a teacher or tutor can provide in terms of encouragement, motivation, and accountability. Sometimes multiple choice or true/false tests are also used, leading to less personalized, computer-generated feedback. When there is individualized feedback from instructors, this is often only regarding the main assignments. There are minimal discussions around the more regular intermediary tasks, such as reading assignments. Given the importance of feedback and communication for effective education, learners might not perform as well and might be more demotivated.
Solution: To improve the availability of teachers and reduce the isolation of students in their learning experience, instructors can have ‘virtual office hours.’ During certain times of the day, learners can contact their instructor through video calls or instant messaging if they need help or have questions. Not only does this make interaction faster than e-mails, but it also makes it more personal, which can be important for motivation. Live tutorial sessions with instructors and peers would also enable more peer-teacher contact, as would discussion boards if teachers guide the discussions.
While “traditional” academic e-learning, where staffing is similar to that of an in-person course, this issue is more easily managed. But MOOC platforms, with much smaller budgets per student, need to use more innovative methods. For example, platforms like Udacity pay select graduates of their programs to provide feedback on new students, while Busuu “gamifies” the feedback across language communities to provide comments from native speakers on written assignments.
To reduce the sense of isolation that online learners experience, the most important thing is that there is a social presence behind the instructor. Making it more personal can improve students’ engagement and motivation. The instructor could reach out and make personal contact with students to spark engagement. Even if learning is primarily asynchronous, there must be a sense that someone is guiding and initiating discussion topics and that there is some dynamic exchange or transaction between the teacher and student.
For more on improving feedback in e-learning, please refer to our article on this topic.
3. Lack of peer interaction and collaboration
Another reason e-learning can be an isolating experience is that students often do not get to communicate with classmates. It can be lonely to go through material or undergo a test or assignment without being able to discuss it with peers. Knowing that you are not the only one with questions or who found the reading difficult can be comforting. Studies have found learners to be more satisfied with their e-learning experiences when it includes some socializing.
But this isolation also has effects on learning. Social interaction can make education both more enjoyable and more effective. It allows for essential learning activities like asking peers questions, voicing or disagreeing with points of view, sharing ideas, and brainstorming. Students might have different educational backgrounds or knowledge, which can be a rich learning resource for others. It can encourage them to see things from new perspectives or relate information to their experiences.
Collaborating with peers during their studies can also teach students to use social interaction to solve problems. This a rich learning experience and an essential part of developing teamwork skills. Whether learning a language or business skills, the ability to work with others and build relationships can be important in both learners’ personal and professional lives.
Solution: Communication between peers can also be encouraged in various ways. Platforms such as online chat rooms and discussion boards provide opportunities for learners to communicate with each other, as do online presentations and peer reviews. But importantly, the discussion questions must engage and interest learners to motivate them to participate. As mentioned, the instructor reaching out and making personal contact can also help spark engagement.
Communicating regularly with peers can decrease conflict and increase trust, which encourages more interaction and collaboration, as will be explored in the next section. Increased social engagement is associated with better learner performance, perseverance, and satisfaction.
It is also important to note that some people prefer less social interaction, and it can cause them as much stress when forced to do so. But even for those who prefer less interaction, creating a sense of community is vital for motivation and avoiding feelings of loneliness.
4. Trust and community
Although exchanging ideas and knowledge with peers and instructors is an integral part of the learning process, this communication requires trust, some level of personal connection, and a sense of community. There are limited opportunities for building this trust when peer interaction is missing. This makes it challenging to collaborate through teamwork even if e-learning courses include collaborative peer exercises.
Opportunities for connection, such as online discussion boards or online group seminars, are also limited. The lack of facial expressions and body language can make it more difficult for people to interpret messages and gauge how others react to their inputs. This can be particularly detrimental in high-pressure discussions or teamwork if peers cannot measure each other’s commitment to the group work. In general, learners tend to be more satisfied and engaged when they know there are real people on the other side of their screen with whom they are sharing an experience.
Online interaction does not need to be impersonal or prevent building connections and community. Learners can be encouraged to set up online profiles or share visual essays with their class to inspire trust and personal relationships. If there are live seminars, students can also introduce themselves and share their personal stories, as is often done in face-to-face classes. This can help to stimulate a sense of community and a more comfortable atmosphere.
This personal aspect helps build trust and a sense of community because it can help identify common interests and goals, increase awareness of differing backgrounds, and it can act as an initial discussion point. Sharing their aspirations and experiences can also increase learners’ sense of intrinsic motivation (i.e., their motivation to succeed based on personal ambitions).
5. Mental health problems
Learners spending much of their days in front of their computers with little to no socializing can also hurt their emotional health. Connection with others is essential for well-being. Isolation leads to loneliness, which is linked to various mental health challenges such as depression, anxiety, and chronic stress. This isolation can be worsened if learners have anxiety about using technology.
Social isolation also creates a negative cycle. It increases anxiety and stress, which makes people focus more on negative thoughts and outcomes. The negativity, in turn, can make people more sensitive to social threats and focus on self-preservation, which motivates them to isolate themselves even more. This can further affect their mood and, eventually, even their sense of identity.
Another problem is that it can be difficult for institutions or teachers to handle the mental health problems of learners online. Many schools and workplaces provide some level of support, or at least understanding, related to the mental health of colleagues. But when communication between learners and their instructors or peers is limited online, there is limited space for this support. It can also be more difficult to notice if someone is struggling. Making assessments or referrals to professionals can be complicated, and it can be challenging to aid in resolving the emotional crisis of learners.
At the same time, it is debatable whether all-virtual interactions have a consistent psychological effect on people. Learners have different personalities and psychologies that will uniquely determine how they are affected. Still, online environments do lack some essential aspects of human interaction and relationships.
Solution: We have already covered many possible ways of avoiding social isolation when studying online. There are various ways to increase social interaction and create a sense of community through e-learning platforms.
It can also be helpful to address the issue frankly at the beginning of the course. Learners can be made aware that social isolation can be a problem in distance courses but that e-learning has plenty of advantages, too. This might also motivate learners to participate in creating a sense of community.
Providers of online courses can also reduce isolation and stress by improving administrative and communication structures. Ensuring that students can easily access support even in an online environment is crucial.
Social isolation is a serious issue that can undermine the learning experience, demotivate students, and contribute to loneliness and poor mental health. Creating a sense of community, opportunities for social interaction and collaboration, and connecting learners with peers and instructors on a more personal level conversely makes education more fun, students more engaged, and strengthens essential life skills like teamwork and communication. Humans are social beings, and studying online doesn’t mean we have to forget this fundamental fact.