The online learning hoax? 5 issues young people face in digital education

Young people learning online

The online learning hoax? 5 issues young people face in digital education

Who doesn’t love watching a TED talk online or learning new ideas from a podcast? We often head to Google or Youtube to learn new information and skills like how to edit an image in photoshop or troubleshoot a problem with our Twitter account for example. There is a vast amount of information free and available on the internet from short video tutorials to Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), and this assists our working lives as we continue to teach ourselves skills that we need as our careers progress. 

This is a great benefit of the digital era. 

Simultaneously, there is a common narrative that any young person born after the 2000s is a “digital native”.  They have grown up in an age of digital technology, social media and the internet, and this means that they want their social and educational experiences to be online. We can see this in news headlines like Millennials and Generation Z Interact More Through Phones and Apps than in Real Life, Generation Z – Savvy, Connected, Changing the World, and How Not to Lose Attention of Gen Z in the 8 Seconds that You Have?

It’s easy to understand why we assume this about young people. By 2009, 86% of Australian households with children under the age of 15 accessed the internet. At primary school age, over half of all Australian children have been online and by high school, almost all young people have engaged in the digital world – let’s be honest, this doesn’t really come as a shock. 

But, resentment toward the popular idea that young people are “digital natives” who want their learning and engagement strictly online appears to be growing. In particular, among young people themselves. 

In a recent trip to Tasmania, the National Youth Commission held public hearings and focus groups with many and varied young people across the state. There were several issues linked to online learning that emerged across these different groups. Many young people felt online education created a sense of isolation and a lack of opportunity to experience the social side of learning, such as making life-long friends at university or TAFE. 

They expressed frustration at the lack of infrastructure around them to be able to travel to educational institutions where they can be involved in face-to-face discussions, share and explore ideas with others and, in general, form a sense of belonging and purpose alongside their classmates and teachers.

Young people also expressed concern that there is a difference in the quality of learning and skill development between online students and face-to-face students, and that this meant online students were at a disadvantage. Altogether, from what we heard young people are feeling a little fed up with the suggestion that they are destined to thrive in online environments. 

Curious about the gap appearing between what young people are reporting about online education and the common narrative that young people are digital natives, I asked an educator delivering the same subject both online and in-person what are the biggest challenges they see in online learning for young people:

1. Fractured Content

Some educators say we cannot simply take a face-to-face course and upload it online. It takes developing new resources, thinking about how the same content can be taught in an online format and adjusting teaching methods for online learning. But because not all educators have the necessary skills and training to develop these resources (like video lectures, interactive modules and more), online content delivery is often outsourced to private companies rather than delivered by the institutions themselves. 

2. Issues with Self-motivation

In general, young students come and talk about anxiety or not being able to start the assignment. Sometimes with online components, they come to me with struggles of self-motivation, and I have had some people say they wish we could speak in person about this problem or task because it’s harder to communicate over email. 

3. Time Management

Time management is harder online because there’s not a set lecture and tutorial to go to, where you have a certain time where you watch the content. You can just log on and go through the learning activities whenever you want, and it’s easy for students to just put it off. 

4. Isolation

There are definitely issues with isolation and you miss out on lots that you would get when you work with your peers in person. Online courses use methods to get people to collaborate and become engaged, but they don’t work that well. Saying that, I also teach in person and students often don’t show up to lectures and tutorials. So disengagement happens in both worlds.

5. Infrastructure

Online learning can appear to be a great barrier removal for those who are too far away from any university or TAFE campus, or whose personal life requires certain flexibility. But while students are advised they must have internet access before enrolling, young Australians, particularly in remote communities, can suffer from poor infrastructure for a decent internet connection. Online learning models also lock out those who can’t afford to own a computer or an internet plan. 

So how do we combat this myth that millennials, Gen Z, and future generations to come, want everything online?

It’s time to acknowledge that while it is important to develop digital literacy skills, we cannot forget to value and appreciate the importance of connection and community in an increasingly isolating digitally driven world

Evidence shows that digital and social media is linked to higher levels of loneliness, anxiety, depression, and decreased social skills. As we are hearing from young people who aren’t afforded the option of face-to-face learning, this is something they are experiencing, and our online educators are noticing this as well.

With young people reporting they are feeling unprepared for the workforce when they leave school or study, it is possible online students are even more vulnerable to this experience with the isolation they may have faced inhibiting the development of key workplace skills such as communication, teamwork and collaboration. 

Of course, not everyone has the freedom to choose from a range of education options and how it is delivered. Online learning can be well placed for a single parent that needs high levels of flexibility. It can provide a solution to those who suffer from the tyranny of distance, meaning the option to go to face-to-face classes simply isn’t realistic.

Online education can represent open access, convenience, reduced barriers and an idea that we can bring people from across the country together in discussion. But, if online education is not the preference of young people perhaps we need to shift the narrative that young people are all digital natives, and instead recognise that online learning is sometimes the last or only option for a young person. 


Have you even taken a subject or course online? Tell the National Youth Commission your story about online learning by clicking here.

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