September/October 2001 // Commentary
Through the Looking Glass:
Student Perceptions of Online Learning
by Linda Peters
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source ( as: Linda Peters "Through the Looking Glass:
Student Perceptions of Online Learning" The Technology Source, September/October 2001. Available online at The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

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 was able to finish 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 as 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. At the same time, teenagers are not the only digital learners. 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 toward 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, some students have their own computers, while others rely on computer labs. Such variation in computer access can result in attitudinal differences. In addition, the purpose of computer use variesdistance education courses, for example, use computers in different ways than traditional classroomswhich can also affect students' perceptions. A wide variety of achievement levels and attitudes exist among both online and traditional learners. 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 that Influence Student Attitudes Toward Online Learning

The type of computer access students experience impacts their attitude toward online learning experiences. If students have a computer at home or in their dorm, they may find distance learning activities more convenient than students who have to locate an available computer. Also, an experienced computer user might be more comfortable with publicly available and unfamiliar hardware than a non-user. In a review of a longitudinal study involving more than 800 university students, McMahon, Gardner, Gray, and Mulhern (1999) reported that computer access accounts for 50% of the variance that exists among student attitudes toward online learning.

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, p. 32). Other complaints include not having enough time to read and send e-mail and to perform related online activities.

Responses are further shaped by the level of students' individual computer skills. Students who use computers at home or in residence halls generally have less 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, p. 302). Inexperienced computer users can be intimidated in a lab. According to Ropp's (1999) review of the literature, most research concludes that the less experience people have with computers, the more computer anxiety they exhibit.

Besides issues with computer access and skill levels, student responses also reflect concerns they have about hardware issues such as modem speed and available memory. Complaints about the periodic slowness of Internet connections or server problems indicate that such difficulties frustrate students (Harrell, 1999). Computer hardware problems increase student concern about computer access and the quality of their online learning experience. When the connection is too slow, the server is down, or the memory is full, the computer experience becomes a hindrance to education. Also, students who may already lack confidence in computer equipment transfer their feelings of inadequacy to the learning experience.

A final factor in students' perceptions of online learning is personal contact. Some students who learn online report feelings of isolation and loneliness. These students miss the social contact and face-to-face interaction that an institutional setting provides. Additionally, students who lack self-motivation dislike having to motivate themselves to do the coursework. The distance learner may have problems separating "work from home life, experiencing tensions in relations with their family and spouse" (Harrell, 1999, p. 270).

Online Learning Experiences

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 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. This finding suggests that many variables contribute to the students' desire for face-to-face instruction. Personal contact affects how students view their online learning experience, though that response is often also framed by their individual needs. Whether students feel the need for face-to-face, verbal instruction may determine whether or not they feel comfortable interacting in a Web environment. For example, students with limited writing skills may feel inhibited by interacting with an instructor online since they are unable to gesture, vocalize, and/or clarify questions and responses. Also, in the case of students with a limited ability to speak English, online environments can become experiences of frustration rather than learning.

Students who prefer online courses place greater value on their control of the pace of the course than on 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 & Fritz, 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.

Even though technology-related experiences are as varied as the individuals who use computers, both men and women voice positive attitudes about online learning. Asynchronous environments such as e-mail, listservs, and online tutorials have become a common part of many courses as instructors incorporate technology into their coursework. Also, more and more courses have become available entirely online at all levels of instruction. In a study of students at six different colleges who had participated in online courses, researchers found that men and women share a common desire to take more computer-based courses. In this study, 70% of both males and females indicated that they would consider enrolling in another online course (Ory, Bullock, & Burnaska, 1997). Despite many variables, gender does not significantly affect student perceptions of distance learning.


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 ranged 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 creates satisfied students. Whether students are involved in full-scale distance learning programs or dabbling in online activities for a traditional class, 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 therefore 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, P. T., & Mortera-Guiterrez, F. (2000). From research to practice in distance learning education: Strategies for fostering faculty development and improving instructional practice. ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 437536.

Carr, S. (2000, April 7). Two professors find that online chats are unpopular. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 31-32.

Crotty, T. (2000, April 7). Constructivist theory unites distance learning and teacher education. Retrieved May 12, 2001, from

Edwards, C., & Fritz, J. (1997, April 6). Evaluation of three educational online delivery approaches. Proceedings of the Mid-South Instructional Technology Conference, 4, 16.

Harrell, W., Jr. (1999). Language learning at a distance via computer. International Journal of Instructional Media, 26 (3), 267-282.

McMahon, J., Gardner, J., Gray, C., & Mulhern, G. (1999). Barriers to computer usage: Staff and student perceptions. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 15, 302.

Ory, J. C., Bullock, C., & Burnaska, K. (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

Roblyer, M. D. (1999, Fall). Is choice important in distance learning? Journal of Research on Computing in Education, 32 (1), 157.

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, 31 (4), 402-425.

Stanton, T. (2000, March 26). Wired for future. The Tampa Tribune [Access section], pp. 6-8.

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