The Challenges of Online Learning

Written by Dr. LeAnn Beaty

Online courses and programs hold many advantages for nontraditional students who might not otherwise be able or willing to complete college degrees. Online degree programs allow students to build course schedules around work and family obligations, to study anytime, from anywhere, and to graduate quickly. Despite these benefits, online learning comes with its share of obstacles. Some of the more commonly discussed challenges of the online environment revolve around the lack of face-to-face instruction, how to tailor learning objectives to students’ personal learning experiences, and using technology to spark critical thinking skills. Here is one technique I use to overcome these challenges and engage my students at the beginning of each of the eight modules in my Introductory Public Administration and Ethics course for Eastern Kentucky University’s Online Master of Public Administration Degree program

At the beginning of each module, students are asked to view a 2- to 8-minute clip from The Fog of War, a documentary that was narrated by former Secretary of Defense under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, Robert S. McNamara. McNamara was one of the most controversial and influential political figures of the twentieth century. The Fog of War, a critically acclaimed Errol Morris documentary, depicts the reflections and difficult lessons that McNamara learned about the nature and conduct of modern war. The purpose of having students view the selected clips is not to have them debate the merits or drawbacks of war. Rather, the purpose of these clips is to set the stage for learning and generate discussion as the MPA students unpack the various concepts, values and lessons from the film and relate them to the course material, to their own work environments, or to the field of public administration as a whole. As they watch these scenes I encourage the students, whenever they hear the words "military leader," to substitute an image of themselves as a public manager in FEMA, a city manager, a policy analyst, an emergency manager supervisor, a nonprofit director, etc.  In the last module of the course, students are given an opportunity to reflect on, and discuss with one another, the lessons they learned from the cumulative clips and how they feel the lessons McNamara shares from his own experiences will inform their role as future public servants and leaders.  

Published on February 11, 2014