Key terms

The digital divide: A term used to refer to inequalities between different user...

In many ways, it is the diverse range of backgrounds and issues students face that has made online learning attractive to them. Our students increasingly juggle study, work, family, and other commitments, which demand a high degree of flexibility. Some are held back by the issue of the 'digital divide'; others are from varying digital generations (including pre-digital!).

Some learners have to overcome serious challenges in order to complete courses successfully. By anticipating these challenges for the particular audience you wish to reach, you can optimise the course's effectiveness.

In the following activity, click on the tabs on the left-hand side to find out more about the challenges facing online learners, in all their diversity.

You will now be presented with some of the challenges facing different online learners.

Video interview

Watch the following video in which two expert consultants in online...

Consider the following interview in which two expert consultants in...


In the following work, Gunawardena and LaPointe examine the...

Life challenges

Learners may face various life challenges, including:

  • Competing demands on their time from family and work commitments
  • Inflexible childcare arrangements
  • Online learning requires a considerable amount of self-regulation and many students may not have prior online learning experiences or the strategies to regulate just yet.

The digital divide

The digital divide is defined as 'the gap between those people and communities with access to information technology and those without it'. Yet, the fact is that there are many divides, characterised by community, ethnicity, economics, and age groups (Carvin, 2000). Similarly, there can be a divide between those who can use new technologies and those who don't know how to. Specifically, some examples of digital divide include:

  • Depending on location, learners may have limited or no internet connectivity, e.g. in developing countries, rural areas, etc.
  • In some areas it is more likely that your students will have access to a mobile device but not necessarily to a computer
  • Socio-economic status may hamper students' ability to purchase technology and course materials.

Generational issues

The generational issues you might encounter include:

  • Millennials (born 1982-2005) may be computer literate and know how to use technology but not necessarily for learning; don't assume their knowledge
  • Millennials are known as a group for social networking; consider if this is something relevant to your course.

Accommodating a global society

We are now, more than ever before, a global society. With online learning this may mean that you have students taking courses from some very distant places, and with very different cultures. You may also find that you have a great mix of cultures locally. In either event, consider these issues as you design and develop your online course.

Cultural issues

The cultural issues you may encounter include:

  • Western societies put a premium on linear logic but other cultural traditions foster lateral or spiral reasoning patterns
  • Not all cultures share the same implicit impressions regarding certain icons, colours, symbols, history, religion or politics
  • Impact of collective vs. individualistic cultures and how it may affect student interactions and assignments
  • The ways of communicating may vary by culture. This may be reflected in the relationships between teachers and learners, and related expectations from each. Westerners tend to prefer an expository, declarative, and deductive rhetorical style, as opposed to the tentative inductive approach of some cultures
  • English may not be the first language of all learners.

A Western style of learning

Learners may be challenged by the style of learning and assessment expected in a traditional Western academic culture and struggle with:

  • Level of autonomy
  • Amount of free time
  • Lack of information skills
  • Impersonal interaction
  • Differences in writing styles
  • Amount and difficulty of reading.
Source: Material on cultural issues: Adapted from Rogers & Wang (2009) in Encyclopedia of Distance Learning, 2nd ed, IGI Global Publication: ch.77. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.

You may want to review the information provided in the 'Foundations' pod for these issues. You may also want to talk with colleagues, near or far, who have encountered similar situations, and ask what strategies they employed.

You may want to review the information provided in the 'Foundations' pod at the end of this section for further reading on these issues. You could also talk with colleagues, near or far, who have encountered similar situations, and ask what strategies they employed.

Key terms

The digital divide: A term used to refer to inequalities between different user groups of information and communication technologies. Digital exclusion, as it might also be termed, can be caused by various factors, including location and socio-economic status.


Consider the following interview in which two expert consultants in online learning, Dr. George Roberts from Oxford Brookes University and Professor Steve Wheeler from Plymouth University, consider the digital divide.

What is the digital divide?

Dr. George Roberts
Senior Lecturer in Educational Development, Oxford Brookes University

The first is the concept, much discredited now, of the digital immigrant and the digital native, that people born before, say, 1980 are going to be immigrants to the online world and people born after that are native, with their facility with digital tools and so on, but what we find is, of course, the contexts are really important. There are people who are elderly, for example, who are completely wired up. My mother connecting with us on her iPad and so on. And there are people who are much younger but who choose to be digitally disconnected for whatever reason.

Professor Steve Wheeler
Associate Professor of Learning Technology, Plymouth University

Digital divides are plural. People tend to misinterpret what 'digital divide' is all about. Okay, to start with, most people would understand that it's about haves and have-nots. So that's a socio-economic divide. It's a divide about access. It's about those who have the technology and can use it, and those who don't and therefore can't use it. Most universities would say, 'Oh, well, we have no digital divide.'

Then there are other digital divides. So, for instance, there are the 'cans and can-nots' – people who have the skill to use it and those who don't have the skill to use it. I'm not talking generational divides here. I'm talking divides that are based around people who are able to use these technologies for whatever reason and people who can't. That might be because they have a disability, or it might be because they have an aversion to a particular type of technology, which leads us on to another type of divide, which is the psychological divide. I call that the 'wills and will-nots'. So there are techno-phobics out there, for instance, and there are people who are techno-realist, people who are techno-avid, and there are people who are hooked on technology to the point where they exclude everybody else and they lose their marriage over it or they, you know, forget to sleep or whatever. They are the addicts, and there's quite a spectrum of these people out there. So when we're talking about students or lecturers who are using technology, you'll have those who are totally averse to it and those who are totally hooked on it, and loads of people in between. They're all divides, and they're all digital.