The Student Experience of E-learning in Higher Education: A Review of the Literature



This paper reviews the student experience of e-learning in higher education in order to identify areas worthy of future investigation. This review highlights some common themes in the student’s e-learning experience and recommends implications for practice arising from these, particularly the emotionality of the student experience and a concern about time and time management. E-learning developments based on changes to traditional pedagogy evoke the most inconsistencies in student perceptions and it is here that individual differences emerge as possible success factors. The review concludes that future research should investigate how students understanding of the teaching and learning process impacts on their study strategies and perceptions of online learning.

Rhona Sharpe and Greg Benfield


Recent years have seen a dramatic increase in both the uptake of e-learning within higher education and research into its impact for institutions, practitioners, and students. In light of such an expansion of research, there are now several attempts underway to review the existing research and highlight areas worthy of future investigation. In the UK this year, the Association for Learning Technology (ALT) have published their research strategy (ALT, 2005) and the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) has been engaged in a discussion to determine research questions for future projects (Beetham, 2005). Beetham’s review identifies a broad range of questions emerging from previous JISC funded projects, including a gap in the research exploring the experiences of e-learners.

The most likely explanation for the lack on the experience of e-learners is that the overwhelming majority of e-learning research to date has focused on establishing the value of particular e-learning course designs, teaching methods, or tutor interventions. The objectives have been teacher- rather than student-focused, with an evaluative objective aimed at investigating the pedagogic worth of e-learning innovations. There are good reasons why this should be the case. E-learning is relatively new and, with respect to learning in general, under-researched. It has attracted significant educational investment but its educational value is often contested. These factors cause an emphasis on evaluating pedagogic ‘worth’ as seen for example in Holtham & Courtney’s (2005) practitioner focussed review of the benefits and disadvantages of virtual learning environment (VLEs).

We are now at a point where almost all higher education institutions are operating at least one virtual learning environment. A few years ago Browne and Jenkins (2003) put the figure at 86% of UK higher education institutions who responded to the survey now having at least one VLE in use. The same survey reported that the use of VLEs was predominantly supplementary to face to face teaching. This paper seeks to redress the balance by reviewing the existing literature on the student experience of e-learning in higher education. In response to input from across the post-16 education sector, the recently published HEFCE Strategy for E-learning codifies the prevalence of face-to-face teaching blended with e-learning, putting distance learning “at one end of a continuum” (HEFCE, 2005, p. 5). So wherever possible this review draws on blended learning contexts and gives precedence to those studies which allow the learners themselves to identify the key features of their experience and/or speculate on what had an impact on their experiences.

It is clear from the outset that asking students about their experiences of e-learning gives surprising, individual, and frequently contradictory results and this in itself is good reason for listening to students more often and more thoroughly if we are to avoid making assumptions about their experience from our teacher-centred view. For example, Moore and Aspden (2004) taking a student-centred approach to the evaluation of the experience of blended e-learning supported by the Blackboard VLE at Sheffield Hallam University admit that they expected students to raise concerns around equality of access to the internet, printing costs, and low levels of ICT skills. Actually none of the 22 students they interviewed spontaneously raised the first two issues and ICT skills were seen as being comfortably overcome by clear interface design and introduction to how the VLE is to be used in the course.

Eliciting learning experiences can also highlight a wide spectrum of individual experiences which would be difficult to predict. Non-participation is a good example as it is of great concern to tutors and has been related to tutor-centred issues including the interaction communication patterns of moderators in online discussions (Rourke and Anderson, 2002; Jung et al., 2002), the conservative pressure of the prevailing institutional context that may render innovations unacceptable to students (Littleton, 1999; Crook, 2002), and the role of assessment in course design (Macdonald, 2003). Studies of the student experience however show that participation levels are due to factors as varied as issues around time and time management (Allan, 2004), access to a course site from home and work (Atack and Rankin, 2002) or lack of clarity about the task (Moore & Aspden, 2004). Importantly, the reasons may also be highly individual. For example, Hughes & Lewis (n.d.) give details of a student who dropped out of an online course which made use of online testing ‘out of protest’ because she felt the frequent, timed tests were unfair to her as a dyslexic student. Another example from our own experience is that of a long-term UK resident postgraduate student undergoing a personal crisis and withdrawing from an online discussion-based course because he felt his English writing skills were being exposed as too weak. Clearly it is near impossible to ascertain these learners’ experiences from their observable behaviour and yet their experiences are valid and important.

Collecting student experiences frequently produce complex and contradictory findings. Mason and Weller (2000) report on a large scale and careful evaluation of student satisfaction from the UK Open University’s dramatically successful T171 course: ‘You, Your Computer, and the Internet’. The report is typical of many in the research literature in a number of ways. Despite careful data collection from a team of expert evaluators with more than 30 years experience of collecting information from distance-learning students, the evaluator describes her experience:

“Reading though all the feedback data from students and tutors is like standing at the apocryphal Spaghetti Junction and watching cars going every which way. Some students call for more group work; others want none at all. Some are disappointed in the course content; others find it the perfect marriage of both vocational and academic skills. Advice fumes the air.” (Mason and Weller, 2000, p. 197)

This is typical of attempts to evaluate student satisfaction in that it takes experienced and skilled evaluators to be able to make any clear recommendations for course development and improvement. This paper is also typical in that it is the staff who are identifying what are the important issues for students—indeed this paper is presented as a dialogue between course leader and course evaluator.


The following review was undertaken as part of a scoping study to provide the background and methodology for a study on learner experiences of e-learning funded by the Joint Information Systems Committee. The review examined the student experience of e-learning in higher education drawing on published studies which met the following criteria:

  • studies published since 2000
  • studies which describe how learners engage with and experience e-learning
  • studies which identify what makes a difference to the learner’s experience
  • In addition to the above criteria which were used to include or exclude studies from the analysis, we preferred and gave additional emphasis in the report those studies:
  • which allowed the learner’s voice to show through
  • in which the learners themselves identified what impacted on their experience
  • which drew on blended rather than purely online scenarios

We excluded studies of the impact or effectiveness of e-learning in terms of successful learning outcomes or those which examined the tutors’ roles. We tended to steer away from studies which were purely quantitative or those that evaluated student experiences for the main purpose of evaluating a specific course. We used the above criteria to select from more than 80 publications to put together the resulting review. It was noticeable that most the research has been about very specific and often narrow aspects of e-learning, particularly the use of asynchronous computer-mediated communication, and this is reflected in the review.

What do students say about their e-learning experiences?

Alongside such inconsistent and at times unpredictable findings, there are a few aspects of the student e-learning experience which are frequently reported. Where e-learning is used in way which does little to change the established pedagogy, students still report benefits to their wider experience of being a student (i.e. not necessarily improvements in learning), and a minority report needing help in getting started. Where e-learning adopts new or unusual pedagogies, things get more complicated. Here learners report an intensely emotional experience and a major concern with time and time management. It is here that some of the individual differences emerge, particularly in how successfully students are able to adapt to these new learning environments.

Accessing course information, administration, and support

“It was a useful source of information, so you could find out things like when things were due in or what to hand in. I could always find that, instead of having to look for a bit of paper that was God knows where, I could go on to Blackboard and have all the information at my fingertips—most of my courses are paper-based, and I defy anyone not to lose bits of paper. It’s very useful having it all online, tied together like that.” (Durkin, 2003)

A recent report into the activities of managed learning environments (MLE) reports that although enhancing the quality of teaching and learning is the key driver identified by almost every institution for MLE development, the student experience is also being enhanced through improved delivery of teaching materials, improved access to learning resources, and better communication (JISC, 2003). This seems to be the case even where staff have revised a course design in light of the integration of an online component, students continue to report the main benefits as being to their overall experience from the provision of course information, administration, and support.

For example, the authors have worked with a course team at Oxford Brookes University, in the School of Health and Social Care who redesigned a first year module on inter-professional learning to incorporate an online component alongside seminar group work. Course materials were made available and moderated discussion areas provided for each group who were working together on a collaborative group project. Student experiences of the module in its entirety were collected through a SPOT evaluation (strengths, potential improvements, opportunities, and threats) which students discussed together and completed in class time. Students were asked to identify and rank their top three suggestions under each of these headings. In the strengths topic, 33 of the 92 (36%) response sheets collected mentioned the VLE. These students reported that the VLE was a major strength of the course in terms of giving them access to information (course slides, handouts, and links to other resources) and ways of getting in touch with other members of their groups. As well as this perceived benefit, in the ‘opportunities’ section, 19 of the 92 feedback sheets (20%) mentioned the VLE. Here students requested more help with instruction on the VLE for those that need it.

Time and time management

“Initially I felt as if I need to be online all the time and I felt overwhelmed. The course ‘took over’ my life. I now keep an eye on how much I am on-line and limit my access. Basically I limit my own time on-line and fit it in and around other priorities.” (Allan, 2004)

E-learning is often promoted as providing flexibility in time and pace of study where learners are able to work at a time of their choosing and devote as long as they wish to the online activities. Such a teacher-centred view is mirrored by the student concerns about the amount of time needed to devote to online work and the changes required to their working patterns. There is evidence emerging that time is a primary concern for students engaged in e-learning and that they need to adapt and reconstruct their approaches to time management.

Allan (2004) explored the experiences of 57 e-learners from three different professional development courses using questionnaires, discussion group postings and interviews. Analysis of the discussion postings found that time was of greatest concern to students at the beginning of the courses with the most spontaneous postings on the topic of time shortly after the course start. Through the interviews Allan explored how students reconstruct their approaches to time management at an early stage in their programme and go on to develop a range different time management strategies. Cramphorn (2004) explores what time might be needed for, using data from a discussion forum where 45 students were asked to reflect on their experiences of undertaking online professional development courses at Nottingham Trent University. Time was mentioned by all of the participants and could include physical writing time, time lag, time needed to reflect on posts, and finding time in busy schedules.

There appears to be a need for students to develop strategies for using their time more effectively in blended courses. In order to engage effectively in online work, particularly group discussions, students need to logon frequently and this requires a change to their usual study patterns. In the blended context, Sweeney et al., (2004) reports that students became aware that the online seminars required them to “get organised and to think extensively about the discussion on-and-off over a week, rather than making a one-off contribution over a short period of time in a face-to-face session” (p.320). The other side of the blend is using on-campus time differently. Moore and Aspden (2004) found that students on blended courses gave examples of how they were using their on-campus time more effectively, particularly emphasising using this time to meet in small groups with other students, and using the 20 minutes before lectures to check for course announcements and emails.

An emotional experience

“I have learnt that online learning can be really inspiring and really frustrating. Discussions can be really involving and interesting as you read and relate to others’ comments, make your own contributions, etc. Then you hit a low (could be a technical problem: can’t add the attachment or a more major one like the computer not working, or it could be a personal issue—you feel daunted by expertise of other participants or just don’t relate to what they are saying) which throws you back. I did not expect to experience highs and lows in this way.”(Online Tutoring course participant, OCSLD, 2004)

It appears that being an e-learner is an emotionally charged experience. Teachers are often concerned with isolation and alienation. There are reports of initiatives which attempt to reduce these feelings through, for example, web-logs with teacher education students (Dickey, 2004). When asked specifically about working online, students are more likely to refer to feelings of frustration and there is wide variation in the elements of the course which might result in such feelings.

O’Regan (2003) interviewed 11 students studying online about the emotions which influenced their experiences and found frustration to be the “most pervasive emotion associated with studying online”(p. 84). It appears that frustration could arise from a wide range of stimuli including trying to fit study into life, trying to navigate online resources, rambling online discussions, or materials being outdated. It seems that what caused the frustration for each individual is less important than the fact that it was experienced by every student at some stage, and for some, caused them to question whether or not to continue with the course. The impact of the emotional intensity of online learning in terms of withdrawal or failure is sufficient to warrant its further investigation.

Learning to learn online

“It has been more difficult than I thought it would be. I frequently communicate by email, both formally and informally, and thought this would help. However, giving my own answers to specific questions in a public forum has seemed very daunting.” (Cramphorn, 2004)

The teacher-centred view of developed e-learning has often been to check that students will have sufficient ICT skills to engage with the course. Student experiences however demonstrate the range of learning skills needed to work effectively online go beyond IT skills. This is neatly illustrated by Baptista-Nunes and McPherson (2002) who describe their experiences of converting and running an information systems module in a blended format at Sheffield University. They found in their feedback that students were reporting concerns with posting comments online and go on to say, “Prior to delivery, the course team had not considered this would be problem, as these were MSc. in Information Systems students, supposed to be able to efficiently cope with ICT. Nevertheless, general technical proficiency is not synonymous with ability to learn online.” (p.446)

Similarly, Cramphorn (2004) points out that social and psychological barriers are still paramount despite existing ICT skills. Participants had not realised the extent to which they would be ask to publicly expose their views, which left them uneasy. The danger is that as e-learning courses develop away from baseline course information and more towards social constructivism and collaboration in their underlying pedagogies, students will be expected to work publicly to a greater degree. The next and final section explores what this might mean for e-learners.

Reactions to changing pedagogy

“[In the bulletin board] we promoted a kind of discussion between ourselves because in tutorials, we don’t really talk between ourselves: we always talk towards the tutor, and that’s it.” (Sweeney et al., 2004, p. 319)

“Wanting personally to experience a C-MC, I enrolled in an asynchronous graduate course. I found, however, that I was not prepared for what transpired during those thirteen weeks in that virtual classroom: my learning style and conceptual framework were challenged, and my pedagogical paradigm given a good shake.”(Bird, 2004. p. 253)

Many e-learning developments have been based on social constructivist approaches which aim to change the roles of students and tutors in ways which are dramatic and obvious online (McConnell, 2000; Salmon, 2004). E-learning environments and activities designed around principles of social constructivism require students to create their own meaning from a variety of different perspectives. Students will be engaged in activities which focus on real world, authentic tasks and require collaboration with their peers (Grabinger and Dunlap, 1995). In subsequent case studies from courses based on notions of collaboration and peer learning some report difficulty in moving students beyond interactions of socialisation and information sharing (e.g. Hughes and Daykin, 2002) or with engaging students in productive peer feedback (Ramsey, 2003). Other studies report that they are managing this successfully and these are starting to produce guidance for teachers around the role of the facilitator (Fox and MacKeogh, 2003) and the assessment of collaborative tasks (Macdonald, 2003; 2004). The question for us here though is how do students ‘experience’ social constructivist and/or collaborative environments online?

Sweeney et al., (2004) conducted individual interviews with 12 students who had participated in a blended course where some seminars were conducted face-to-face and some on discussion boards. This study highlights contradictions that will feel familiar to anyone experienced in running online discussions.

  • Some students felt free to contribute without fear of criticism. “The idea of it was pretty good because it gives you a chance to speak out without being in direct contact with others and offending” (p. 318), whereas other students were concerned that having a written, permanent record made them feel more vulnerable. “People are going to look at it [your comment] again and again, and then there are people from other tutorials who are going to look at it, and your name is beside it.” (p. 318)
  • Some students appreciated the shift in emphasis from tutor-led face-to-face tutorials to more collaborative discussions with peers online, whereas other students expected to have a ‘model answer’ from the tutor and were frustrated when it did not arrive.
  • Some students appreciated that working online allowed them to offer more considered responses; others expressed concern at the time needed to contribute effectively to online discussions.

Sweeney et al., conclude that some students viewed the discussion board as hard work, requiring reflection and time whereas others viewed it as offering deep learning and freedom of speech. Other studies have reported similar experiences such as students being uncomfortable with openly criticizing each others work (Macdonald, 2003), and reporting that they would like more academic interaction directly with the tutor (Hughes and Daykin, 2002; Ramsey, 2003).

In contrast to such findings, there are frequent reports from the professional development literature that online courses can result in participants engaging in collaborative learning. At Oxford Brookes University, the Online Tutoring course is a fully online professional development opportunity which brings together higher education teachers from across the UK for four weeks of intense discussion-based activity. The course is not assessed or accredited, yet participation and collaboration is achieved and evaluated positively by the majority of its participants. The following comment is typical:

“I’m sorry to feel that the intensity of thinking and writing of the past month is coming to an end. A big thank you to all who shared the experience with me. Your contributions have really carried forward my thinking in ways you will never know. I hope you have benefited from the course as much as I have.”(Online Tutoring course participant, OCSLD, 2005)

But the Online Tutoring participants are not typical of students in higher education. They are likely to be reflective, articulate, and interested and informed about teaching and learning processes. Indeed, a good deal of the current advice on e-learning has stemmed from research conducted with academic staff development (most notably Salmon, 2002; 2004). Within this emerging research, it seems possible that such extreme variations in student perceptions could be linked to students’ understanding of their learning and the role of the e-learning environment and its activities within that. Moore and Aspden (2004) for instance, working with undergraduate students, reported that positive experiences with e-learning were strongly linked to students understanding why it is used and conversely negative experiences when students could not see the purpose of the online activities.

Ellis and Calvo (2004) attempted to investigate this explicitly in a quantitative study investigating the experience of engineering students undertaking a traditional course blended with some asynchronous discussions. They gave students three questionnaires to complete: the Course Experience Questionnaire (Ramsden, 1991), and two others developed by the authors assessing approaches to learning through discussions and conceptions of learning through discussions. They found that the differences in experience described by individual students were related to their perceptions about their learning as a whole and in particular their understanding of the role played by the different modes of discussion. It seems that students who are not aware of the nature of teaching and learning are not able to understand the teachers’ intentions for the online and face-to-face modes and so are not able to engage in them in an appropriate way. They conclude:

“It is not enough simply to provide opportunities for meaningful discussions: if the students are not aware of the purpose of the discussions, or they have negative perceptions of the learning context, then they are not likely to benefit from the discussions or perform well in the subject.” (p.13)

This type of finding is not limited to discussion based tasks. Beasley and Smyth (2004) discuss extracts from their evaluations of student use of computer-based modules developed for work-based students of Petroleum Engineering. The modules included real-world case studies, activities, and self assessment questions. The modules were designed so that students could either follow the material linearly and use the activities and self tests to consolidate at the end, or they could start with the activities and refer to the content as and when they needed it. Modules were available in online- and paper-based format. The evaluation showed that while students were aware of all these options, they all chose to study linearly and preferred to work from paper-based materials. Beasley and Smyth speculate that this surprising finding could be due to prior experience and expectations: that students continued to work in the method that was familiar to them. It is also possible that students’ conceptions of learning and teaching were not sufficiently elaborated for them to make an informed choice about which method and mode of study would be most beneficial.


The now commonplace use of e-learning to supplement face-to-face teaching, combined with the interesting and at times surprising findings from existing evaluations, is a powerful argument in favour of further explorations of students’ perspectives of e-learning. This review has highlighted that there are some consistencies in the students’ e-learning experiences and there are clear implications for practice arising from these. Students commonly positively evaluate having access to course materials and key contacts online although there is still more to do to provide induction into the use of such environments which will engage all learners.

As e-learning developments do more to change the well established roles and activities of students and tutors in the teaching and learning process, students experience intense emotions characterised by one learner as ranging from inspiration to frustration. Unfortunately frustration appears to be a common experience, at least for the typical higher education student. Students are also concerned with time, particularly at the start of courses as they establish new patterns of study and activity. Knowing this, more could be done by course designers and tutors to draw students’ attention to the changing workload of online work and help them fit it around their campus-based study and life’s other commitments.

E-learning developments based on radical changes in traditional pedagogy, particularly those requiring collaboration and/or a significant change in the role of the tutor, evoke the most inconsistencies in student perceptions. But perhaps these are the most interesting findings. It is here that individual differences appear to emerge as important success factors, particularly in how well students understand the teaching and learning process and the role of their online tasks in it. There is emerging research and the observation of differences in experience between professional development and undergraduate courses which supports this idea. In terms of practice, it is not enough to hope for a match between students’ understanding of how they learn, their conceptions of teaching process, and the teachers’ intentions. It is clear that we need to be more explicit in our explanations to students of the purposes of online work and our expectations for the activities they will undertake. This might need to be quite explicit. One of our articulate online tutoring participants describes this well in the final evaluations conference:

“To anybody contemplating doing the course, I would emphasise the multiple levels at which it operates. Performing a task involves reading the instructions, reading the preparatory readings, thinking about them in relation to the task and my experience, writing my contribution and reviewing it until I’m happy it’s clear and concise, posting it, reading everybody else’s postings, responding to those postings (whether in writing or just in my head), thinking about how my own ideas have been enlarged, posting questions for everybody else and on occasions replying to their questions. Then reading the summaries at the end of the task, and probably printing them out. That’s a lot of different things going on, and the cycle starts again every week!” (Online Tutoring course participant, OCLSD, 2005)

We suspect that course designers and tutors would do well to explain to students their tasks and responsibilities in this kind of detail and work with them to develop the new learning skills that they will require.

Similarly, we suggest that future research should focus on eliciting the experiences, habits and strategies of effective e-learners. It is interesting to note that in education more broadly, we have a fairly good idea in teaching and learning of how an effective learner is characterised: active and strategic, skilled in co-operation and dialogue, able to develop goals and plans, and monitors own progress (Watkins et al., 2002). We are not yet sure how to characterise an effective e-learner, although this review would point us at least to questions we might want to ask them about their organisation, study habits, and strategies and conceptions of learning.


This review was undertaken as part of a scoping study to provide the background and methodology for a study on learner experiences of e-learning funded by the Joint Information Systems Committee. The team members were Rhona Sharpe and Greg Benfield from Oxford Brookes University, Ellen Lessner from Abingdon and Witney College and Eta DeCicco from the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education.


Rhona Sharpe is an educational developer within the Oxford Centre at Staff and Learning Development at Oxford Brookes University with particular responsibility for e-learning. In addition to promoting e-learning within Brookes she runs workshops, online courses, and offers consultancy on e-learning topics for higher education staff across the UK.

Greg Benfield is an educational developer within the Oxford Centre at Staff and Learning Development at Oxford Brookes University with particular responsibility for e-learning. He provides internal consultancy on e-learning developments for Brookes course teams and tutors on the Postgraduate Certificate in Teaching in Higher Education, as well as running workshops and online courses for higher education staff across the UK.

Contact Details

Dr Rhona Sharpe
Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development
Oxford Brookes University
Wheatley Campus
OX33 1HX
Telephone: 01865 485923
Greg Benfield
Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development
Oxford Brookes University
Wheatley Campus
OX33 1HX

Telephone: 01865 485774



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