In his 2009 Ted talk, Alain de Botton, discusses our propensity for career anxiety and blames exceedingly high cultural expectations and the perception of equality as the cause. He encourages everyone to define their OWN definition of success and not believe the false credo that ‘we CAN do it all’. This anxiety that many of us feel surrounding our achievements can play a role in our decisions about education.

When examining how to create a safe online learning environment, it is valuable to consider WHY students are choosing online programs. According to a study by Europe’s leading provider of IT skills, SkillsTrain, the top reasons why students prefer to study at home include:


1) They want to improve job and career prospects.

2) They cannot afford to give up work.

3) They want to earn more.

4) They have family commitments.

5) They need the education to qualify for promotion.


Career achievement is the top motivating factor for those returning to school and choosing an online program (Rudestam, K. E., Schoenholtz-Read, J., 2010). Coupled with the WHY, it is also valuable to examine current satisfaction with online programs and determine the pain points associated with studying online.

According to the Handbook of Online Learning, the top challenges indentified by online learners included (Rudestam, K. E., Schoenholtz-Read, J., 2010):


  • The quality of instruction
  • Faculty responding to student needs
  • Timely feedback from instructor on student progress
  • Tuition paid is a worthwhile investment


The top three pain points for online students directly related to the performance of the instructor. This underscores the need for instructors to better understand their online audience, help them ease their career anxiety and create an emotionally safe online environment. A qualitative study by Kerry O’Regan attempted to identify emotions associated with online learning. Eleven students were interviewed about their online learning experience and consistent patterns and general themes were discovered (O’Regan, K., 2003).

The study identified several emotions relating to online learning, they included:

Frustration – ALL of the students had experienced frustration, either with the technology or deadlines or broken links. Many cited the lack of clear instructions and issues navigating the online learning platform as a primary frustration.

Fear, Anxiety and Apprehension – Many of the students experienced one or all of these emotions. Delays in the system, lack of timely feedback, not trusting the technology and the prospect of public exposure all contributed to student fear and anxiety.

Shame and Embarrassment – Many students felt shame associated with their inadequacies being exposed and feeling incompetent at tasks they felt they SHOULD be able to complete.

Enthusiasm and Excitement – The thrill of being online, discovering a new way of learning and connecting with others embarking on a similar professional journey all engendered feelings of excitement.

Pride – Affirming feedback from other students and success posting assignments in the online environment led to a sense of pride in many of the students.

After identifying some common emotions associated with online learning, a list of recommendations was offered as a means of quelling frustration, fear and anxiety and promoting pride and enthusiasm. The top recommendations included:

  • Ensure the technology is reliable, accessible and usable to the point of being invisible
  • Instructions for accessing required sites is clear, explicit, delivered upfront
  • Sites are maintained and kept up to date
  • Content explicitly outlines the structure of the material and eases user’s navigation and awareness of location in that structure
  • Guidance is provided for appropriate and constructive participation in discussion groups
  • Posting processes are explicit with students receiving prompt and automatic acknowledgment when postings are received
  • Processes are put in place for students to have an indication of the actual make up of the audience for any submissions they post online
  • Class members can become known to each other as real people with their own interests and characteristics

Interestingly, many of these recommendations are NOT directly handled by the instructor of the online course. Program administrators handle the online learning platform used to house the course materials and many faculty members are given strict guidelines about posting student identities. In order to ensure the BEST possible online learning experience for their students, teachers need to take an active role in ensuring that not only their content and course feedback are aligned with the online environment but the underlying technology ensures smooth delivery to their students.


de Botton, A. (2009). A kinder, gentler philosophy of success. TEDglobal.


O’Regan, K. (2003). Emotion and e-learning. Journal of Asynchronous learning networks, 7(3), 78-92. Retrieved from

Rudestam, K. E., & Schoenholtz-Read, J. (Eds.). (2010). Handbook of online learning. Sage.