Learning at work as an employee is inherently different from being a student in an academic setting and, as such, is beset with different challenges. As trends in the adoption of e-learning for the delivery of job training increase, new challenges related to distance learning with technology have also emerged. Recognition that continued learning in the workplace, now via technological methods, is required for maintaining proficiency and achieving career goals means that understanding the challenges unique to learning at work is paramount.
This qualitative study explored barriers to successful online job learning. Interviews with thirty federal government employees from the Forest Service and National Park Service enrolled in an online wilderness planning course revealed that attrition frameworks typically used to describe barriers to persistence in academia and distance education only partially describe hindering factors relevant to workplace learning. Although these hindering factors can generally be categorized as workplace; personality trait, and preference; course design/structure; or technology barriers, such categorization oversimplifies the true nature of employees’ struggles to learn on the job.
This study's findings reveal three overarching systemic problems: 1) illusion of convenience, 2) absence of deeper learning, and 3) lack of an organizational culture of learning. These systemic problems demonstrate that complex interactions between various barriers create a cyclic system often preventing attainment of student-controlled, student-centered learning, two benefits of self-paced study. Other barrier interactions can foster employment of superficial, rather than deep, learning strategies possibly leaving employees ill-prepared to negotiate the situations for which they are supposedly being trained. Cultural elements of the structure and organization of work suggest that workplace learning is devalued, under-recognized and often unsupported, making the challenges to adaptation in an increasingly technological era even more significant.