Who’s Learning Online in 2014?

Learning OnlineOnline education options provide higher education access to a broader audience than ever before. Students bring a range of ideas, prior experiences, reasons for enrolling, and expectations for what it will be like to study in a virtual classroom. Yet, when we plan a program or design a course, it’s usually a general set of student characteristics we consider.

As Matt Reed explained in his recent post on InsideHigherEd.com, “Colleges make choices about how to organize classes, which registration protocols to follow, how to structure semesters, and how to deliver advising – among other things – based on what they think the online student wants.” What do you know about your online students? How can you better determine what they want?

Is there a “typical” online student?

Last week I worked with a colleague on a collaborative writing project addressing online students as the target audience. We realized pretty quickly that both of us were really generalizing, and in a biased way, when we described our potential reader.

My writing partner described the typical online student as one served by her online university, and I described my version of the typical student based on experience teaching in online programs offered by traditional colleges. Perhaps not so surprisingly, our students weren’t the same. When I asked a second colleague, this one working at a for-profit education corporation, yet another “typical student” description emerged.

How would you describe today’s online learner?

Curious to continue the conversation, I asked this question again during a recent Inside Online Learning chat (#IOLchat). The resulting conversation revealed the following characteristics, priorities, and needs of current online students:


  • Multitaskers, balancing full-time employment, families, and school work
  • Returning to school after an absence from formal education
  • Already in the workforce, may have goals for advancement or career change


  • Flexibility in scheduling study time and class participation
  • Easy-to-use and access course portals, communication tools, and online resources


  • Technology support that covers basic to advanced issues (online education is often preferred for schedule flexibility, not because of an interest in using technology)
  • Technology skill development beyond current familiarity with smartphones and other mobile devices
  • Goal setting assistance to ensure students have realistic expectations for how higher education will help them reach their goals
  • Quick responses from help desks and instructors, etc. that align with when students will be working on course assignments (i.e., late nights, early mornings, weekends)
  • Guidance for staying organized and managing the requirements of multiple courses throughout an academic term

Technology Skills

  • Functional with online basics, but not skilled with specific applications required in online courses
  • Confident and comfortable with technology, willing to try new things
  • Lack basic tech skills (i.e., browsers, file types), especially in that first online learning experience

The chat highlighted technology specifically in multiple ways as we tried to define today’s online learner. There were a few contradictions, as the participants come to the question from different perspectives, colleges, and courses.

There was also a shared concern that many students are resistant to asking questions or reaching out for help, even when they need it. We may need to provide better guidance related to why technology skills are needed, expected, and encouraged in online learning (and beyond). Learning how to learn online is often an additional component of the experience that is not anticipated by first-time students. This was an interesting tangent of the conversation, which may find its way to another chat or post soon.

Thanks to @jshamsy, @ceasom, @ODU_DL and @DawnMScuderi for sharing their experiences with and ideas about online learning during this #IOLchat session.

What does the research tell us?

We are familiar with the characteristics of online students, at least the ones we work with at the course, program, or institutional level. Making assumptions beyond our specific context, however, can be problematic.

Fortunately, there are multiple organizations that routinely conduct studies that not only collect data about online students, but also inform the industry about changes in demographics and the potential implications for enrollment and retention. These reports provide the latest information about today’s online learners.

National Online Learners Priorities Report

Noel-Levitz Higher Education Consultants conduct several research studies each year to capture information about student satisfaction with and priorities for the online learning experience. This 2013 report outlines the following demographics based on the responses of more than 114,000 students, 95% whom were enrolled “primarily online:”

  • Race and gender: “The majority of online learners in this study are Caucasian females.”
  • Enrollment: Most of the study participants were undergraduate students who “plan to complete their degrees online but currently are taking six or fewer credits.”
  • Age: 90% of participating students were 25 or older, with 52% between the ages of 35 and 54.
  • Employment: Most were “employed full-time while working on their degrees.”

Online College Students 2014: Comprehensive Data on Demands and Preferences

This third annual report from The Learning House and Aslanian Market Research shares input from 1,500 current and prospective online students, representing both undergraduate and graduate level interests. Findings include the following student characteristics and enrollment trends:

  • Transfer credit: “80% of undergraduate students report having credits to transfer … in the range of 30-60 credits.” The majority of students (52%) found that “most or all” of their previously earned credits were accepted by their online program.
  • Selection factors: How do students choose an online program? Here were the top three most important criteria: 1) reputation of the institution, 2) tuition and fees, and 3) no scheduled class times.
  • Quality concerns: Respondents were also interested in schools that are “recognized in [their] field as high-quality” institutions. This is related to reputation and was listed more frequently by graduate-level students.
  • Career goals: Why are students enrolling in online programs? Undergraduates most frequently reported an interest in starting “a career in a new field,” while graduate students were focused on “seeking a promotion/new position in [their current] field.”

The Five Faces of Online Education

The Boston Consulting Group surveyed more than 2,500 high school and college students, as well as 675 parents, to find out about their attitudes regarding online education in general and their interest in online or hybrid courses. The researchers identified five types of online learner:

  • True Believers: Currently taking most of their courses online, these students are satisfied with their learning experience, which offers flexibility and lower costs.
  • Online Rejecters: These students are enrolled in fewer online courses, but also tend to be the least satisfied with the experience. They are career-focused and “want challenging coursework and preparation for the workforce.”
  • Experience Seekers: This category includes learners who are interested in the benefits of the college experience, which include interaction and connection. Their goals include “personal and social advancement,” and they tend to be the most satisfied with their experience in online and hybrid classes.
  • Money Mavens: A focus on financial gain and return on investment of a college degree motivates these students. They are interested in online education as a means to advance in their careers and potentially increase their salaries.
  • Open Minds: This is the largest segment of students identified in the study. These students are interested in the potential of high-quality, interactive online education environments to help them meet their goals. Members of this group could become true believers if their experience in online courses is positive.

What do you know about your students and what they want from the online learning experience? Online education is attractive to many students for a wide variety of reasons. The Boston Consulting Group’s report “found that different groups of students have widely varying expectations of – and needs for – their future learning experience.”

While we need to more know about our learners, it’s also helpful to have some knowledge of the trends at a national level. In addition to these annual reports, individual schools and programs are investigating their more specific populations of online students. This combination of sources is helpful in the context of our own experience working with students day-to-day in online and hybrid/blended class environments.

How would you describe your online students? Share your perspective, and ideas for gathering the right information to improve your online course design and teaching, with us here.

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Image credit: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Flickr, CC:BY

Source: Inside Online Learning Blog