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The Online Student of the Future

Online students are not only found in higher education, but also in high school and even earlier grades. More and more students are entering college with some type of online learning experience. This group is also actively using new media and technology in the learning environment as well as in social networks. In this post I'll introduce you to several reports that help describe the trends, and provide a few examples of how technology is being leveraged for educational use with students of all ages.

Tracking the Trends

  • Student Expectations – Noel-Levitz, a higher education consulting group, conducts an annual E-Expectations survey of high school students who are planning for college. This report provides information about students' online activities related to higher education. Among the interesting results in the 2010 report are the expectations for the use of social media. Of the 1000 respondents 76% reported using Facebook and an equal number thought that institutions should "create their own private social networks." A majority of students also reported that a college's website is a critical source of information about a school.
  • Personal Technology Use – The Pew Internet and American Life Project is studying how we use technology and what we do online, and they track the demographics. This group provides a wealth of data. A few interesting statistics to consider as educators: 93% of teens 12-17 are online, 75% of teens have cell phones and the majority of them received the phone when they were 12 or 13, 73% of teens are involved in social networking sites.
  • Enrollment in Online Education – The Sloan Consortium is monitoring enrollment in online education. A recent study indicated that in 2009, 5.6 million students were taking at least one class online. This number has been steadily increasing every year since 2002. Another recent estimate puts K-12 online enrollment at 1 million students in the United States. 
  • Emerging Technologies in Education – Horizon reports are generated each year by the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative and the New Media Consortium. These reports analyze recent research to identify six technologies that "will have significant impact on higher education and creative expression over the next one to five years." The 2011 report for higher education was published in February and identified eBooks and mobile learning as the two emerging technologies for the upcoming year. The 2011 report for K-12, published in May, identified cloud computing and collaborative environments for the next year. These reports recommend ways that schools can use these technologies in practice and outline anticipated challenges for educators.

Learning Online

Below are just a few examples of how students are learning online as part of their formal education programs at elementary, middle, and high school levels. Technology is not just something to be integrated into existing curricula, it's shaping the learning environment and even becoming a requirement for pre-college students.

  • New media – Academic writing is changing for faculty and for students. Blogging is becoming a popular tool for student assignments – one that encourages reflection and facilitates peer review. Blog-like features are found within learning management systems and free blog tools, such as Blogger and WordPress, are widely available. Edublogs is a free blogging platform specifically directed at use in education. Take a look at this 4th grade blog discussion on the concept of trust.
  • Virtual schools – Google "virtual high school" and you'll find a long list of results showing state and district level creation of learning opportunities for pre-college students. Florida Virtual School (FVS) is just one example. FVS offers free courses to Florida residents and fee-based options for out-of-state students. Over 100 courses are available at middle and high school levels.
  • Online learning requirements – Michigan is just one state that is requiring students in grades 6-12 to complete an online learning experience. Students can fulfill this requirement through an online course or other online experiences that may be part of required courses. The creators of this initiative have outlined specific activities designed to provide experience with technology and development of skills important for future higher education and employment. 

Looking Ahead

Are there implications for online higher education? All levels of education are encountering similar challenges and concerns – budget limitations, engagement of students, and quests for new and better models and approaches. I think it is important to note here that online education with pre-college students is not without debate. There is an ongoing discussion about quality and assessment (also occurring in higher education) and a reminder that online education is not for everyone. There are many considerations to be managed related to providing valuable educational opportunities to the online student of the future.

  • Student Skills – Students may already be using the four most immediate emerging technologies listed in the Horizon reports: eBooks, mobile, cloud commuting, and collaboration technologies. How can their experience with technology and technological devices be tapped into in an online course?
  • Student Expectations – Students want to access the information they need, when they need it. Making resources available online, even in face-to-face courses, can be a way to meet this expectation. What devices are students using most and what are their preferences for interacting with course content?
  • Student Demographics – The typical online student of today is an adult learner in an undergraduate program, working full-time, and new to online learning. Will this description change as the next generation graduates from high school and considers higher education options and entry into the workforce?

Understanding where we are now and where we are going can be a daunting task. The rate at which technology evolves is staggering. What can we do to prepare ourselves to work with the online student of the future?

Create a reading list – Stay current with trends across the industry and in related fields. The reports described above are just a start. What additional resources are relevant to your field?

Know your students – What information is available about your online students and those entering your programs? Consider a quick poll of your students at the beginning of each term. You may be surprised at the responses and how they change over time.

Any data your institution can collect and resources it can provide to help you understand your student population – characteristics, skills, experiences, and expectations – will be helpful as you move forward with decisions about your courses and programs.