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Who is Studying Online?

It's not news that online learning is on the rise. The Sloan Consortium reported a 10% increase in enrollments in their 2011 report, Going the Distance, which also found that almost one-third of college students "now take at least one course online." But what do we know about the students who choose online courses and programs and why they may prefer them to on-campus options?

A new report from The Learning House and Aslanian Market Research [PDF] joins several other nationwide research efforts seeking to not only describe today's online learner, but also reveal some of the reasons why online learning is gaining popularity.

Student Demographics

This new study includes input from 1,500 current and prospective "fully online" learners, all 18 or older, and studying at the post-secondary level – including degrees, certificates, and licensing programs. Based on the responses received, researchers describe online students as "… typically Caucasian females about 33 years of age who are not the first in their family to attend college and who typically have a total family income of about $66,000. They work full-time for an employer who offers tuition reimbursement."

The report points out differences, however, between online students pursing undergraduate and graduate level programs: "nearly 60% of undergraduate students study full-time, and about 60% of graduate students prefer part-time study." The study's researchers also found that 25% of those surveyed are seeking online certificates and licenses, new career-oriented opportunities increasingly available through a variety of higher education institutions.

Choosing Online Learning

Some of the motives for enrolling in online programs include a focus on the following areas:

  • Career advancement: Only 8% of respondents indicated "personal reasons not related to job or career" or "other" reasons for enrollment in an online program. The vast majority were looking to advance in their current fields, transition to new careers, stay current with their job-related skills, earn needed credentials, or fulfill existing licensing requirements.
  • Business studies: Of the top 10 academic disciplines identified for undergraduate and graduate studies, "business administration or management" was the most popular at both levels.
  • Convenience and flexibility: The majority of respondents chose online delivery because of the "ability to balance, work, family, and school responsibilities" (68%), as well as "the ability to study anytime and anywhere" (64%).

Online Learner Preferences

In addition to gathering demographic information, this research project also asked students to weigh in on what was important in terms of the structure and support offered through online programs. Online learners are looking for:

  • Accelerated scheduling: Shorter course formats were preferred with 40% responding that 6 to 8 week courses are best. There was also a preference for continuous enrollment in courses throughout the year, not just in the traditional fall and spring semester format with frequent breaks.
  • Connections with faculty: Two of the "less positive features" of online learning identified in this study were, "lack of direct content and interaction with instructors and students" (37%) and "inconsistent or poor contact and communication with instructors" (24%). Students want some involvement with their instructors and timely feedback on their work in class.
  • Positive reputations and affordability: Students rated the most important factors in their choice of an online program as "reputation of institution" (75%) and "cost of tuition and fees" (73%). Tuition and fee details were also indicated as the most important information sought out on school websites.
  • Support services: Having online access to library resources was important for 74% of students, followed by round-the-clock technical support (67%). A majority also identified academic advising as important, and half indicated a desire for career and job placement support.

The Future of Online Learning

The goal of The Learning House study is to "supply information to colleges and universities that seek to serve online students." Some of the interesting recommendations in the report include offering programs with both full-time and part-time options so that students have a choice, and don't have to cross a potential program off of their list based on scheduling restrictions or conflicts. The concept of "stackable certificates" was also mentioned, which would allow students to work on consecutive certificate programs that could then be applied toward, or even work together to fulfill, degree requirements.

What can online learners take away from the results? It's important that prospective students have clear expectations of what enrollment in an online program will require, as well as, how a program ties into career preparation – especially if a career goal is the reason for enrolling.

What are your priorities and preferences for online learning? Investigate the factors that are important to you, and use them to compare similar online programs. Tell us about your ideal online learning experience.

Image credit: emilio labrador, Flickr, CC-BY