July 20, 2018

What do online college students want and like?

Magda, A. and Aslanian, C. (2018) Online College Students 2018: Comprehensive data on demands and preferences Louisville KY: The Learning House Inc.

This is the seventh report on the survey of 1,500 past, present, and prospective fully online college students in the USA conducted by Learning House and Aslanian Market Research. (I added the USA – like many such reports there is no mention of anything outside the USA.)

Methodology

1,500 individuals were surveyed nationwide. Respondents were at least 18 years of age; had a minimum of a high school diploma or equivalent; and were recently enrolled, currently enrolled, or planned to enroll in the next 12 months in a fully online undergraduate or graduate degree, certificate, or licensure program. 

The sample for this survey was weighted to include approximately 40% graduate students to ensure a large enough sample for meaningful conclusions. The data are presented for both undergraduate and graduate students combined unless there were noteworthy differences.  All the states in the USA were represented in the sample. 

A sample of 1,500 represents an approximate sampling error of +/-3% at a 95% confidence level. Therefore, differences between these survey results over 6 percentage points may be significant. Only differences between the surveys that are at least 10 percentage points were addressed in the report to err on the side of caution. The margin of sampling error is greater for subgroups. 

From my perspective, although the sample size is small, it seems pretty representative of students taking fully online courses, although differences between sub-groups are more likely to be less valid, and it may be somewhat overloaded on graduate students.

Results

The report has nine main findings:

  • mobile-friendly content is critical. The overwhelming majority of students use mobile devices not only to search for their online program of study (87%) but also to complete online coursework (67%)
  • online students need career services. Many online students are looking for career advancement even though just over half are already employed full-time. ‘Online access to career services, including opportunities to engage with a counselor or mentor, is an integral part of a high-touch institution’s value.’
  • online learning is providing a positive return on students’ investment. Eighty-six percent of online students believe the value of their degree equals or exceeds the cost they paid for it. For students who have experienced both in-person and virtual classrooms, 85% feel that learning online is as good or better than attending courses on campus.
  • online students support innovations that decrease the cost and time to complete a degree. Nearly or just over half the students surveyed supported:
    • competency-based learning
    • stackable certificates
    • ‘text-book free’ courses/OERs
  • interactions and relationships with peers are key to online students’ success. Fifty-seven percent of past and current online students report that interactions with classmates are very important to their academic success.
  • multichannel approaches to advertising and marketing are necessary to attract online students. Students used both traditional marketing methods and digital media to gather information about programs of interest.
  • an online degree’s value is more than its price. ‘Online college students will point to the importance of a program matching their needs as being the most important factor in their decision, and it seems that a faster completion time can also outweigh scholarships.’
  • the flexibility of online programs outweighs the benefits of on-campus teaching for online students. It is not just the ability to study any place, any time that attracts students but also aspects such as continuous enrolment, accelerated programs and flexible credit transfer that matter.

Comment

There are relatively few comprehensive studies of online students and their needs, and this report is a valuable addition. As online students move from being a small minority to a substantial proportion of post-secondary enrolments (at least one third of students in the USA take at least one online course and in Canada around 15% of all course enrolments are now online) institutions will need to pay more attention to the specific needs of students who study primarily off-campus.

In the past this has tended to be done well by departments specializing in distance education, such as Continuing Education units, but as online learning becomes integrated into mainstream programs, all academic and administrative departments need to be aware of the special needs of online students.

Also, the national survey of online learning in Canadian post-secondary institutions has to date focused on institutional data such as course enrolments and policies for online learning. In the future we plan also to include surveys of online students, if we can find the funding and suitable partners.

Our responsibility in protecting institutional, student and personal data in online learning

Image: © Tony Bates, 2018

WCET (2018) Data Protection and Privacy Boulder CO: WCET

United States Attorney’s Office (2018) Nine Iranians Charged With Conducting Massive Cyber Theft Campaign On Behalf Of The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps New York: U.S. Department of Justice

With the recent publicity about unauthorised use of personal data on Facebook to manipulate elections in the USA and the U.K., and the above report about Iranians hacking universities for research results and intellectual property, everyone now has to take as much responsibility as possible for making sure personal data is secure and used only for authorised purposes.

This is particularly true for those of us working in online learning, where most of our interaction with students is online. Most institutions using learning management systems provide a secure area for student-instructor interactions – security is one reason why universities and colleges pay big bucks for IT systems, and making sure our student data and interactions are kept secure is a major reason for using a learning management system.

However, there are increasing reasons for working outside secure LMSs. Faculty and students now have blogs and wikis that are more open, although most require a password to allow for content to be added or comments to be made. ‘Good’ institutions ensure that student and faculty blogs and wikis are also protected from hacking. For instance, the University of British Columbia offers web and wiki facilities free of charge for all students and faculty and provides the security to support this. This blog is hosted by Contact North, which provides stronger security than I could as an individual or through an affordable commercial agency.

The problem comes when instructors and students start using unrestricted social media tools for instructional purposes. This all becomes ‘product’ for the social media companies and their advertisers (and very valuable product, given that university and college students are more likely to be high income earners after graduation.)

I was an early adopter of Facebook, back in 2005, but within 12 months I became inactive. It was not a company I felt I could trust, even back in 2005. I have good news for Facebook addicts who are wanting to get off of Facebook – life even within the online world is perfectly manageable, enjoyable and effective without Facebook. I do still keep in touch with my family and friends perfectly well and my professional life has if anything improved without Facebook.

Here I admit to being conflicted as I am still a heavy user of Google Search (although I prefer to use Firefox rather than Chrome). I was influenced by the Google corporate policy of ‘Do No Evil’ in its early days. Now Google Search is just one part of the umbrella company Alphabet, whose corporate motto is currently ‘Do the right thing’ – but for whom? It comes down more to pragmatics than ethics in the end. I can manage quite happily and easily without Facebook – I can’t without Google Search. 

This points to the problem we have as individuals in a digital society. Our power to control the use of our personal data is quite limited. We are now at the point where government regulation becomes unfortunately a necessity. (I say unfortunately because this is likely to limit to some extent innovation and change, but then so do the semi-monopolies of Amazon, Alphabet, Apple and Facebook, at least limiting change outside their systems). 

In the meantime, WCET has come to our rescue with a very useful site which really contains all you need to know about privacy and security. As their site says:

This is not just an IT problem! A breach could occur from an unintentional action by non-technical staff or student that could expose personal or institutional data to criminals and place the institution at risk by merely using weak passwords, connecting to dangerous networks, or opening suspicious emails. All members of an academic community must be trained with data protection best practices to preserve the security of the institution.

The WCET site contains links to the following:

  • their Frontiers blog posts on privacy and security issues
  • links to relevant recorded webcasts
  • links to a number of tools and reports on improving/protecting cybersecurity.

Essential reading for us all.

Now forgive me while I go and change all my passwords. 

The current madness in online learning: case no. 2

Keith Devlin, Stanford University, who offers a MOOC on mathematical thinking. Is there a bias of white male presenters in MOOCs?

Baker, R. et al. (2018) Bias in Online Classes: Evidence from a Field Experiment, Stanford CA: Stanford Center for Education Policy Analysis, CEPA Working Paper  No. 18-03

Yesterday I ranted at the high costs in the UK of online programs aimed at part-time, working people. Today, I want to look at a recent study from researchers at Stanford University reporting racial bias in online discussion forums.

First let’s report the facts: what did the researchers say? (Please read the report for yourself if you are uncomfortable with my comments about their conclusions).

Main finding

They report:

this study provides what we believe is the first evidence of the possible presence of racial and gender biases among students and instructors in online courses. 

First, it provides novel and fundamentally important insights into a rapidly proliferating type of learning environment. In 2013, 25 percent of all postsecondary students took some or all of their courses online. This fact has equity implications given that students enrolling in less selective colleges make up a larger fraction of the online student body online. Even in K-12 education, more than 300,000 students exclusively attend online schools, with as many as 5 million students having taken at least one online course….

Because our study relies on fictive student identities, it cleanly isolates behavioral effects due to instructors and unequivocally rules out mechanisms related to student reactions to a particular instructor.

…a comment from a White male is a statistically significant 5.8 percentage points more likely to receive a response from an instructor than non-White male students. The magnitude of this effect is striking. Given the instructor reply rate of 6.2 percent for non-White male posters, the White male effect represents an 94 percent increase in the likelihood of instructor response.

This is a pretty damning criticism of online learning. How did they come to this conclusion?

Methodology

We tested for the presence of racial and gender biases in these settings by creating fictional student identities with racial- and gender-connotative names, having these fictional students place randomly assigned comments in the discussion forums, and observing the engagement of other students and instructors with these comments.

We situated our study within 124 Massive Open Online Courses…..Critically, we also believe there is credible external validity to conducting this study within MOOCs because their basic design features (e.g., asynchronous engagement, recorded lectures, discussion forums) and their postsecondary content are widely used in other online courses.

Using fictive student identities, we placed eight discussion-forum comments in each of the 124 MOOCs. Within each course, eight student accounts were used to place one comment each. The eight student accounts each had a name that was connotative of a specific race and gender (i.e., White, Black, Indian, Chinese, each by gender); each race-gender combination was used once per class…..By observing the responses to our comments by instructors and by students in the course, we can identify any difference in the number of responses received by our student accounts that were assigned different race and gender identities.

Fifty eight percent of the courses in our sample were taught by either one White male instructor or a teaching team of exclusively White men….White students were 5.9 percentage points more likely than non-White students to respond to one of our comments when that comment was assigned a White name….We find that White women were over 10 percentage points more likely to respond to a post with a White female name than non-White women.

My comments

This study has received a lot of attention, being reported in many different outlets. The main reporting suggests that discussions in online learning are strongly biased, with more attention being paid to white male students by instructors, and white female students more likely to correspond with or respond to other white females.

I don’t dispute these findings, as far as they apply to the 124 MOOCs that the researchers studied.

Where the madness comes in is then generalising this to all online courses. This is like finding that members of drug gangs in Mexico are likely to kill each other so the probability of death by gunfire is the same for all Mexicans.

MOOCs are one specific type of online learning, offered mainly by elitist institutions with predominantly white male faculty delivering the MOOCs.

Furthermore, the instructor:student ratio in MOOCs is far higher than in credit-based online learning, which still remains the main form of online learning, despite the nonsense spouted by Stanford, MIT and Harvard about MOOCs. In an edX or Coursera MOOC, with very many students, it is impossible for an instructor to respond to every student. Some form of selection has to take place.

In most credit-based online courses, discussion forums are much more tightly managed by instructors. Many using best practices try to ensure that all students in their online discussion forum are as fully engaged as possible in the discussions. This is just not possible for an instructor to ensure in very large MOOC discussions forums. Also to imply that their findings will also apply to k-12 online courses is even more ridiculous. Their statement that the basic design features of MOOCs are widely used in other online courses is just not correct.

So yes, because of the very nature of most MOOCs, I am not surprised to find racial and gender bias in the discussions forums. I am sure that if one looked closely enough, one would probably find some instructors in credit-based online courses show either conscious or unconscious bias, but I would need to see evidence drawn from this context, not from a completely different context such as MOOCs.

Once again, we see faculty from Stanford assuming that MOOCs are the standard for online learning, when all along they have been a mutant, and so it is not surprising to find mutant behaviour in them.

More advice to students thinking of studying online

Image: More4kids.com, 2013

One of my most popular blog posts is A student guide to studying online. However, it was written five years ago, so I have just updated it, making sure all the links are still working and where necessary replacing dead links with new ones. 

In particular, I have added links to an excellent new book on how to master an online degree, and a link to a very useful general study guide from the UK’s 360 GSP. Below are reviews of both resources.

Mastering an online degree

Kayser, C. (2016) How to Master an Online Degree: A Guide to Success Calgary: Cybercrime Analytics Inc.

This is an excellent, short book (60 pages) that ‘is a must-read for anyone who endeavors to earn a degree online.’ It is written from a (successful) online student’s perspective, based on Christopher’s own experience leading to a fully online Bachelor of General Studies from Athabasca University in Canada, an online Masters in Criminal Justice and an additional Graduate Certificate in Cybercrime and Security from Boston University in the USA. Christopher has walked the talk.

The book covers the following topics:

  • Basic considerations for every course (including timelines, meeting deadlines, writing skills, etc.)
  • Technology tips
  • Developing meaningful relations with administrators and faculty
  • Discussion boards and discussions
  • Quizzes, exams and assignments
  • Research, plagiarism and citations
  • Navigating the ‘Course from Hell’ (extremely valuable advice here!)
  • Surviving a course meltdown
  • Course evaluations

I don’t know of any other book that builds so well on a student’s hard-earned experience of online learning and that shares that experience so well in advising others contemplating online learning.

My only disappointment is that the book itself is neither online nor open, although it costs under $10 and is easily ordered and delivered via Amazon.

53 smart tips for students

360 GSP (2018) Comprehensive Guide to Better Study: 53 Smart Tips for Students London, UK: 360 GSP. 

This ‘extensive guide shares more than 50 detailed, science-backed tips on everything to do with study. It’s jam-packed with useful resources, links, quizzes and recommendations to help you study more effectively.’

Although this is a general guide for students, including on-campus and corporate learners, it contains excellent advice that will be very useful for online students, covering the following topics:

Part 1 – Read more effectively

Part 2 –  Write more effectively

Part 3 – Improve your memory

Part 4 – Improve your concentration

Part 5 – Build your study environment

Part 6 – Manage your time

It had lots of tips that were new to me. I liked the CARS framework for choosing quality sources, for instance, which is really important for digital learning, and who knew coffee was bad for studying? (I’ll stick to wine, thank you.) The section on organising your home study environment is particularly important for online learners (no stooping over the computer, please).

I have only two, minor criticisms. It did read a lot like my mother giving me good advice. She may have been right, but I could feel myself wriggling at times. The second is a bit more serious and might have stopped the wriggling. The site claims that the tips are ‘science-based’ but no links or evidence were given. I would have found that useful, especially about the negative effect of coffee on studying: after all, the site does suggest checking your sources.

However I hope these and the other resources available at A student guide to studying online will help you, if you are a student, to achieve all your learning goals.

Demographics and online learning

Image: Z Living Network, 2016

Image: Z Living Network, 2016

Rai, S. (2016) How Millennial Moms Are Parenting Differently Than Their Parents Z Living Network, 7 March

Unauthored (2016)  Survey Finds Millennial Parents Supportive Of DIY Approach To Education, Diverse School Options Parental Herald, 12 August

Boomers had Dr Spock. Millennials have each other.

No institution can now afford to ignore demographics in its strategic planning, and in no area is this more true than in plans for online learning. Traditional distance education (print-based and until very recently, online distance education) has mainly attracted older students with already some experience of higher education. It has been seen as an ideal area for continuing professional education, and the growth of online professional masters degrees is evidence in support of this belief.

However, there is now a significant shift in the overall demographics, particularly in North America. Millennials (those born in the 1980s and 1990s) are now the largest living generation in the USA.

A recent survey by Connections Education (a Pearson company) found that 55% of millennials have taken an online course (higher than any previous generation) and a majority of millennial parents (51 percent) think that high school students should be required to take at least one online course.

This may be behind the continued growth in demand for online learning at a post-secondary level. Students coming into university or college, whether millennials or post-millennials, have grown up in a world where the Internet is part of life and to whom online learning is not an exotic or marginal activity but the natural order of things.

Institutions who want to attract the best and brightest students need to be aware of this and plan for it, not just for professional education programs but also for undergraduate and two year vocational programs. This is particularly important, as I have argued many times, at a program level, where every program needs to have a rational and evidence-based policy that determines the best balance between face-to-face, blended and fully online learning within the program. In particular, to what extent can courses and programs fully exploit the benefits and avoid the pitfalls of social media in support of the learning goals?

So, does your program or institution have a plan or policy for online learning? Is it a good one, and if so what makes it good?