September 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.