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.)


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.


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.


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.

A report on online learning and educational productivity: disappointed!!!!

Kevin Kline and Michael Palin in A Fish Called Wanda

Bakia, M., Shear, L. Toyama, Y. and Lasseter, A. (2012) Understanding the implications of online learning for educational productivity Washington DC: Department of Education Office of Educational Technology

This report was done for the US Department of Education by SRI International, a non-profit research and development organization. The report’s focus is on secondary schools in the USA.

This is the most important finding:

Unfortunately, a review of the available research that examined the impact of online learning on educational productivity for secondary school students was found to be lacking. No analyses were found that rigorously measured the productivity of an online learning system relative to place-based instruction in secondary schools.

The evidence summarized in this report draws on literature that addressed either costs or effectiveness. These studies typically were limited because they did not bring the two together in a productivity ratio and compare results with other alternatives.

The report then states:

Given the limitations of the research regarding the costs and effects of online instruction for secondary students, the review that follows also draws on examples and research about the use of online learning for postsecondary instruction.

I eagerly awaited this report as there is a huge controversy in the USA at the moment over charter online schools which is resulting in a lot of negative press for online learning, as online learning and privatization are being linked together. Some hard facts about the costs of online learning, especially between public and private charter schools, and the learning outcomes, would be really valuable. However, as the authors note, you have to compare like with like, and none of the studies they explored did this (although the studies they looked at consistently showed lower cost for online schools).

Although there is absolutely no empirical evidence or data in the report to back this, the authors came to the following conclusions:

Nine applications of online learning …are seen as possible pathways to improved productivity:

  1. Broadening access
  2. Engaging students in active learning
  3. Individualizing and differentiating instruction
  4. Personalizing learning
  5. Increased student motivation, time on task and ultimately better learning outcomes;
  6. Making better use of teacher and student time by automating routine tasks and enabling teacher time to focus on high-value activities;
  7. Increasing the rate of student learning by increasing motivation and helping students grasp concepts and demonstrate competency more efficiently;
  8. Reducing school-based facilities costs by leveraging home and community spaces in addition to traditional school buildings;
  9. Reducing salary costs by transferring some educational activities to computers, by increasing teacher-student ratios or by otherwise redesigning processes that allow for more effective use of teacher time; and
  10. Realizing opportunities for economies of scale through reuse of materials and their large-scale distribution

Although I would agree with most of these, these are arguments not evidence, and could be made by any informed proponent of online learning.

If you are still with me by now, there are basically three main conclusions that can I draw from this report:

  • the authors found no usable evidence by their own standards and hence have no basis for their conclusions
  • The US Department of Education wasted its money: there is nothing new in this report that wasn’t known already
  • it’s not a good idea to set up such a rigorous standard for the design of research that the research can’t be done – especially if the taxpayer is paying for it.

So: my reaction is the same as Kevin Kline’s in A Fish Called Wanda when he opened the safe and found it empty: ‘DISAPPOINTED!’

The main outcome may be that the Department of Education might now fund some real research on this important topic, but the Department is now no doubt well aware that this is very difficult research to do well. The main reasons are that online learning, like face-to-face teaching, can cost what you want it to cost, and it is difficult to put a meaningful price on many of the important benefits, such as increased access. The really difficult part though would be comparing learning outcomes, but this could be done, even if only on standardized scores, as unsatisfactory as that may be. But then we already know the likely result: no significant difference, when all other variables are controlled, which they never are in education.

My advice would be not to do a classic cost-benefit analysis because it won’t likely provide meaningful results, but take a more qualitative case-study approach that looks at the specific pros and cons of online learning in specific cases, then draw some general conclusions from this about the relationship between costs and results. Then you might get results of this kind: saving on teachers’ costs in online learning is not a good idea because the quality goes down, but access is increased at lower cost than building a physical school. But I guess such results would be too complicated for politicians and advocates who want a yes/no answer.

Book: Managing Technology in Higher Education now available

Bates, A. and Sangrà, A. (2011) Managing Technology in Higher Education: Strategies for Transforming Teaching and Learning San Francisco: Jossey-Bass/John Wiley & Co.

Now out! The book is available in cloth or e-book from Jossey-Bass, at US$45 a copy (but see below), or from most booksellers.

More information about the book, including summaries of chapters, scenarios from the book, and opportunities to discuss some of the issues, can be found at http://batesand If you order through http://batesand you should get a 20% discount.

The book argues that most universities are too conservative in their goals for technology, that it is difficult to justify the current investment in technology in terms of improved learning outcomes, and suggests a raft of strategies to enable institutions to get a better bang for their buck.

Every VP Academic/Education should have a copy at their bedside!

What Presidents think of technology investment for teaching and learning


Green, K., Jaschik, S., and Lederman, D. (2011) Presidential Perspectives Inside Higher Education, March 4

Not much, it appears.

Inside Higher Ed sought the frank and confidential assessments of campus presidents about the issues that confront their institutions and the strategies they’re using in response…..A total of 956 campus and system presidents, chancellors, and CEOs, about 33 percent of those invited to participate, completed the questionnaire, making the 2011 Presidential Perspectives survey one of the largest surveys of American college and university presidents in recent decades.

Understandably, Presidents’ main concerns these days are about finances and government cuts. However, the questionnaire asked presidents to “rate the effectiveness of [their] institution’s investment” in an array of technology resources and services. The most effective investment across the different kinds of institution was consistently in library services (well done, librarians). Presidents in 55% of public universities thought investment was very effective in online distance education (very similar to presidents in for-profit institutions, surprisingly), and a slightly smaller proportion in on-campus use of technology.

However, only just over half felt that investment in technology in any area was very effective. The report comments that:

many presidents may be “ambivalent captives” to the personnel and financial resources their campuses invest in IT: although their institutions clearly have to continue to invest in information technology to support recruitment, instruction, and administrative operations, a significant proportion of presidents across all sectors and segments wish their institutions received a better return on the continued and significant investments they make in IT resources and services.

As Clayton Wright commented to me in an e-mail about this report:

‘Obviously, their biggest concern was about budgets/the economy. But, I found it interesting that there didn’t seem to be any mention of changing the teaching model and only about a third indicated a desire to expand their online offerings…… But if you have a major hit to your finances, wouldn’t you consider how you could deliver your service more effectively and efficiently?’

One reason I suspect that Presidents feel they are not getting as good a return on investment in technology, especially in the teaching and learning area, is that the goals for technology in teaching are so conservative: supporting the classroom model. Thus the intended ‘gains’ are not only relatively insignificant but also hard to measure. Presidents will not get a better return on investment until institutions start setting more ambitious goals for the use of technology in teaching and learning, which will involve the redesign of teaching, setting new and better learning outcomes that enable the exploitation of technology, and new methods of assessment. Until then, Presidents will remain ambivalent captives to technology.

For a good discussion of the report by the lead author see:

Green, K. (2011) Presidents Confront Technology, Inside Higher Education, March 4

Should Africa continue to invest in ICT?

Student computer access, Soshangave, Tshwane University of Technology, South Africa Photo: © Tony Bates, 2009

This was the topic of a debate at the e-Learning Africa 2010 conference in Lusaka in May.

A report on the debate can found at:

I suggest that this be read in conjunction with:

Reisberg, L. (2010) Challenges for African University Leadership Inside Higher Education, July 28

Reading these two papers, I felt a strong urge to be back in university teaching with an online class of international students, including students from Africa, debating this issue – or even more so, working with Africans in Africa to try and tackle the challenges being faced there.