August 16, 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.

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?

Who are your online students?

Student at computer at home 2

Clinefelter, D. L., & Aslanian, C. B. (2015). Online college students 2015: Comprehensive data on demands and preferences. Louisville, KY: The Learning House, Inc.

The survey

This is an interesting report based on a survey of 1,500 individuals nationwide (USA) who were:

  • at least 18 years of age;
  • had a minimum of a high school degree or equivalent;
  • and were recently enrolled, currently enrolled or planning to enroll in the next 12 months in either a fully online undergraduate or graduate degree program or a fully online certificate or licensure program.

Main findings

This is a very brief summary of a 53 page report packed with data, which I strongly recommend reading in full, especially if you are involved with marketing or planning online programs or courses, but here is a brief tasting menu:

1. Competition for online students is increasing

Data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (2015) show that college enrollments [in the USA] declined by close to 2%, yielding 18.6 million college students today. About 5.5 million of these students are studying partially or fully online. At the same time, competition for these online students is increasing. Between 2012 and 2013, 421 institutions launched online programs for the first time, an increase of 23% to 2,250 institutions.

2. The main motivation for online students is to improve their work prospects

Roughly 75% of online students seek further education to change careers, get a job, earn a promotion or keep up to date with their skills…..Colleges that want to excel in attracting prospective online students must prepare them for and connect them to the world of work.

3. As competition for students stiffens, online students expect policies and processes tailored to their needs

For example, the amount of transfer credit accepted has consistently been ranked one of the top 10 factors in selecting an institution.

4. In online education, everything is local

Half of online students live within 50 miles of their campus, and 65% live within 100 miles….It is critical that institutions have a strong local brand so that they are at the top of students’ minds when they begin to search for a program of study.

5. Affordability is a critical variable

Forty-five percent of respondents to the 2015 survey reported that they selected the most inexpensive institution. … Thus, it is not surprising that among 23 potential marketing messages, the most appealing were “Affordable tuition” and “Free textbooks.”

6. We could do better

21% reported “Inconsistent/poor contact and communication with instructors,” and 17% reported “Inconsistent/poor quality of instruction. ” More contact with regular faculty was requested, especially as advisors.

7. Blended learning is an option – for some

About half of the respondents indicated they would attend a hybrid or low-residency option if their program was not available fully online. But 30% said they would not attend if their program was not available online.

8. The program or major drives the selection process.

60% indicated they selected their program of study first and then considered institutions.

9. Online students are diverse

Online students have a wide range of needs and backgrounds. Even the age factor is changing, with more and more students under 25 years of age choosing to study online for their undergraduate degrees.

10. Cost matters

Undergraduates reported paying $345 per credit, and graduate students reported paying $615 per credit, on average (equivalent to around $25,000 for a full degree). Applicants need clear and easily accessible information about the costs of studying online and the financial aid rules regarding online students.

As I said, this is just a taste of an information-packed report, which is useful not only to those marketing programs to students, but also for convincing faculty of the importance of online learning.

But remember: this is a study of online students in the USA. There may be problems in generalising too much to other jurisdictions.

 

 

Advice to students about Athabasca University

Graduation ceremony at Athabasca University: will 2018 be the last?

Graduation ceremony at Athabasca University: will 2018 be the last?

Caveat

Much has happened since this was posted in June 0f 2015, including an extensive external review. Go to A brighter future for Athabasca University?’ for an updated discussion. 

Anxious students

Not surprisingly, the turmoil at Athabasca University is causing concern for at least some students, and I recognise that I am responsible for some of this anxiety. For instance, I received the following e-mail from one student (reproduced with permission):

Hi Tony, I am thankful for your article on Athabasca’s financial crisis.  This leaves students such as myself in a quandary.  I am interested in transferring to AU from [another Alberta institution] because of my need for more flexibility.  However the report that was just released, made my decision to switch very concerning.  According to the article, and the op-ed you published, it seems like if things aren’t changed at AU then I could be looking for another university in 2016 (in the middle of my degree)…  Obviously this concerns me greatly… what are your thoughts to students?  Do we avoid AU until they get their act together? or do we press on and hope they know what they are doing and won’t screw us over in the end ? Thanks for any thoughts you have.

These are very good questions, and I think AU’s university administration should, if it has not done so already, be giving clear statements or answers to students and potential students about what they should expect over the next five years, given its recent report on sustainability.

My advice to students

However, I could find nothing about the sustainability report and what it could mean for students on the myAU portal (‘a web portal system that provides Athabasca University (AU) students with individualized web services and information’) or in AU News, so here’s my advice to students.

1. Listen carefully to what AU and the provincial government say about the future of the university, and give more weight to that than to my advice. I’m over 1,000 kilometres away and am not well connected these days to AU. Having said that, be circumspect. You may well have to read between the lines, so I’ll give some advice about what I’m looking for.

2. Don’t panic! AU is unlikely to shut down within the next three or even five years. It may go into a deficit in 2017-2018, but that would not be unusual for a university in Canada, nor devastating. What matters is that AU and/or the provincial government have a plan in place to bring it back to a balanced operating budget by 2020. For most current students and even some potential students transferring in, this should be long enough for most of you to complete your qualifications.

For students looking over the next two years or so to start a full degree from Athabasca, this may be more problematic, but by the time you come to make that decision, the situation should be clearer.

It is a harder decision for those thinking about starting in 2015-2016, especially if you are not resident in Alberta.  I would expect any Alberta government and the university to put in place transfer arrangements for Albertan students who start a program at AU but cannot complete it because of decisions by the government or university. For those outside the province, this will likely be much more difficult, unless you are in British Columbia, which has in place a pretty good credit transfer system with Alberta that would include AU credits.

In general, then, I would advise that at least for the next six months, assume that it will be business as usual at Athabasca. But in this period, watch for the following:

3. Good signs. The provincial government replaces the Board and a new President is appointed on a normal 3-5 year contract, with a mandate to produce a new vision for the university and a sustainable financial/business plan that will support that vision.

4. Bad signs: 

  • the above doesn’t happen by the end of this year;
  • the government extends the existing President’s contract by one year or appoints another one year President;
  • the AU faculty and/or staff go on strike;
  • lots of faculty and staff start leaving.

What should you do as a student (or potential student)

Write to Marcia Nelson, Deputy Minister of Innovation and Advanced Education, and state:

  • why Athabasca University is important to you, and in particular what it offers that is not available elsewhere;
  • that you are concerned about the future of the university, why you are concerned, and how this may affect your study plans;
  • what you would like to see, for instance, a new President, Board and senior administration, a vision for the future, a commitment from the Alberta government to support the university, etc.

Writing to the Deputy Minister could make a lot of difference, as the government has some difficult decisions to make over the next few months.

Lastly, Athabasca University is in my view a really important, unique institution that does or should add value to not only Alberta’s but also Canada’s post-secondary education system, but AU is in need of urgent renewal and change. Students (and alumni) can and should have  a major role in ensuring that this happens.

 

Mode of delivery: Learners as a determining factor

Why get the bus to campus when you can study online?

Why get the bus to campus when you can study online?

This is the third of five posts on choosing between different modes of delivery as part of Chapter 10 for my online open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age.

As always, start with the learners

Fully online/distance learners

Research (see for instance Dabbagh, 2007) has repeatedly shown that fully online courses suit some types of student better than others: older, more mature students; students with already high levels of education; part-time students who are working or with families. This applies both to formal, credit based online courses and even more so to MOOCs (see Chapter 7) and other non-credit courses.

Today, ‘distance’ is more likely to be psychological or social, rather than geographical. For instance, from survey data regularly collected from students when I was Director of Distance Education and Technology at the University of British Columbia:

  • less than 20 per cent gave reasons related to distance or travel for taking an online course.
  • most of the 10,000 or so UBC students (there are over 60,000 students in total) taking at least one fully online course are not truly distant. The majority (over 80 per cent) live in the Greater Vancouver Metropolitan Area, within 90 minutes commute time to the university, and almost half within the relatively compact City of Vancouver. Comparatively few (less than 10 per cent) live outside the province (although this proportion is slowly growing each year.)
  • on the other hand, two thirds of UBC’s online students have paid work of one kind or another.
  • many undergraduate students in their fourth year take an online course because the face-to-face classes are ‘capped’ because of their large size, or because they are short of the required number of credits to complete a degree. Taking a course online allows these students to complete their program without having to come back for another year.
  • the main reason for most UBC students taking fully online courses is the flexibility they provide, given the work and family commitments of students and the difficulty caused by timetable conflicts for face-to-face classes.

This suggests that fully online courses are more suitable for more experienced students with a strong motivation to take such courses because of the impact they have on their quality of life. In general, online students need more self-discipline in studying and a greater motivation to study to succeed. This does not mean that other kinds of students can’t benefit from online learning, but extra effort needs to go into the design and support of such students online.

The research also suggests that these skills of independent learning need to be developed while students are on campus. In other words, online learning, in the form of blended learning, should be deliberately introduced and gradually increased as students work through a program, so by the time they graduate, they have the skills to continue to learn independently – a critical skill for the digital age. If courses are to be offered fully online in the early years of a university career, then they will need to be exceptionally well designed with a considerable amount of online learner support – and hence are likely to be expensive to mount, if they are to be successful.

On the other hand, fully online courses really suit working professionals. In a digital age, the knowledge base is continually expanding, jobs change rapidly, and hence there is strong demand for on-going, continuing education, often in ‘niche’ areas of knowledge. Online learning is a convenient and effective way of providing such lifelong learning. So far, apart from MBAs and teacher education, public universities have been slow in recognising the importance of this market, which at worse could be self-financing, and at best could bring in much needed additional revenues. The private, for-profit universities, though, such as the University of Phoenix, Laureate University and Capella University in the USA, have been quick to move into this market.

One other factor to consider is the impact of changing demographics. In jurisdictions where the school-age population is starting to decline, expanding into lifelong learning markets may be essential for maintaining student enrollments. Fully online learning may therefore turn out to be a way to keep some academic departments alive.

However, to make such lifelong learning online programs work, institutions need to make some important adjustments. In particular there must be incentives or rewards for faculty to move in this direction and there needs to be some strategic thinking about the best way to offer such programs. The University of British Columbia has developed a series of very successful, fully online, self-financing professional masters’ programs.  For example, students can initially try one or two courses in the Graduate Certificate in Rehabilitation before applying to the master’s program. The certificate can be completed in less than two years while working full-time, and paying per course rather than for a whole Master’s year, providing the flexibility needed by lifelong learners. UBC also partnered with Tec de Monterrey in Mexico, with the same program being offered in English by UBC and in Spanish by Tec de Monterrey, as a means of kick-starting its very successful Master in Educational Technology program, which over time has doubled the number of graduate students in UBC’s Faculty of Education. We shall see these examples are important when we examine the importance of modular programming in Chapter 11.

Online learning also offers the opportunity to offer programs where an institution has unique research expertise but insufficient local students to offer a full master’s program. By going fully online, perhaps in partnership with another university with similar expertise but in a different jurisdiction, it may be able to attract students from across the country or even internationally, enabling the research to be more widely disseminated and to build a cadre of professionals in newly emerging areas of knowledge – again an important goal in a digital age.

Blended learning learners

In terms of blended learning, the ‘market’ is less clearly defined than for fully online learning. The benefit for students is increased flexibility, but they will still need to be relatively local in order to attend the classroom-based sessions. The main advantage is for the 50 per cent or more of students, at least in North America, who are working more than 15 hours a week to help with the cost of their education and to keep their student debt as low as possible. Also, blended learning provides an opportunity for the gradual development of independent learning skills, as long as this is an intentional teaching strategy.

The main reason for moving to blended learning then is more likely to be academic, providing necessary hands-on experiences, offering an alternative to large lecture classes, and making student learning more active and accessible whenstudying online. This will benefit most students who can easily access a campus on a regular basis.

Face-to-face learners

Many students coming straight from high school will be looking for social, sporting and cultural opportunities that a campus-based education provides. Also students lacking self-confidence or experience in studying are likely to prefer face-to-face teaching, providing that they can access it in a relatively personal way.

However, the academic reasons are less clear, particularly if students are faced with very large classes and relatively little contact with professors in the first year or so of their programs. In this respect, smaller, regional institutions, which generally have smaller classes and more contact with instructors, have an advantage.

We shall see later in this chapter that blended and fully online learning offer the opportunity to re-think the whole campus experience so that better support is provided to on-campus learners in their early years in post-secondary education. More importantly, as more and more studying moves online, universities and colleges will be increasingly challenged to identify the unique pedagogical advantages of coming to campus, so that it will still be worthwhile to get on the bus to campus every morning.

We shall see that identifying the likely student market for a course or program is the strongest factor in deciding on mode of delivery.

Feedback

1. Given that students can do a lot of their studying online, what kind of students do you think will benefit most from face-to-face teaching? All students, if they can get to campus? If so, why?

2. Is there a particular kind of student who benefits more from a blended learning approach than from full time face-to-face teaching?

3. What do you think are the implications of widening the traditional ‘for credit’ market from high school leavers to lifelong learners? Do you agree that this would require some major changes in the way programs are offered? What would be the implication for Continuing Studies or Extension departments?

Next up

Seeking the unique characteristics of face-to-face teaching. This will look at how to identify what to do online and what to do on-campus in a blended learning course.

Reference

Dabbagh, N. (2007) The online learner: characteristics and pedagogical implications Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education, Vol. 7, No.3