Wednesday, February 19, 2014


What's an Online Student?

In a discussion recently about the demographics of our online students, I realized that I’m not entirely sure what an online student is.  We have students in each of the following groups:

- Students who take nothing but entirely online classes

- Students who take most classes online, but who come to campus for a few

- Students who take most of their classes on campus, but who regularly take one or two classes online to make their schedules cleaner

- Students who take “hybrid” classes (also called “brick and click” or “surf and turf”) in which some of the regular class meetings are held (or replaced by other activities) online

- Students who take traditional classes that have fairly robust online materials, and who have to work with/through our LMS in the course of what they’re doing

Those are only some of the variables, of course.  With online, there’s also a fair number of students who are matriculated elsewhere, but who are taking a class with us for convenience, cost, or availability.  We also get some ‘non-matriculated’ students, who are taking individual classes but are not pursuing degrees.

To make matters more confusing, students move between categories from one semester to the next.  Yes, the students logging in from abroad are pretty much committed to being purely online.  But we’ve found that the vast majority of even our purely online students live within an hour of campus.  Demographically, they aren’t terribly different from the rest of our students, other than skewing slightly older and slightly more female.  (Our on-campus students already skew female; the purely online ones do so slightly more.)  I would guess that this group includes a fair number of working parents, to whom scheduling flexibility is crucial.

The sheer heterogeneity of ways that students engage with online learning is making it harder to generalize.  We have far students who mix and match than we have students who go entirely online.  That makes it hard to answer a question like “how many online students do you have?”  It also makes it difficult to know just how much to scale certain online student services; many of the students who mix and match transact certain kinds of business on the days they’re on campus.  And some students who do most of their coursework on campus would greatly prefer to address the bureaucratic stuff online.

As the distinction becomes less clear, in my perfect world, we’d get better at harnessing the best of each.  The research I’ve seen on learning outcomes, for example, suggests that students learn the most in “hybrid” classes, but those are the ones students avoid the most.  We’re experimenting with different variations on that to see where a mix of technology and direct human interaction is better than either alone.  It’s still early in the process, but the direction strikes me as right.

Wise and worldly readers, how do you define an online student?

After a hiatus of about five years, I am again teaching a fully online class. I also regularly teach a "hybrid" class and several traditional classes. What a difference five years makes. When I last taught an online class, almost all of the students were physically located somewhere else, with only a few being nearby. Those few were mostly overachieving students who wanted to load up their schedules to graduate more quickly, and the online format was the only way they could add that 6th or 7th class. Sort of the equivalent of Hermione's time turner, for the HP fans among us.

Not anymore. Now, maybe 1/2 are regular campus students (some who are full time, some part time) who take traditional classes, but who say they throw a couple of online classes into the mix in winter semesters to reduce the number of nasty winter driving days they must suffer, or to cut down on class days missed due to their children's snow days. There's one student who is taking three classes with me this semester (the poor dear, I don't recommend this!); one traditional, one hybrid, and one online.

So the convenience aspect of online classes has become more important to my students, but the definition of what makes them "online students" has become a lot messier.

One thing that hasn't changed: We're still using the same horrible CMS that we had 5 years ago. What was barely acceptable in terms of technological capacity and user support back then, is completely and ridiculously bad today. And who gets the blame when things don't work? Oh, yeah, me.
As a current university student I think that online students really just want what everyone seems to want, schedules and lifestyles that are custom built for us. This is the "I" generation. We have Ipods, Iphones, our school educational website is even called Ilearn. The bottom line is that the emphasis is on me, myself and I. Online classes allow flexibility like we have never seen before. Personally, I am taking 9 credits online and 5 on campus.
I don't believe the question should be "What's an online student?" The question should be, "Who should the online student be?" Online classes are great for all of the reasons that have been mentioned, convenience, flexibility, scheduling. However, what about those students who struggle with basic studying skills or those that don’t know how to use a computer? We often see students in the tutoring center that are taking the online course, because the on-campus course doesn’t fit their schedule and it’s the only way they can take it or it’s they only way offered and they don’t have a choice.
Another great question, “What types of courses should be offered online?” More and more remedial/developmental courses are being offered online to accommodate students. However, if students are already struggling in reading, English, or math, should they be expected to sit at computer at home, read and understand their assignment, and comprehend what they need to accomplish without the guidance of an instructor?
Should students maintain a certain GPA in order to take online classes?

@ the second anonymous, I think the answer to your closing question really depends on the intentions of the University in question; does this university want students who are successful, or is it merely focused on incoming revenue. Assuming the latter is the case, it would be wise for universities to adopt a laissez faire style approach to online classes. Let the students do as they please! On the other hand, for a university that is interested in the development of the student, it seems to me that gpa should be a consideration. A student with a poor GPA in class will typically have an even poorer GPA when he or she is taking online classes.
Spencer: Shouldn’t the goal of all colleges and universities be to create a successful graduate? After all when students enter the career field, the college/university they attended is reflected by their job performance and therefore effects the reputation of their alma mater. I realize some institutions are will be trying to create revenue, but a better investment would be to create an outstanding reputation. This would then encourage more students to attend and therefore increase revenue. So isn’t it more important to develop quality students?
I didn't really understand your question until I read some of the comments on the IHE version. Now I realize that it is the wrong question.

You should be asking "What data should we collect in a trial run so we can figure out what categories to use?" For example, it could be quite a challenge just to find out which f2f classes have students spending more time doing homework online than they spend in the classroom. Faculty might not even know that detail, and it might vary between sections of the same class.

That said, I would place the 100% online (for two sequential semesters) students in one category, the 0% in another (pending a split based on heavy use of the LMS), then decide how to split up the rest based on the data. If you have a lot, pick a percentage on-line that splits them into two similarly sized groups; if not, focus on splitting the 0% group based on on-line work.
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College Industry

Bilal Hussain

Is an online student similar, the same, or totally different with a student from an open university? These are great alternatives for people without the time nor the resources to enroll themselves to a full program. These insights on the nature of what an online student is give a different light to the perspective of a student who is vying for alternative options to committing one's self to a full college or university degree.

Mike Latone @

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I don't think that a question like “how many online students do you have?” is so important, rather “what level of work do they show?” “how dedicated they are to the studies?” I mean usually people who want to study online are those who are getting their second degree or just those who have enough dedication to stay at home and study without much guidance. I would go as far as saying it is great when a person is working and is getting a degree online at the same time, he has enough socialization as it is. However when a person is just staying at home because he is far away from the campus of his choice or just doesn't want to leave his house, this should be prohibited altogether. I saw how a great number of students who go to universities use services like their explanation is that they need time for socialization… seriously people?
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