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?