Posted by & filed under The Online Student.

“Know your audience.”  The advice is ubiquitous—given to salespeople, public speakers, marketers, teachers, and interviewees.  Its no less applicable to the online instructor.  Seeking to know one’s students is a best practice for online educators hoping to have an important impact on their students’ lives and careers. You can’t give people what they need if you don’t know what they need.

So, who is the online learner?  In this series of articles, we’ll seek to answer that question.  We’ll start with demographics.  Education Today recently published an infographic of the demographic breakdown of distance learners across a variety of domains.  This infographic, as referenced here from Classes and Careers and supported by an impressive reference list,  does a great job telling the story of the online learner.

The average online student is 34 years old.   Only 38% of online learners fall in the “traditional college-aged” category.  This is why the terms “online learner” and “adult learner” are often used interchangeably.

What does being older imply?  Perhaps it implies that distance learners have “been there” and “done that” and have decided that they liked neither.  They want something else.  And they believe that a degree that will help them get it.  They look to the online teacher to help them do that. They hope that this degree will open doors for them; doors that will lead to more fulfillment, more money, ideally both.  As most adult learners are currently making less than 40K a year, the motivation is there.  This certainly isn’t the only motivation, but it’s an important one.

While they were “being there” and “doing that” online learners were gaining a lot of life and career experience.  Experience they bring to their classrooms and can share on the discussion boards and in their assignments.  They are students, but not novices.  Thus, they tend to do better with the proverbial “guide on the side” approach vs. the “sage on the stage” approach.  Online teachers can pull those experiences from their students to enrich the classroom experience and drive points home in personally relevant ways.

Further, the racial distribution highlighted in this graphic is suggestive of diversity in the online classroom.  Approximately 47% of students surveyed identified themselves as Caucasian, 25% as African-American, 21% as Latino/a, and 3% as Asian.  As academics we know that diversity is key for idea generation, so capitalizing on this diversity and soliciting information from this diverse group of students will yield rich discussion as well.

While the infographic doesn’t speak to marital status, adult learners are much more likely than traditionally-aged learners to be married or divorced.  They are more likely to be parenting with their partner or single parenting.  Additionally, 81% of them are employed while they are in school and most of them (68%) are taking what amounts to a full time course load.   It makes sense, then, that they gravitate toward the online, asynchronous classroom and why the “set your own schedule” campaign is an effective one for online programs.

Distance learners are working, parenting, taking multiple courses, balancing their goals with their spouses’ goals, and somewhere in there they are (hopefully) sleeping and eating.  Stress levels are high, time is precious, and the empathetic online instructor is aware of this.  This awareness guides more effective decision-making when it comes to setting due dates (i.e. allowing students the weekend to work, as that’s when they have the most time), late work policies, and the amount of group work in a term, etc.

Seventy-nine percent of online learners have taken out school loans.  Unlike some of their stereotypical, traditionally-aged counterparts, they cannot rely on their parents for assistance.  Not only are adult learners making a modest living at best, likely supporting a family, they are taking a gamble on what their education will do for them.  The financial sacrifice is significant.

The statistics that adult learners hear on TV and radio are grim, yet the good news is that, at least according to this survey of 5.6 million online students, 98% report achieving their academic goals.  The supervisor satisfaction rates for online graduates are impressive as well, with 87% of supervisors saying that their online graduates perform better on the job than graduates of brick-and-mortar programs.

Despite this good news, with the economy the way it is, it still feels like a gamble.  This tends to breed vulnerability, which breeds anxiety, which is often tempered by faith and hope.  A mixed bag of emotions represented by a first name and last name on the computer screen.

In sum, distance learners have a lot of skin in the game. They are excited yet vulnerable, very busy yet very committed, knowledgeable but humble, hopeful but scared to death.  This information has a lot of implications for online teaching strategy, which we will discuss in upcoming articles in this series.

How do the demographics fall in your classrooms?  This survey represents a large group of online learners, but it is likely that within academic programs, undergrad vs. graduate programs, and non-profit vs. for profit schools the breakdown can look different.  We would be interested to hear how such information is important in your online classrooms.  Please comment below!

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