Online Students:

nullThe lightning-fast growth of online education has spurred significant competition, as non-traditional education services compete with universities for the same students. In an attempt to market programs to potential learners, diligent researchers have mined countless data points. An equally vast number of conclusions have been drawn from this data. Not being a trained statistician (e.g. Nate Silver), this post will take a more holistic view, focusing on areas of consensus. Nothing discussed here will be ground shaking, but collecting everything in one place should be helpful.

Student Population

The average age of college students is slowly shifting skyward, due in no small part to the growth of for-profit universities and new fully online programs. Currently, the average on-campus student is in their mid-twenties (25). Interestingly, around 80% of online learners are at least 25, with a large majority (60%) being between 30 & 50 years of age1. Generally, the average online student is significantly older than their face2face counterpart.


balancing home, work and school obligations

The National Institute for Education Statistics points out that 57.5% of college students are female, a number that has also steadily grown in recent years2. Currently, 70% of online students are female.

Online students are also more likely to be employed and working full-time. There has been a significant amount of handwringing over the rising cost of a higher education. Due to this hard reality, college students are having to integrate greater numbers of work hours into their study schedules. 50% of on-ground students are working part time, and an additional 20% of learners are working full-time3. The situation is even starker for the online learner. 80% of all online students are working, with 60% of learners working full time2.

Instructor Takeaway: The average online student is older, working more hours and female. Most learners are balancing significant personal and work obligations, with school responsibilities. A desire to improve career prospects often motivates learners to take online classes, but studying may not always be their top priority. Online classes allow learners to squeeze school into their downtime. However, even small unexpected schedule changes can make it difficult to complete assignments in a timely fashion. A certain amount of compassion and flexibility is therefore in order. Most online learners appreciate the value of education, and given the opportunity, will catch up with their studies.

Student Enrollments

Why are these overburdened learners signing up for online courses? Most are seeking to improve their career options, and for this audience, asynchronous classes are ideal. Firstly, online classes allow learners to study when it’s convenient. If you can’t login until the kids are asleep, online classes are perfect. Second, many programs provide mechanisms for accelerated degree competition, allowing learners to move through content at compressed rates. Students also appreciate the cost, which is often lower than traditional programs.

Important: Many believe that the online platform is an easier way to learn content.

“Students appear to choose multimedia courses based on expected flexibility and ease of learning, but those expectations may cause them to reduce their effort and learn less. …the attractiveness of flexibility may increase the probability that students will take multimedia courses… and so increase access while at the same time placing considerable stress on motivational processes that support persistence over time.” ~ Richard E. Clark, USC4

In short, the belief that online courses are easier often leads learners to apply less upfront effort. Persistence is tied to motivation, so keeping students “on task” is critical. It is especially important to get students off to a strong start.

Student Behavior

Multitasking: Lowers Grades & Increase Task Completion Time


Multitasking: In the face2face classroom, physical proximity limits most negative forms of student behavior. Under an instructor’s watchful eye, it’s not really possible to cheat outrageously, show up 45 minutes late or blare loud music. However, in-class multitasking is a growing concern for educators.

Despite being dubbed GEN-M (“The Multitasking Generation5),” studies have demonstrated convincingly that multitasking in the university classroom harms comprehension.

“…participants’ comprehension was impaired when they performed multiple tasks during learning, one being the primary task of attending to the lecture material and taking notes, and the other being the secondary task of completing unrelated online tasks.” ~ Sana, Weston, Cepeda6

Most college students actively multitask while studying, reducing information absorption rates and increasing task completion times7. Many face2face instructors have taken a hard line on multitasking, directing learners to shut their laptops and turned off smartphones. Online learners, feel invisible, expecting their actions to go unnoticed. The ability to multitask, without being directly observed, allows learners to leave the virtual classroom over and over again. As a result, students often have trouble retaining their focus.

“Imagine a scenario where students stop a multimedia lesson when they are tired or bored, intending to restart soon, and yet become distracted and allow a great deal of time pass before restarting the lesson. These gaps in time may make recall of previously learned material more difficult and/or push students so close to course or lesson completion deadlines that they must rush to finish on time.” ~ Richard E. Clark, USC4


  1. Track student activity with your learning management system’s (LMS’s) internal data analytics. Understanding how students spend their time will make answering a host of questions easier. Tracking data also allows the instructor to identify under performing/absent pupils.
  2. Never answer open-ended questions. Learners often attempt assessments before reading the associated lessons. Failing to understand concepts immediately, students often insist that the instructor needs to reexplain the content. Don’t fall for it. Insist that your students ask specific and targeted questions before providing answers.
  3. Remind students that good time management skills, quiet environments and concentrated study periods are essential.
    – Consider starting a multitasking debate/discussion. In her article “Students Think They Can Multitask. Here’s Proof They Can’t,” Maryellen Weimer challenges students to draw their own conclusions about multitasking. Have your students debate each side of this issue.
  4. Chunk your content into small digestible bites (5-10min). Without physical proximity, keeping students focused for more than a few minutes can be hard. Chunking your material acknowledges this reality.

Student Expectations

nullStudents know exactly what makes a great online instructor: informative communications, predictable levels engagement and assignments graded in a timely fashion. These expectations have been clearly outlined by Jeffrey L. Bailie in his article, What Online Students Want Compared to What Institutions Expect9.”

Communication Expectations:

Students want a welcome message, sent before a class begins, detailing requirements, materials, and instructor expectations. Learners also want to feel like their instructor is approachable, so where possible, include an image of yourself. A live streaming welcome event is also a great way to introduce yourself, while simultaneously communicating important course goals. (YouTube Live Events are great for this.) 

At the beginning of each unit/module, students appreciate an announcement that:

“highlights the relevance of the goals of the unit, accentuates the relation between activities and assignments to the learning objectives, and offer strategies for efficient completion of the stated outcomes.” ~ Bailie9

Students dip in an out of the online classroom at random times. As such, regular reminders can keep learners focused on longer term goals.

Instructor Engagement Expectations:

In the face2face classroom, instructors are available during class and office hours. In the online classroom, students expect constant engagement. As such, learners assume that faculty members will be present daily in the virtual classroom, regularly answering questions and participating in activities (e.g. discussion).

Online instructors are not generally required to hold regular office hours. However, learners want to be able to schedule individual appointments as needed.


Learners expect instructors to respond to email communications within 12 to 24 hours. Remember, student schedules can be very complicated. Delays in anticipated response times can leave students with little or no time to complete work. Learners also expect assignments to be graded in a timely fashion. Generally speaking, minor assignments should be graded within 3 days and major assignments should be graded within a week.


“For online faculty to meet the expectations of their students, they must demonstrate a timely and dependable presence their online courses. They must also communicate often with students through consistent feedback, widely engage in and promote opportunities for discourse, and be responsive to occasions for contact.” ~ Bailie9

Student Retention


throw a lifeline

Many factors influence a student’s decision to drop-out of an online course.

  1. Physical Separation: Students miss the social and cognitive community that the face2face classroom provides. Without instructional cues from faculty, many learners withdraw from active participation and sometimes stop attending altogether.
  2. Low Academic Skill Levels: Online courses can be very writing intensive. Poor writing and study skills can lead some unsuspecting students into academic jeopardy.
  3. Poor Technical Skills: Each learner brings their own set of technical skills to the online classroom. Many students are quite adept at handling images, sound, video and more. However, some learners do not have the skills needed to function effectively in the online classroom.
  4. Personal Obligations: As discussed, student performance often suffers from a lack of quality study time. Many learners are simply juggling too many balls.
  5. Lack of Clear Directions & Expectations: Learners, confused about course requirements, often stop participating. Without physical proximity, it is very important for the instructor to clearly communicate course expectations. Timely, appropriate and supportive feedback is a great way to reinforce these standards. Additionally, instructions should be crystal clear. Allowing others to read your written instructions in advance is a great way to identify and eliminate ambiguities.
  6. Lack of Institutional Support: Colleges need to understand and support the academic and technical challenges faced by online learners. Providing remedial writing and study skill support has been shown to encourage online persistence. Systematic LMS support is also critical.

Student Success

On the flip side, there are a number of characteristics common to successful online learners.

  1. They manage their time well, anticipating and planning for periods of increased effort.
  2. They have strong communication skills,  understanding how to express themselves appropriately in the online classroom (i.e. proper Netettique).
  3. They possess a basic level of digital literacy.
  4. They have strong reading and writing skills.
  5. They are able to work independently and are self-motivated.
  6. They choose appropriate study environments (i.e. not in front of the television).

Instructor Takeaway:


students are waiting to hear from you!

The online student is busier than ever, struggling valiantly to balance personal and professional goals. At the same time, learners have unprecedented distraction opportunities. Far from being obsolete, we need experienced faculty more than ever. Monitor your students closely, remind them of important due dates, clearly communicate expectations, hold them to high standards, and be timely in your interactions.

Have fun!


Who Is the Average Online College Student?
What are the new Back to School statistics for 2015?
CBS News: More Students Working (A Lot) in College
Five Common but Questionable Principles of Multimedia Learning
5 genM: the Multitasking Generation
6 Laptop multitasking hinders classroom learning for both users and nearby peers
7 Multitasking Increases Study Time, Lowers Grades
8 Students Think They Can Multitask. Here’s Proof They Can’t
9 What Online Students Want Compared to What Institutions Expect