The Future of Online Learning: Student Needs and Expectations

Multiple reports out in the last few months assess the current demographics of students and their preferences for technology use. Others are also making an effort to predict the future of technology in traditional and virtual classrooms. The issues are dynamic, change quickly, and expand as enrollment increases and new tools emerge. What can all of these projects tell us about the future of educational technology and tomorrow’s online learners?

A Closer Look at the Research

A side-by-side comparison of these different projects is difficult in an “apples and oranges” kind of way, but my goal was to review each of the four reports listed below in search of similarities and differences. Each provides a snapshot of a specific population or perspective that informs those designing, developing, and instructing online higher education. The research was conducted by groups I rely on for up-to-date information and resources.

Teens and Technology 2013

This report from the Pew Internet & American Life Project presents the results of a survey of more than 800 parents and their teenage children about technology use. The study’s authors noted, “teens represent the leading edge of mobile connectivity, and the patterns of their technology use often signal future changes in the adult population.” Some of the relevant findings about these soon-to-be college-aged students are:

  • “78% of teens now have a cell phone, and almost half (47%) of them smartphones.”
  • “95% of teens use the Internet.”
  • “The nature of teens’ Internet use has transformed dramatically – from stationary connections … to always-on connections that move with them throughout the day.”

The Pew study also notes that “youth ages 12-17 who are living in lower-income and lower-education households are still somewhat less likely to use the Internet in any capacity … However, those who fall into lower socioeconomic groups are just as likely … than those living in higher income and more highly educated households to use their cell phone as a primary point of access.”

Changing Course: Ten Years of Tracking Online Education in the United States (2012)

This annual study conducted by the Babson Survey Research Group and The College Board has been widely cited. More than 2,800 academic officers from a range of institutions (i.e., public, private nonprofit, private for-profit) were surveyed about “the nature and extent of online education.” Their responses indicate:

  • “32% of higher education students now take at least one course online.” This is the highest number in this project’s history.
  • “77% rate the learning outcomes in online education as the same or superior to those in face-to-face classes.”
  • “Lower retention rates in online courses is seen as a growing barrier to wide-spread adoption.”

2012 National Online Learners Priorities Report

This is just one of a larger series of reports from the Noel-Levitz higher education consulting group that monitors trends in student satisfaction and preferences for enrollment. The most recent survey involved more than 120,000 participants from 109 schools at both undergraduate and graduate levels. This study found that:

  • Convenience, flexible pacing, and work schedule considerations were the three most important factors influencing online enrollment.
  • “73% of online learners are satisfied or very satisfied with their experience.”
  • 88% were 25 or older, including a third of total respondents 45 or older.

NMC Horizon Report: 2013 Higher Education Edition

A project of the New Media Consortium (NMC) and the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative, the annual Horizon Report projects “emerging technologies likely to have an impact on learning, teaching, and creative inquiry in higher education” over the next five years. This year’s list, developed by an international advisory board, indicates the immediate impact of technologies related to:

  • Blended or hybrid learning options like the flipped classroom concept, which move active learning strategies (e.g., discussion) to face-to-face classrooms and passive activities (e.g., reading) and resources to online course sites.
  • Learner-centered and open learning options, such as MOOCs, allow a diverse group of students to participate in organized courses at no- or low-cost via the Internet.
  • Mobile learning as facilitated by mobile apps and tablet computing offer portability and adaptability in a variety of educational settings.

Keep in mind that this is a small selection of the research currently taking place. You may, however, already be able to identify a few trends based on the details of the few reports I’ve highlighted here. These offer a national or even global view of the trends and issues – a great place to start your own research and make comparisons with your student groups.

Who is learning online?

Defining a “typical” online student is getting harder to do as blended programs, MOOCs, and new online course options become more widely available through a range of institutions and services. On-campus students are increasingly enrolling in online courses, and online students are supported by services offered on campus or other physical locations.

The online learner is evolving, representing a wide range of ages and previous experiences, but still often defined as traditional or nontraditional. Each of these groups enters the learning environment with different skills and expectations. While younger students who will enter college in the next few years are already using technology to access resources and communicate, older students who may be new to some technologies are learning and finding satisfaction in online programs.

The answer to the question “who is learning online” is increasingly that “everyone is,” or can be, as access to the Internet also increases. The digital divide is still a significant issue, but one in which progress is being made.

Recommendations for Instructors and Administrators

What’s next in online learning and teaching? Predicting the future is tricky, and the speed at which technology changes makes forecasting this topic particularly challenging. The studies presented in this article each provide a piece of the puzzle, but at a national or even global level. Here are a few of the common themes I took away from these very different studies:

  • Always-on: Mobile technologies allow students to take their classes with them wherever they go, making the “any time, any place” promise of online learning more possible than ever.
  • Near-ubiquitous: What could be described as “online learning” is expanding to include a range of formal and informal options designed to help individuals reach their education and career goals. The technologies available to make distance education possible and ability to access these opportunities are also expanding at unprecedented levels.
  • Student readiness: The preparation of students for college-level work is not a new concern, but one that comes to the forefront when technology use is added to the picture. Schools and instructors find themselves in the position to provide additional support resources to help students reach graduation.
  • Collaboration required: No single instructor or campus office is equipped to provide high quality online learning options on their own. The NMC reminds us that “the abundance of resources and relationships made easily accessible via the Internet is increasingly challenging us to revisit our roles as educators.” Teachers, administrators, and technical departments need to work together to maximize their strengths and resources to benefit students.

Having an awareness of where the industry is headed is just a start. Institutions and instructors must take the next steps to look more closely at their students and courses. How are your students similar to those who participated in these studies? What is your school’s plan for online learning in the future? And what technologies can help your students reach their learning goals?

You can continue the research being conducted in education and technology, and share your lessons learned, success stories, and recommendations with other educators. It’s a continuous learning process for all of us.

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