Meet Online Learners

Before we can tackle the development of an online course, we must first gain an understanding of online learners and the online learning environment.

The growth of distance enrollments has been relentless. They have gone up when the economy was expanding, when the economy was shrinking, when overall enrollments were growing, and now when overall enrollments are shrinking.

Julia E. Seaman, Babson Survey Research Group

Enrollment Trends

Distance education enrollment is increasing, despite higher education enrollments’ overall decrease.

Overall postsecondary enrollments decreased from 2016-2020, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center’s report (for further reading see Spring 2020 Current Term Enrollment Estimates).

And yet, distance student enrollment increased for the fourteenth straight year in 2016, according to the Babson Survey Research Group’s report. (Here are links to the reports if you wish to learn more: “Grade Increase: Tracking Distance Education in the United States,” and Enrollment and Employees in Postsecondary Institutions, Fall 2017; and Financial Statistics and Academic Libraries, Fiscal Year 2017: First Look (Provisional Data) (PDF, 1.5MB) (NCES 2019-021rev).

Percentage aside, how many online students are we discussing? The National Center for Education Statistics offers Fast Facts stating that in fall 2018, there were 6,932,074 students enrolled in any distance education courses at degree-granting postsecondary institutions.


At UNC Greensboro, the trend of rising online student enrollment is also evident. The report UNCG Enrollment in Face-to-Face and Online Courses shows year-over-year as the percentage of face-to-face students diminishes as the percentage of online only students and students taking both online and face-to-face courses rises. From Fall 2013 to Fall 2018, students who took all their classes online increased by 85%, and students who took some classes online increased by 38%, according to the Office of Institutional Research’s report.

As of Spring 2020, there are 2,777 online students enrolled at UNC Greensboro. Please take a moment to view the breakdown by full/part-time students, residential vs. out of state, undergraduate vs. graduate, gender, ethnicity, school, and enrollment status by viewing the Online Student Enrollment report from the Office of Institutional Research. By clicking the third tab, “Online Enrollment Trend Summary,” you can observe the annual increase in percentage of undergraduate and graduate online students from Spring 2013 to Spring 2020.

Student Demographics

What do we know about the students who choose to take online courses?

According to the 2020 Online Education Trends Report (PDF, 1.9MB) by Best Colleges, the following trends have occurred from 2012 until 2016:

  • Career oriented. 77% of online students enroll in their programs to help them reach career and employment goals. 56% are employed.
  • Age range is expanding. 25% reporting a trend toward older (i.e., adult or nontraditional) learners and 20% reporting a trend of younger learners. 58% are between the ages of 24 and 44.
  • Parenting. 60% have at least one child.
  • Barriers include tuition and life events. The top reported barriers to successful completion of an online program included “paying for higher education while minimizing debt,” “unexpected circumstances or events in my personal life,” and “staying on track with my classes so I could graduate in the planned time frame.”


Do online college students tend to live near campus? How old do they tend to be? Do they tend to be working and parenting while enrolled? How mobile phone-reliant are they? Visit this interactive infographic produced by Wiley, to learn more about typical characteristics of online college students.

It is beyond the scope of these modules to examine each of these characteristics and their individual impact on the online learning experience. However, it is still important to keep the factors that lead students to choose online learning in mind as you begin planning your online course. If you are interested in a detailed review, please see “Effective Online Teaching: Foundations and Strategies for Student Success” by Tina Stavredes. We also will talk in more detail about the online learner in later modules.

The Online Learning Environment

What is an “online learning environment”? When thinking about the online learner, it may be easy for us to visualize a student sitting in front of a computer or smart device as they take a course.  However, visualizing the online learning environment requires a bit more imagination. The technical structure of an online environment can range from course hosted in a Learning Management System (LMS) such as Blackboard, Moodle, Canvas, or Sakai to an online course website developed using platforms such as WordPress, Google Sites, or Weebly.

Johnson & Aragon (2003) outlined a list of important things to consider when establishing an online environment.

  • address individual differences
  • motivate the student
  • avoid information overload
  • create a real-life context
  • encourage social interaction
  • provide hands-on activities
  • encourage student reflection

Click to view this infographic for a visual perspective on current online college students’ preferences for communication methods and other environmental considerations.

How do we define what is an online course? UNC Greensboro’s instructional format definitions (PDF, 101KB) list a “WEB” course as a “A course delivered in a fully online setting. While web-based, may in other aspects resemble lecture, lab, seminar, clinical, or other organized course instructional formats.”

Impact of a Well-Designed Learning Environment

What happens when you have a well-designed online learning environment? Click the items below to read more.

Online learning environments are intentionally designed to give students a sense of ownership as they manage their time and resources while learning at their own pace.  When students are given the opportunity to take learning into their own hands, they experience higher levels of intrinsic motivation, which leads to deeper levels of comprehension and retention (Moller et al., 2005).

Who says that online learning has to be boring?  When designed appropriately, the online learning environment can foster student engagement and interaction. Student forums, breakout groups, and blogs can provide a fun, dynamic environment for students to explore new concepts as well as facilitate meaningful discussion (Moller, Huett, Holder, Young, Harvey & Godshalk, 2005).

Social constructivist theory supports student-centered learning in which the teacher takes a facilitator role. Instructors find that the shift from being a didactic lecturer to more of a Socratic facilitator opens the door for more elaborate discussion and higher levels of student participation (Swan, 2002; Maor, 2003). By setting up the presentation before the class begins, instructors are free to focus on student engagement, deeper discussion, and evaluation during the course.

Many instructors express concern over students’ ability to cheat in an online course. In a well-designed learning environment, the instructor has designed the course strategically so cheating is not easy. Opportunities for academic dishonesty “can be significantly reduced if instructors are proactive, vigilant, and are willing to ‘welcome the challenge of creating “cheat-proof” course materials’ ” (Olt, 2002). We will discuss specific strategies in the Develop module and Teach module.

Equitable Course Design

The way an online class is designed can significantly influence how learners engage with their instructor, classmates, assessments, and instructional materials. From your selection of course materials, teaching methods, and assessments, your course may privilege some students while disadvantaging others. Some students have benefited from access to resources, social capital, and enriched curricular experiences while others had to navigate structural barriers, discrimination, and inadequate academic and social support (For more about this, read about Tara Yosso’s Cultural Wealth Model). Traditional models of instruction emphasize equality, or treating all students the same, but teaching with equity acknowledges that students have different needs and strengths.

Caption: Equality: The assumption is that everyone benefits from the same supports. This is equal treatment. Equity: Everyone gets the supports they need. Liberation: All 3 can see the game without supports of accommodations because the cause(s) of the inequity was addressed. Source: the4thBox.

This cartoon illustrates three concepts: equality, equity, and liberation; it is meant to offer a metaphor comparing three approaches for empowering learners.

Equality. In the first image, representing equality, each person is given a same-sized box; it is apparent that the box aids the tallest person unnecessarily but doesn’t aid the shortest person to see over the fence. The boxes represent treating all learners equally, which can result in unmet needs.

Equity. In the second image, representing equity, the shortest person is given two boxes to see over the fence successfully, the center person is given a box to see over the fence successfully, and the tallest person is not given a box, as they can already see over the fence. The boxes represent differentiating accommodation for learners based upon their characteristics.

Liberation. In the third image, the fence is removed, so all three people can see without any boxes. This is meant to represent removing obstacles so all people can learn without added accommodations.

Blank box. This is a space to reflect on how you approach your online course. Which barriers exist, and how can you remove them? Which accommodations are provided to some students and not others? What does it look like for your class to be a place where all can learn?

It can be challenging to know which course design decisions may benefit some and limit others, because as instructors we may not be conscious of these inequities. By anticipating issues and designing for inclusivity, as well as using inclusive teaching strategies, you may be able to mitigate these issues and improve the learning experience for all students. We’ll refer to this as “equitable course design.”

Here are questions to answer for yourself:

  • How is power shared or not in your online course? How can you empower students to advocate for themselves? How are you demonstrating your own preferences, vulnerabilities, and thought processes? 
  • What are your own beliefs on why students do or do not succeed in your class? How can you strive to treat students with equity and emphasize inclusivity? 
  • How can you build ways for students to communicate openly and often about their needs?
  • What do you assume students should already know? What language and terms, skills, equipment, software, and/or behaviors do you expect they should already have to succeed in your class which you shouldn’t have to teach them? Think about how and when you are communicating those unspoken expectations to them.
  • How can you create opportunities in your course to invite students to bring in their own experiences and contribute their strengths?
  • Review your course materials, such as readings, videos, lectures, and more; how can you modify your course materials to represent a wider variety of perspectives from different identities and communities in terms of authorship and visuals? 

Sources for further reading: 

  • Inclusive Course Design. The Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning. 
  • For an alternate visual metaphor, explore “What is Equity?” by the National Association for Multicultural Education.  

Test Yourself

You must log in to view this form, then refresh the page.