A man in a denim jacket and a woman wearing glasses both look at a computer.

Meet the Online Learner

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

Increasing Enrollment

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

Graph showing increase in students taking distance courses from 2012-2016
The complete report by the Babson Survey Research Group, “Grade Increase: Tracking Distance Education in the United States,” contains more details.

Myths About Online Education

What are common misunderstandings about online education?

The following infographic includes information from 2015-2016.

An infographic showing the debunking of 5 myths about online higher education. Myth 1 - that financial incentives need to be substantial to impact enrollment. Reality: The top 3 factors in choosing a school are 26% tuition and fees, 18% reputation of a school, and 12% convenience. The minimum annual scholarship to influence school selection are 19% for $2,500. While it's true that cost is the number 1 consideration when choosing an institution, small incentives, such as a $500 scholarship, can sway a student's decision. Myth 2: campus isn't important to online students. One of the benefits of learning online is it allows students to study anywhere, but as it turns out 75% of students visited their campus at least once during the year. Myth 3: Online students are older. Since 2013, the average age of online students has decreased. Graduate students' average age online went from 37 in 2013 to 37 in 2014 to 35 in 2015 to 33 in 2016. Undergraduates' average age online went from 35 in 2013 to 36 in 2014 to 32 in 2015 to 29 in 2016. Myth 4: students are indecisive. Unlike recent high school graduates who study on ground, online students apply to only two or three schools. Sixty eight percent choose a school to apply to in four weeks or less. Myth 5: Education is a top field of study for graduate students. While business continues to be the number one program for graduate students, computer science and IT has recently displaced graduate education in popularity.

Trends in Student Demographics

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

According to the 2016 “Online College Students: Comprehensive Data on Demands and Preferences” by LearningHouse and Aslanian Market Research, the following trends have occurred from 2012 until 2016:

  • Trending younger. “Online college students are getting younger as the average age has dropped to 29 for undergraduate online students and to 33 for graduate online students” (p. 7).
  • Smaller households. “They are also more likely to be single and have fewer children” (p. 7).
  • Earning less while in school. “The online college student is also earning less, with the percentage of graduate students earning less than $25,000 more than doubling since 2013” (p. 7).
  • Closer to campus. “Nearly 75% of online college students chose a program offered by a college or university within 100 miles of their home, with 55% choosing one within 50 miles of their home” (p. 10).

The National Online Learners Satisfaction and Priorities Report addresses the specific characteristics of online learners within a given year.


Noel-Levitz Higher Education Consultants conduct several research studies each year to capture information about student satisfaction with and priorities for the online learning experience. This 2015–2016 report outlines the following demographics based on the responses of more than 118,000 students from 132 institutions enrolled in online courses:

  • Race and gender: The majority of online learners in this study are Caucasian females.
  • Enrollment: Most of the study participants were undergraduate students who “plan to complete their degrees online but currently are taking six or fewer credits.”
  • Age: 90% of participating students were 25 or older, with 52% between the ages of 35 and 54.
  • Employment: Most were “employed full-time while working on their degrees.”


  • Registration for online courses is convenient.
  • Instructional materials are appropriate for program content.
  • Billing and payment procedures are convenient for me.
  • Adequate online library resources are provided.

Top Enrollment Factors

  • The quality of online instruction is excellent.
  • Student assignments are clearly defined in the syllabus.
  • Faculty are responsive to student needs.
  • Tuition paid is a worthwhile investment.
  • Faculty provide timely feedback about student progress.

SOURCE: The National Online Learners Priorities Report by Noel-Levitz, 2014–2015.


  • Convenience, flexible pacing, and work schedule are the consistent top three enrollment factors. Online learners clearly require their courses to fit into their lives and to allow them to participate when it is convenient for the student.
  • Many issues factor into the decision of a student to enroll in an online course, as at least 80 percent of students listed nearly all of these items as enrollment factors. Institutions need to make sure they address these issues for online learners.
  • Financial assistance, ability to transfer credits, distance from campus, and recommendations from employers are more important to undergraduate students than to graduate-level 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.

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.

Test Yourself

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