New report reveals why it’s critical for colleges and universities to know these online learners

online-learners-institutionAny institution worth their salt knows that more and more students are turning to online education…but not for your mom’s ‘Online Intro to Tying 101.” Today’s students are as nuanced in their needs as the online and blended offerings institutions need to provide. And according to a new report, it’s only those higher-ed colleges and universities that can market to, and satisfy, these five groups that will thrive in the future.

The report, “The Five Faces of Online Education: What Students and Parents Want,” was conducted by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) in an effort to better help higher-ed institutions understand their quickly evolving student body.

According to the report, online learning, once a niche educational medium, has become part of the mainstream: 34 percent of all higher-ed students (about 7 million) currently take at least one online course, with 3 million students learning primarily through online courses.

In a stunning find, the BCG found that of the 2,500 students it surveyed, 50 percent think that blended courses deliver better outcomes in education than traditional instruction does, and more than 50 percent who have taken an online course said they found online courses as effective as on-campus classes. 62 percent said they believe that the traditional classroom could benefit from online instruction, and 63 percent agreed that online courses and degrees are gaining in importance as a part of the criteria for choosing an educational institution.

“Students desire a much greater level of interactivity than current learning environments often provide,” explains the report. “Institutions that fail to prepare for these shifts and respond to the dramatically increased competition among online offerings risk losing relevance and overall market share.”

(Next page: The 5 types of online learners—and why they matter)

Overall, students believe the benefits of online education to be improving access to education, enabling independent learning, accelerating completion of a degree program, and helping address challenging priorities (like working part- or full-time).

Students interested in online learning also listed 10 general features they’d like incorporated into online learning:

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However, despite shared attitudes in general, “students are by no means homogenous,” says the report, which found that online learners fall into five distinct categories:

1. True Believers (15 percent of the total): These students are most familiar to institutions, as these are the students that online education grew to serve. True believers take the majority or all of their classes online, are vocal advocates, and love the asynchronous, learn-at-your-own-pace convenience. This group believes online learning is a great alternative to traditional education, rather than as a part of the full menu of offerings.

2. Online Rejecters (15 percent): These learners have tried online courses but have decided not to continue in the future due to what they consider lack of quality and reputation.

3. Experience Seekers (23 percent): These students focus on the experience, social and emotional aspects of education, and believe college is the place to build lifelong relationships. Surprisingly, it does not matter to them which form their education takes, so long as they achieve their goal of a degree for personal and social advancement.

4. Money Mavens (17 percent): Those part of this group are motivated by the financial outcomes of an education and want to achieve an acceptable ROI, get a better job and make more money.

5. Open Minds (30 percent): This segment has the potential to become true believers if their online experience meets their high standards and offers benefits beyond those of traditional classrooms, such as greater interactivity with professors and peers. This group, notes the report, represents “the largest potential for growth in online education over the near term.”

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(Next page: Implications for institutions)

“Understanding student needs in multiple ways allows institutions to direct their limited investments toward features that have the greatest impact on meeting their objectives, enabling schools to maximize their resources,” explains the report.

To help higher-ed colleges and universities make their greatest impact, there are five factors that reach 90 percent of all students with online experience:

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Yet, the report emphasizes that forward-looking institutions should also tailor their approaches to each student segment to better attract and retain students.

“Amid the reality of constrained resources, leaders must meet unique student needs and generate insights into which factors meaningfully increase reach among high-priority groups,” it states.

For True Believers: Make available knowledgeable academic advisors and responsive faculty. Institutions can add new members of this segment by making investments and innovations in both self-paced courses and career advising and services. This segment is also potentially reached by gaining greater recognition from other institutions of transfer credits for online courses, by offering access to exclusive or unique courses and instructors, by providing students the ability to complete a degree faster, and by increasing opportunities for personalized learning.

Institutions that currently fare best with this segment are for-profits and nonprofits with associate’s degree programs. To best tap into the segment’s attitudes, marketing messages should stress convenience, flexibility, self-pacing, a shorter time to complete a degree, independent work and study options, increased personalization, and lower cost.

For Online Rejecters: This segment places a higher priority on faculty than other segments. Other valuable features to Online Rejecters are virtual classrooms that offer significantly more interaction with peers and professors, as well as a curriculum aligned with a professional license.

Nonprofit institutions and postgraduate programs with predominantly traditional, on-campus classes currently have the best chance with this group. Traditional messages about high-quality faculty; the exclusiveness of admissions; the challenge of coursework; and the social, emotional and experiential benefits of campus life remain most relevant. However, given the attitudes of Online Rejecters about online degrees and courses, or even the benefits of technology to the campus experience, marketing would be a costly endeavor.

For Experience Seekers: Game-like learning and simulations, employer-aligned curriculum, a social media presence, and online collaboration tools all disproportionately appeal to students in this segment. This segment’s unique needs also signal potential emerging expectations among future students, including mobile access to online education and a tight integration of courses with social responsibility efforts and opportunities to do good. As with Online Rejecters, this segment sees barriers in other faculty members’ acceptance of online education, faculty and teacher quality, evidence of outcomes, the online classroom experience, the reputation of online education, and in technical issues.

Institutions with the best potential to reach this segment include both for-profits and nonprofits that offer predominantly bachelor’s degrees. Marketing messages should emphasize the social, emotional, and experiential benefits of the institution and of online and hybrid programs; innovative interactive features; and employer-aligned curriculum and work experiences.

For Money Mavens: Career advising and services and self-paced learning are the defining factors. Emerging needs that may better position institutions with this segment include transparency about outcomes and game-like learning and simulations. Money Mavens have a higher than average degree of awareness about alternative models, such as MOOCs, which allows students to assemble a degree from several sources.

The tactics to watch in terms of appeal to this segment are virtual group projects, badges and certificates, and ePortfolios. Institutions that fare best with this segment today are nonprofits with associate’s degree programs. Marketing messages about career services, proven outcomes, self-pacing, and program costs are likely to appeal to this group.

For Open Minds: Open Minds generally see more barriers to the adoption of online and blended degrees and courses than True Believers due to their perception of barriers related to research on proven outcomes, the online classroom experience, and the quality of faculty and teachers for online programs. These students would like to see [in order of priority] features such as: virtual chalkboards; the ability to search class textbooks, videos or resources online; the ability to post questions and answers online; the ability to meet professors or student groups online via chat or video; and mobile access to the online classroom and course materials. Technology-enabled needs that are emerging include the ability to see, hear and interact with faculty and classmates using real-time virtual classrooms and collaboration tools.

Institutions that currently fare the best with this segment are nonprofits with online and blended educational offerings. Marketing messages should include those about curriculum pragmatically aligned with obtaining a professional license, about blended courses and the technology-enabled classroom experience, and about the institution’s investment in technologies that improve the student experience.

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For more in-depth research, as well as how parents perceive online learning, read the full report here.


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