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Investigating the Online Student Body

"Diversity: the art of thinking independently together."

— Malcolm Forbes
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"Diversity: the art of thinking independently together." — Malcolm Forbes

Online faculty, especially those new to e-learning, often express that they miss seeing their students face-to-face because so much can be understood about their students through the non-verbal aspect of interpersonal communication. But online teaching doesn’t have to be isolated or impersonal. In fact, with some research, distance educators can find out exactly who the typical online student is and devise ways not only to get to know their own class, but more importantly, to use diversity to build a more dynamic learning community.

Who Are Today’s Online Students?

Education Today recently posted an Online Student Demographics infographic that summarizes the studies of several leading organizations in e-learning. Out of the 56 million online students taking distance courses today:

  • The average age of online learners is 34.
  • The gender make-up is 53% female and 47% male.
  • The racial identification of students is: 46.6% white, 24.8% black, 29.8% Hispanic, 3.2% Asian, and 4.6% others.
  • 74.3% make less than $40,000, 32% receive financial aid, 38% receive employer aid, and 79% take out student loans.
  • The majority are employed (81%) and undergraduates (82%); 14% are graduate students, and 4% are "other" [e.g., courses only, one-year certificates, etc.].
  • Only 16% are traditional students (predominately white, female, ages 15-23, full-time, with reported incomes of $40,000+); 84% are non-traditional students.
  • The growth rate for online learning (21%) versus that of traditional education (1.8%) indicates that online education is rapidly more accepted and embraced by students.

There are two major additional trends developing within online student demographics that faculty should consider: the increase in disabled and military students.

Students With Disabilities

In the past, less than a third of disabled students pursued post-secondary education; however, online education is making college more accessible. With 49 million Americans (nearly 16% of the population) identified as disabled, faculty should be prepared for more disabled students. A recent study breaks this group down further.

  • More than one impairment (44%)
  • Learning disabilities (42%)
  • ADD or ADHD (20%)
  • Psychological or psychiatric disabilities (16%)
  • Health and medical impairments (15%)

Although e-learning is naturally conducive to some disabilities (e.g., hearing-impaired students will find reading course materials online easier than trying to read lips or working through an interpreter in a F2F classroom), this may not be the case with others. In accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, all university courses must be accessible to students with disabilities.

Whose responsibility is it to make sure online courses are compliant? "In a survey of 183 colleges and universities, one-third of respondents said responsibility for complying with the ADA rests with individual professors who teach online," an article published on The Chronicle of Higher Education reported. "Almost a quarter reported that responsibility falls to academic programs or departments. Only 16% said their university has a central office that reviews every course for compliance."

This indicates that online faculty must be proactive in coordinating with their departments and Office of Disability Services, in addition to taking steps on their own to ensure a course that is accessible for all. Here are some tips on how to do this:

  • The Des Moines Area Community College provides some excellent and easy to implement suggestions on making your online courses more ADA compliant.
  • For more specific information on each type of disability and how faculty may better meet students’ needs, consult some of the professional and non-profit organizations. For example, the National Center for Learning Disabilities is a helpful source. The Center for Teaching and Learning at Illinois State University also offers an extensive list of Lynx Viewer, a tool that will allow you to preview your course on a text-online platform, and type in the URL of your course site. Try to navigate around the site. Make sure that links are active and working, frames are functional, etc.
  • The Sloan Consortium offers a variety of online workshops to assist faculty including some on accommodating students with disabilities.

Taking the additional steps to make your online classes more ADA compliant will help you to meet the needs of this growing group of online learners.

Students in the Military

In addition to an increase in students with disabilities, there is a rapidly increasing number of online students in the military due to the ability for those stationed at bases locally or abroad to still keep up with their classes. In fact, enrollment of military students is soaring at online schools. The G.I. Bill 2.0 was recently updated so that those in the military may receive the standard living stipend for online learning full-time; this should further increase the number of military students taking online courses when it goes into effect in the fall of 2011 because it makes online education more affordable.

The main aspect of working with military students that faculty need to consider is that these students may be called into service at any time. They may be involved in a situation like a military action overseas that prevents them from accessing the Internet partially or entirely for weeks at a time. They may also be injured. Given these potential scenarios, online faculty should work with military students’ needs based on their deployment. Often, the university will make faculty aware of which students are military, so don’t assume a disappearance from the course means the student has dropped. Most institutions also have some sort of military deployment policy that should be consulted and followed by faculty.

Why Students Choose Online Learning and Their Expectations

The 2011 National Online Learners Priorities Report shows the following responses from students who were asked why they had chosen online education. He lists the reasons they gave for pursuing online education in order of importance to them:

  1. Convenience
  2. Flexible pacing for completing a program
  3. Work schedule
  4. Program requirements
  5. Reputation of institution
  6. Cost
  7. Financial assistance available
  8. Ability to transfer credits
  9. Future employment opportunities
  10. Distance from campus
  11. Recommendations from employer

What is notable for faculty is that above all, online students are looking for an education that fits conveniently into their personal and work lives with adaptive, self-paced learning options and an educational experience that meets academic standards. In fact, that same report also provides a list of expectations that online learners have, and the first five have to do specifically with faculty:

  • 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.

Therefore, faculty must keep in mind that online students are clearly not looking for the easy way out. Instead, they take the time and money they invest in their education seriously. Online students are predominately working adults expecting a quality education that will assist them in bettering themselves personally and professionally, so they are expecting faculty members in particular to help them achieve those goals.

Faculty should also be aware of students’ varying experience to with technology. Students are typically prepared with needed technology overall, but they may place the burden for any issues with course-related technology on their instructors, meaning that if they do not understand how to use the online learning system or encounter a technology-related issue, they will expect you to help teach them or help them troubleshoot. Therefore, faculty should be well-trained on the online learning system and any course/subject-related technology; instructors must be ready to assist their students as needed.

Faculty should be cognizant that student demographics and concerns may differ at each school, within each course and program, and regionally. Keeping the research in mind, it is recommended that individual faculty conduct their own internal research of their home institution and survey their own online students at the beginning of each course regarding student needs, goals, programs, schedules, etc. Faculty members should also consider getting acquainted with their students throughout the class by providing regular feedback and faculty-student interaction opportunities, as well as by staying up-to-date with the best practices in their fields and in e-learning in general. This will benefit the diverse body of online learners in your class as well as your role as an instructor.

Using Diversity to Create a More Dynamic Learning Community

E-learning is a great leveler because the judgments that may be made consciously or subconsciously about others based upon perceived differences are largely missing from the online classroom. Everyone is mostly represented by the typed word rather than their appearance. Online faculty must still be vigilant about students’ varying experience and backgrounds, however, and maintain the same strategies for teaching a diverse student body as they would in a face-to-face (F2F) classroom.

The Teaching Resource Center of the University of Virginia provides nine general principles to guide faculty:

  • Keep your expectations high and provide support so that students can reach them.
  • Give all students equal attention in class and equal access to advising outside class. Don’t overlook capable, but less experienced students.
  • Give all students equal amounts of helpful and honest criticism. Don’t prejudge your students’ capabilities.
  • Revise curricula if necessary to include different kinds of racial and cultural experiences and to include them in more than just stereotypical ways.
  • Monitor classroom dynamics to ensure that no students become isolated.
  • Vary the structure of the course to include more than just individual and abstract modes of learning.
  • Don’t call on any student as a "spokesperson" for his or her perceived group.
  • Recognize and acknowledge the history and emotions your students may bring to class.
  • Swiftly respond and deal with non-academic experiences, such as racial incidents, that may affect classroom performance.

Although the University of Virginia site includes an abundance of concrete ways to accomplish these principles, they may be summarized thusly: Being a good role model for your diverse group of online students in all communication ensures that the learning community is one of respect and fairness. Faculty members should be prepared to provide students with appropriate guidance on cultural sensitivity where needed. Faculty members do many of these things automatically in a F2F classroom, so the same considerations should be applied to the online setting.