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Who is Learning Online? Time to Hit Reset!

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

Inside Higher Ed recently ran a piece, The Online Student which examined data from a survey published by Learning House, which revealed some surprising facts about the demographics of online learners. According to Steve Kolowich, the average online learner exclusively engaged in e-learning  is, "a white, 33-year-old woman with a full-time job and a household income around $65,000 per year." Additionally, these women seem to be focusing almost exclusively on studying business (25 July, 2012). This breakdown of learner demographics is surprising and may point to a disheartening disconnect between the assumed impetus behind e-learning and the reality of the model.

Survey Results
No one who has been paying any attention could fail to acknowledge the fact that women have been mistreated in society and have often been left out of the educational picture. In that way, it is encouraging to see that a segment of the female population is taking full advantage of online learning to further their careers and narrow the gender gap.  Despite this positive development, the results of this survey are still very surprising.

According to Kolowich, in addition to being 30-something women whose household income is already well above the median, focusing on business, a majority of the respondents to the survey were white (compared to 20 percent black and 8 percent Hispanic) and already had full-time jobs (60 percent), and chose to pursue their online learning through institutions that were geographically close to their homes (within 100 miles) (25 July, 2012).  While this data reveals much about women in online education programs, it reveals even more about those who are not taking advantage of the opportunities afforded by e-learning.

Who Should be Learning Online?
While some of this is based on my own assumptions about the purpose of online education, it is a generally accepted belief that e-learning should help to level the playing field by providing educational opportunities for everyone, particularly minorities and members of other disenfranchised groups. While this survey data indicates that this is happening to a certain extent, it also highlights that it is not happening in other very significant ways.

Perhaps this is a myth, but it seems that e-learning should provide a lower-cost alternative to those who cannot participate in traditional higher education for some reason. Among the reasons most commonly cited are a general state of disenfranchisement, an inability to meet the high costs of residential colleges, a need to work full-time or for children or younger siblings, and a lack of "fit" with traditional college expectations.  These constraints indicate that those most likely to seek the benefits of online learning are minorities, economically disadvantaged, or socially isolated younger people, or working adults who are returning to higher education to change careers or start a career later in life. Virtual learning is intended to level the playing field for those who have been unable to attend a university in person and are struggling.

Why the Mismatch?
Focusing in on the survey’s report  that a majority of those taking fully online classes are economically advantaged white women, the first assumption about online education helping underrepresented minorities who are seeking to reduce the costs of higher education seems almost entirely wrong. The second assumption about people using virtual learning to start a new career or return to education later in life also seems somewhat unfounded. It appears, according to Kolowich, that many of those taking online classes are already educated and established in a career, they are simply looking to maximize their potential through the acquisition of certifications and credentials that enhance their earning potential (25 July, 2012). 

One of the reasons for this demographic surprise may be that those already on a career trajectory are more aware of what is required to maintain their path. They already have some education under their belts so they understand the demands and requirements and may even be in positions where their education is being paid for by their employer. Those who are educated understand the value of education and take advantage of opportunities to acquire more of it. It is in their best interest to do so. Those who online learning should appeal to most, however, are those who have the least education, and thus do not realize the true value.

Pricing E-Learning Out of Reach of the Masses?
While the prices for online classes vary from institution to institution, they generally cost less than their F2F equivalents and that savings is reflected in lower tuition. Additionally, online students do not pay to live on campus and are often exempt from many of the fees that their residential peers must pay. But will the shifting demographics of who is actually learning online inspire a change in how much universities charge for virtual learning?

It is entirely speculative at this point, but there is potential, in a market-driven, capitalist economy, ruled by the dictates of supply and demand, that eventually higher education will realize that e-learning is a valuable commodity that should be priced accordingly. If the trend in user profile revealed in the Learning House survey persists, there could be a real shift in the target audience for online learning. If this change happens, will those most desperately in need to low-cost educational alternatives be priced out of the online education market?

The Real Intent of Online Ed?
The core issue here is in determining what the real intent of education is. For this discussion, online learning cannot be separated from education in general. The purpose of learning is not to increase divisions between social classes, but rather to narrow or eliminate them. Education for everyone benefits the entire society, really the entire planet, through increased economic opportunities for all, better overall health, more sustainable use of natural resources, and less conflict, so any developments that work against that should be curtailed.

Even more than traditional university education, online learning should help to bridge these gaps. The democratizing nature of the Internet, as the natural medium of virtual education, should help to further this cause. While no one can blame the forward thinking, career-oriented women revealed in the Learning House study for taking advantage of an opportunity placed before them, caution needs to be taken so that online learning does not become a privilege of those already succeeding, but rather remains a vehicle for others who are disenfranchised to catch up. Let’s keep online education affordable, or better yet, push to make all education free.

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Image: FreeDigitalPhotos.net