Profile of Students Seeking Online Degrees
Online learning is a relatively recent phenomenon. Distance learning is
not. The earliest correspondence schools in the United States opened in
the 1800’s. And some say that they were modeled after European schools
that had been in business for centuries.
The traits and qualities of today’s Virtual Students follow the pattern of
earlier students. These online learning pioneers combine the independent,
self-motivated spirit of earlier correspondence students with an intrepid
bravery about technology’s new world.
Who is the Virtual Student?
While Virtual Students come from all backgrounds and walks of life, the
early indications about online learners is that they tend to be working
professionals seeking to better their circumstances.
However, this characteristic is shifting as more schools introduce online
degree programs, as tuition drops and, importantly, as a new generation of
learners moves onto the scene. Young learners who grew up with computers
and the Internet integrated into their lives are showing signs of interest
in online education.
Research and our experience with online learners show that the following
characteristics are common among distance learners. As you consider
enrolling in an online degree program, you can gauge your own personality
and experience against these traits.
Almost inevitably, successful distance learning students are
self-starters. They are internally motivated, by either personal or
professional circumstances, to go after their degrees.
This is slightly different than saying that Virtual Students are
completely self-motivated. Without a doubt, the are self-motivated, but a
good distance learning program will consider that all humans benefit from
external as well as internal motivation.
In other words, good programs will build in mechanisms that help a Virtual
Student stay motivated. These include things like clear deadlines,
time-based expectations, and timely instructor feedback. Therefore Virtual
Students should be self-starters, and should also expect their schools to
help them stay motivated.
Virtual Students tend to be brave about the way they use technology.
Especially those online students who were among the first to pursue their
degrees online, Virtual Students tend to be quick to adapt to technology.
Although an online program may only require a telephone and modem, as the
best ones do, Virtual Students have progressive attitudes about
technology. They are quick to embrace new ideas and integrate them into
their studies and their lives.
Able to Communicate Well in Writing
Although streaming audio and video are gaining popularity in online
learning, writing is still the primary means of interactive conversation.
Virtual Students need to be good writers.
Some people have bemoaned the demise of writing in modern society.
However, online learning is one place where the quality of one’s writing
is still very much a marker for success. Nothing separates the successful
Virtual Student from the pack like the ability to communicate effectively
via the written word.
This does not mean online programs demand perfect writing. It means that
written communication is important and that good writers have an advantage
in distance learning.
Willing and Able to Commit Time and Energy
Work loads for various courses can range from very light to very heavy.
However, a Virtual Student can generally expect to spend at least as much
time on-task each week as their classroom-based colleagues.
Schools normally consider the time a student would spend in courses and
lectures, and add it to the requirement for an online course.
It is not unusual for Virtual Students to spend 4 to 15 hours per course,
per week on their online studies. There is no concrete rule about this,
but it is an issue that online faculty are expected to address in their
Believe in the Online Learning Process
It may seem obvious, but one important characteristic of online students
is their belief that learning can take place outside the classroom as well
as inside. This factor keeps many students from considering online degree
programs. And, frankly, if they do not believe in the process, they should
Consistent with this innate belief is the Virtual Student’s willingness to
work on projects in “virtual teams” with online colleagues. Also present
is the ability to effectively express themselves in online forums, emails,
and digital assignments.
Willing to Stand Up for Themselves
Unlike their classroom-based colleagues, Virtual Students must often be
willing to express their frustrations and struggles using literal
communication. Where a classroom instructor can take verbal cues from a
student that indicate confusion, boredom, or another learning-related
problem, the online instructor does not have that benefit.
Consequently, Virtual Students need to be aggressive about letting their
instructors know about problems they may be having. In our experience this
is not a problem.
As online learning continues to grow, we keep learning more about Virtual
Students. Of course, as we learn more, we will share the insights here.
We do know now, however, that great students can be successful in the
online learning environment. And we eagerly await the innovations coming
soon that will expand distance learning’s reach even further.