4. Which Mode Students Need?

4.1. Fully Online/Distance Learners

Research (see for instance Dabbagh, 2007) has repeatedly shown that fully online courses suit some types of student better than others:

  • Older, more mature students
  • Students with already high levels of education
  • Part-time students who are working and/or with families

This applies not only to MOOCs and other non-credit courses, but even more so to courses and programs for credit. There are in fact several different markets for online learning.

Undergraduate Online Students

Today, ‘distance’ is more likely to be psychological or social, rather than geographical. For instance, from survey data regularly collected from students at the University of British Columbia (UBC):

  • Less than 20 percent give reasons related to distance or travel for taking an online course.
  • Most of the more than 10,000 or so UBC students (there are over 60,000 students in total) taking at least one fully online course are not truly distant. The majority (over 80 percent) live in the Greater Vancouver Metropolitan Area, within 90 minutes commute time to the university, and almost half within the relatively compact City of Vancouver. Comparatively few (less than 10 percent) live outside the province (although this proportion is slowly growing each year).
  • Two-thirds of UBC’s online students have paid work of one kind or another.
  • Many undergraduate students in their fourth year take an online course because the face-to-face classes are ‘capped’ because of their large size, or because they are short of the required number of credits to complete a degree. Taking a course online allows these students to complete their programs without having to come back for another year.
  • The main reason for most UBC students taking fully online courses is the flexibility they provide, given the work and family commitments of students and the difficulty caused by timetable conflicts for face-to-face classes.

In the USA, almost one in three undergraduate students are taking at least one online course (Allen and Seaman, 2017). At an undergraduate level, students are likely to take a maximum of three to four online courses as part of a regular campus-based degree program at universities and up to five online courses at two-year colleges, in Canada (Donovan et al., 2018).

Until recently in North America, there were few undergraduate programs offered entirely online, except in specialist institutions such as the open universities in Canada (Athabasca, Téluq, Thompson Rivers Open Learning) and University of Phoenix, Western Governors University, and University of Maryland University College in the USA. However, in recent years a number of specialist online undergraduate programs have started to be offered, such as the Bachelor of Mining Engineering Technology for working miners at Queen’s University, Canada.

This suggests that fully online courses are more suitable for more experienced students with a strong motivation to take such courses because of the impact they have on their quality of life. In general, online students need more self-discipline in studying and a greater motivation to study to succeed. This does not mean that other kinds of students cannot benefit from online learning, but extra effort needs to go into the design and support of such students online.

Graduate Online Students
Although in the USA, the proportion of students taking distance education courses at a graduate level overall is almost the same (17 percent) as those taking on-campus graduate courses – 15 percent, the proportion of students taking distance education courses at a graduate level are much higher for private, not-for profit – 37 percent, and for-profit institutions – 28 percent (Allen and Seaman, 2017). (As in Canada – Donovan. et al., 2018 – distance education now is almost synonymous with online learning in the USA).

The most rapid area of growth in online courses is for master’s programs aimed at working professionals. So far, apart from MBAs and teacher education, public universities tend to be relatively slow in recognizing the importance of this market, which at worse could be self-financing, and at best could bring in much needed additional revenues. The for-profit universities, though, such as the University of Phoenix, Laureate University and Capella University, and especially some of the private, not-for-profit universities in the USA have been quicker to move into this market.

Remote Learners

Often it is also assumed that isolated or remote learners are the main market for distance or fully online learners in that they are a long way away from any local school, college or university. Certainly, in Canada, there are such students and the ability to study locally rather than travel great distances can be very appealing. However, in many remote rural areas, Internet access can be difficult, with either slow satellite connections or telephone-based, slow-speed modems. Remote learners will also struggle if there is not easily accessible or culturally appropriate local support for their studies.

Since the vast majority of online learners are urban, living within one hour’s travel of a college or university campus, it is the flexibility rather than the distance that matters to these learners.

Lifelong Learners

On the other hand, fully online courses really suit working professionals. In a digital age, the knowledge base is continually expanding, jobs change rapidly, and hence there is strong demand for on-going, continuing education, often in ‘niche’ areas of knowledge. Online learning is a convenient and effective way of providing such lifelong learning.

Lifelong learners are often working with families and really appreciate the flexibility of studying fully online. They often already have higher education qualifications such as a first degree, and therefore have learned how to study successfully. They may be engineers looking for training in management, or professionals wanting to keep up to date in their professional area. They are often better motivated because they can see a direct link between the new course of study and possible improvement in their career prospects. They are therefore ideal students for online courses (even though they may be older and less tech-savvy than students coming out of high school).

What is important for such learners is that the courses are technically well designed, in that learners do not need to be highly skilled in using computers to be able to study the courses.

Changing Demographics

One other factor to consider is the impact of changing demographics. In the USA, overall higher education enrolments declined by 3 percent between 2012-2015, while distance education enrolments increased by 4 percent over the same period (Allen and Seaman, 2017).

In jurisdictions where the school-age population is starting to decline, expanding into lifelong learning markets may be essential for maintaining student enrolments. Although the rate of growth in distance education/online learning is not spectacular, it may eventually turn out to be a way to keep some academic departments alive.

New Business Models

However, to make lifelong learning online programs work, institutions need to make some important adjustments. In particular there must be incentives or rewards for faculty to move in this direction and there needs to be some strategic thinking about the best way to offer such programs.

The University of British Columbia has developed a series of very successful, fully online, self-financing professional masters’ programs. Students can initially try one or two courses in the Graduate Certificate in Rehabilitation before applying to the master’s program. The certificate can be completed in less than two years while working full-time, and paying per course rather than for a whole Master’s year, providing the flexibility needed by lifelong learners. UBC also partnered with Tec de Monterrey in Mexico, with the same program being offered in English by UBC and in Spanish by Tec de Monterrey, as a means of kick-starting its very successful Master in Educational Technology program, which, when it opened, doubled the number of graduate students in UBC’s Faculty of Education, and is still running now almost 20 years after it's initial offering. We shall see these examples are important when we examine the development of modular programming.

Online learning also offers the opportunity to offer programs where an institution has unique research expertise but insufficient local students to offer a full master’s program. By going fully online, perhaps in partnership with another university with similar expertise but in a different jurisdiction, it may be able to attract students from across the country or even internationally, enabling the research to be more widely disseminated and to build a cadre of professionals in newly emerging areas of knowledge – again an important goal in a digital age.