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Report: Online Students Take 5 Forms, Each Calling for Unique Offerings

Online instruction must become as nuanced as the institutions and high schools delivering it if it is to grow as a force in education, according to a new survey by the Boston Consulting Group. The management firm has identified five distinct types of students who take online courses; each type differs from the others based on the students' expectations for their learning. The company also examined what schools need to do in order to expand their online programs to attract or retain more learners within each grouping.

The global management firm surveyed 2,500 students in high schools and colleges, two-thirds of which had at least some online learning experience.

According to the publicly-available report, "The Five Faces of Online Education: What Students and Parents Want," online learners fall into one of these categories:

  • "True Believers." These students tend to be the most satisfied with their online courses. They take more than three-quarters of their courses online or as blended classes. Making up 15 percent of the total population of respondents, they don't believe online degrees are "inherently lower in quality." Retaining this segment requires a school to make available "knowledgeable academic advisors and responsive faculty"; to expand the population of true believers, requires bolstering the line-up of self-paced courses and career-advising services, working the transfer credit angle and offering the promise of faster degree completion, among other tactics.
  • "Online Rejecters." Also making up 15 percent of respondents, these people have tried online courses and tend to be least satisfied with them among all of the groups. They're "skeptical of the quality, effectiveness and career outcomes of online education." The schools that appeal to this group tend to be nonprofits and postgraduate programs with on-campus classes. The marketing messages that resonate focus on the quality of the faculty, the "exclusiveness of admissions," the challenging coursework, and the many positive aspects of campus life.
  • "Experience Seekers." Making up 23 percent of students, these individuals believe that blended courses are "generally effective" and enable "personalized learning." The researchers stated that this group doesn't really care what form their education takes, "so long as they achieve their goal of a degree." Boston Consulting recommends schools use features in their courses that deliver experiences: game-based learning and simulations, learning content that aligns with employer needs and online collaboration. Other areas of priority include mobile access to courses and the mix of courses with "opportunities to do good."
  • "Money Mavens." Seventeen percent of students fall into this category; 60 percent have taken a blended course; in fact, blended classes make up nearly a third of their current course schedule. These people are the "least satisfied" with all of education and are "more likely" to believe that "college is a waste of money." The report stated that the schools that "fare best" with money mavens are nonprofits with associate degree programs; their marketing should emphasize "career services, proven outcomes, self-pacing and program costs."
  • "Open Minds." The largest category — 30 percent — value the classroom experience, are the "most satisfied" with blended courses, and don't consider online programs less credible than face-to-face education. They have a lot in common with "true believers." This segment is a prime target for the "virtual classroom experience," the researchers said. What would appeal to these students are features such as, "virtual chalkboards; the ability to search class textbooks, videos, or resources online for topics or discussion threads; the ability to post questions and answers or to rate classmates' responses online; the ability to [meet up with others] via chat or video; and mobile access to the online classroom and course materials."

Interestingly, students are more sold on online-only programs than parents. According to the researchers, parents were "significantly more likely to withhold financial support" when their student went that route over a traditional or hybrid degree.

Parental disapproval isn't slowing down online course adoption, however. The survey stated that online education has "reached the mainstream." Seventy-six percent of college students, 73 percent of graduate students, and 39 percent of high school students have experienced online education in some form.

"The needs of the current mix of students are different from those of the past, driven by broader generational, digital and marketing trends," said Christine Barton, a Boston Consulting partner and coauthor of the report. "What worked for online education in the past won't work in the future, and what will work in the future, won't work the same way for all institutions."

"Growth in the future will come from altogether different sources than in the past," added Senior Partner and Co-author Allison Bailey. "Successful institutions will understand how groups of students differ, which segments to target for growth and innovation, and how to prioritize investments, operations, and marketing messages to meet more needs with fewer resources."

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