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C21U Blog

Mon, 07/18/2011 - 10:14

Education Today recently featured an interesting infographic that analyzes the demographics of online learners. The significance of the graphic is placed in context by addressing the characterization of a “distance learner.” Virtually all college classrooms use technology of one sort or another to augment or enhance the classroom experience. However to qualify as an online course, a reasonable rule of thumb is that about 80% of the classroom experience be conducted online: a characteristic that only approximately 10% of college courses have, but one that's increasing in popularity with, as the graphic indicates, 5.6 million users. 

Referring to the infographic, the bottom graph on the chart represents the number of students who attend traditional face-to-face classrooms. As a gross generalization, these students have historically tended to be white, middle class, traditionally college aged individuals who attend school full time. However, the recent economic downturn has driven more people back to the classroom.  As the middle image illustrates, demand for traditional classrooms has increased by nearly 2%; whereas, demand for online courses has increased 21% Interestingly, this research shows that 30% of traditional students take at least one online course during their academic careers.

In contrast, looking at the characteristics of distance learners, they are on average 34 years old, approximately ten years older than traditional college students, with a much lower annual income, and a much likely to be a member of a minority These observations corroborate conclusions presented in last week’s article about for-profit universities, which serve more minority, lower, income and nontraditional students than traditional Universities. However,  a significant portion of the distance learning population consists of working professionals whose employers foundering their educational endeavors. In all of these instances, a strong motivator for engaging in online learning is the flexibility of  an asynchronous  classroom experience  that fits a working adult's schedule.

This migration toward online learning, has not gone unnoticed by  university administrators . In 2009, approximately two-thirds of academic officers recognized the need for online learning in their long-term goals, and more than half have formally incorporated these goals into their strategic vision. While this graphic suggests high levels of satisfaction among graduates of distance learning programs;, a study  of California Community colleges found that just over half of students enrolled in online courses actually completed the entire class, as compared to almost 70% of classes taught face-to-face. Additionally, while there has a rapid increase in the adoption of online courses, some scholars speculate that demand for such courses may soon plateau as the supply of online courses meets the demand. 

Ultimately, distance education and online learning have become a disruptive force in academia, but the degree and affect of this technology of this  is something that will continue to be monitored in the future. 

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