Who are your online students?

In the past, online courses were sometimes called “degree completion,” reflecting the idea that they were for students who, for some reason or other, couldn’t finish their degrees in person–and were for no one else. Too often, faculty attitudes toward these programs and students was disdain. If there was an occasional gem of a student, the assumption was still that somehow they were at fault for their life getting “off track” (that is, off the path of high school–>college).

The time for that attitude is long past.

Still think of online classes as correspondence courses? Cassette tapes of professors lecturing that you buy from a catalog?

Above, a painting of a wealthy young man sitting at a table covered with a beautiful cloth, writing a letter by hand. The window is open, and behind him are a globe and a painting in a gold frame. Man Writing a Letter by Man Writing a Letter by Gabriël Metsu, 1664-66

Today, online courses serve students who need the flexibility of online learning–yes, including some students who started in person and then moved online, though I also teach many students who toggle back and forth between online and in person and some who started online and realized it wasn’t for them.

In my classes, they include

  • military spouses (who move around a lot–so I often have students living on bases in other countries)
  • those who serve as caretakers for ill or disabled parents or partners or adult children
  • those with young children
  • people with disabilities that prevent them from coming to campus (No, this should not be the case, but, yes, I fully trust my students when they say that it is.)
  • those on bedrest with pregnancy complications
  • those with chronic illnesses that would interrupt regular attendance
  • those with compromised immune systems (often due to cancer treatment)
  • those working swing shift or unpredictable hours
  • those working full-time jobs that occur during the school day, like public school paraprofessionals

Fewer than 1 out of 100 of my online students could be considered “traditional” (18-25, unmarried and without children, attending full-time, and without other full-time responsibilities, like a 40-hour week job). Even at a university that serves a high percent of nontraditional students, the students in our fully-online degree program are unusually busy with life beyond the classroom.

I love teaching this population, for lots of reasons–including the fact that they likely wouldn’t be in college if they couldn’t be an online student. (So, no, online classes are not “poaching” your F2F classes.)

The coming semesters, though, present a challenge to this. We’re likely to be out-of-the-classroom for the summer and perhaps the fall. When students next enroll, most online classes will include a mix of students who would have been enrolling in online classes anyway and those who would prefer F2F. Even at the same university, they are likely to be demographically really different.

For my colleagues who will teach this more diverse group of students, I encourage you to learn about online andragogy now. For students who are suddenly finding that their idea of “college student” was pretty narrow, I encourage you to embrace it.

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