Technology

Students’ Rising Expectations Pose Challenge to Online Programs

June 20, 2017

A new survey of students’ attitudes toward online education highlights their rising expectations of colleges in a market that is growing increasingly competitive. The students expect fast answers to their questions about financial aid and whether their credits will transfer; they expect to search for courses on their mobile devices and the chance to take the courses themselves on those devices too; and they expect access to colleges’ career-assistance services.

The survey results and an accompanying report, released on Tuesday, also suggest that students’ demands for convenience may come at an academic price.

Many online students prefer courses compressed into six- to eight-week terms, and that model has become more common in the online-education world. But in many cases, the survey findings show, the time those students spend in class and on assignments falls far short of U.S. Department of Education guidelines for awarding credit.

The report on the survey, "Online College Students: Comprehensive Data on Demands and Preferences," found that nearly half of students met in classes of eight weeks’ duration or less. Under Education Department guidelines, which are designed to ensure students don’t collect more in federal aid than they are entitled to, that should translate into students’ spending at least 16 hours a week per course in class and on their out-of-class assignments.

But the survey found that only 20 percent of students taking courses of eight weeks’ duration or less spent that much time.

The report, from Aslanian Market Research and a company called Learning House, which manages online programs for colleges, recommends that colleges review their course design to "ensure that online courses are creditworthy."

A co-author of the report said in an interview that the student-workload issue is probably not unique to online courses. "It’s an issue that’s true for all of higher ed," said David L. Clinefelter, a longtime academic at private and for-profit universities and, until recently, chief academic officer at Learning House.

He noted that the authors of the 2011 book Academically Adrift had also found students were not spending as much time on their coursework as their professors expected.

Inflated Credits

But because the problem is more acute with courses offered in a condensed format, and such formats are more common in online-education programs, he acknowledged that the issue is particularly salient for colleges deep into distance education.

"If you’re going to shorten your course, you’ve got to be careful that you have the requisite amount of work," said Mr. Clinefelter. In the past, accreditors and colleges have faced scrutiny for inflating the credits they awarded for online programs.

The survey, which is one of the few that sample distance-education students, was based on responses from 1,454 past, current, and prospective online students. It also found that:

  • Students are realizing they should be more demanding; 23 percent said they wished they had contacted more colleges before making their choice.
  • Mobile devices are playing an increasingly important role; 80 percent used a mobile device when searching for online courses, and 40 percent use one to view their online content.
  • Online students are also interested in synchronous experiences; 86 percent said they would be willing to log in at a set time to join a discussion at least once per course.
  • Career services matter even to students who are not on a campus; three-quarters of students said they had access to the services and 77 percent used them.

"This is a tough audience," said Mr. Clinefelter.

The report also includes a number of recommendations designed to help colleges better position themselves. Among them: Because a majority of online students make their decisions on where to attend within four weeks, colleges that can provide an unofficial transfer-credit evaluation before an application is submitted, as well as more information about potential financial-aid awards, might have a market advantage.

Goldie Blumenstyk writes about the intersection of business and higher education. Check out www.goldieblumenstyk.com for information on her new book about the higher-education crisis; follow her on Twitter @GoldieStandard; or email her at goldie@chronicle.com.