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What does an online student look like?

The question may seem silly or trivial, but a lot rides on it. Colleges make choices about how to organize classes, which registration protocols to follow, how to structure semesters, and how to deliver advising -- among other things -- based on what they think the online student wants. 

In the community college world, it’s easy to guess a few characteristics. The online student is usually female. That isn’t surprising; the typical community college student is female. (For that matter, the typical American undergraduate student is female. But that’s another post.)  She’s usually over 25, and often a parent. Again, that’s not terribly different from the typical community college student.

If you believe that the typical online student is very much like the traditional campus student, then you’d make certain choices. You’d probably keep the semester schedule, just because you’ve already built your various systems around it.  You’d move toward relatively structured pathways to graduation, restricting student choice in order to prevent poor choices, wasted credits, and unnecessary debt. 

If you believe that the typical online student is more purely a creature of the web and its culture, though, you’d make very different choices. You’d want short courses, multiple points of entry, maximum choice, and minimal structure. You would accept student “swirl” as a fact of life, and pride yourself on accommodating it. If students today want to take online classes from multiple providers and assemble them later into a degree -- or not -- then your job is to give them that. To paraphrase Mencken, give the customers what they want, and give it to them good and hard.

Both models are internally consistent. Each makes sense on its own terms. Each relies on its own distinct vision of what “the online student” is, and how she behaves.

And they’re both sort of wrong.

At a basic level, the typical online student at a community college isn’t only an online student. She’s also taking classes on campus at the same time. Most “online” students are, in fact, hybrid students. They might take classes two or three days a week, and use online classes to fill out their schedules while leaving room for work and family obligations. 

That’s counterintuitive in some ways. Part of the point of online teaching is breaking the link to geography. But community colleges are intensely local institutions. Their reputations are usually strong within, say, an hour’s drive of campus; most are relatively unknown beyond that.  In states in which community colleges are defined by “districts” or counties, with differential tuition reflecting the presence of local government funding, the place-less nature of online teaching raises some difficult theoretical questions. At this point, though, they’re still mostly theoretical; even the purely online students usually pick a college within an hour of where they live. 

That fact, by iself, would seem to argue for the “like the traditional campus student” model. Certainly it suggests that running different semesters (or quarters, or whatever) alongside each other in parallel would be likely to lead to confusion and vastly increased errors on the back-office operational side. 

But it’s also true that people have different expectations online.  Part of the appeal of online classes for students is precisely that they’re different. And to the extent that a given college’s online offerings include both the hybrid and the “purely” online student, tying down online options to mimicry of what happens on campus seems unnecessarily crimped. 

Institutions with outsize resources can solve the dilemma by simply doing both. Southern New Hampshire runs campus-based classes, but also has a separate online division with its own staff.  Students can mix and match, but each area only does one thing. That’s a nifty model if you can afford to pay for parallel staffs.  If you can’t -- and most community colleges can’t -- then buying your way out of the dilemma isn’t an option.

In my perfect world, we’d take the presence of the hybrid student as a cue to develop a hybrid model. I’ve heard students wax rhapsodic about great classroom courses they’ve taken, but I’ve never heard them enthuse about waiting in line at the Bursar’s office. To the extent that functions like those can move online, every kind of student stands to benefit.  

Pedagogically, hybrid or blended courses have shown the best results, but students tend not to take them if they have any other options. If we cleave online from onsite, that will remain true. 

I’m thinking that the future belongs not to either model alone, but to the folks who best figure out how to harness the best of each. Students are already doing that.  Maybe we should, too.

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