I-E-O Online : Understanding Today's Online Student

Concurrent Session 2

Brief Abstract

This study provides a detailed view of current online students and how their personal characteristics interact with learning environments with their success in mind. The study was conducted in the Spring 2017 through a survey of undergraduate students who pursue higher education online and were enrolled at Penn State University World Campus, resulting in 688 qualified respondents.  This study is the first of its kind in online education and provides rich data on demographics, preferences, and practices of today’s online students.  The results challenge traditional thinking, contradict previous studies of online students, and bring a set of recommendations for both researchers and practitioners within the field.


Maeghen L. MacDonald Kuhn is the Assistant Vice President for the Center of Professional Studies at Keuka College. Maeghen's role is responsible for the oversight of the enrollment and administration of Keuka College’s off-campus domestic academic programs (including face-to-face, hybrid, and online) with the view of developing new credit- bearing programs, new non-credit programs, and new delivery formats. Maeghen has previously served in administrative roles such as Assistant Dean at the University of West Florida and Alfred University. Before working in higher education, she worked in Corporate Development at one of the top e-learning companies, Tutor.com. Maeghen completed her PhD in Higher Education at Penn State University with a minor in Adult Education as well as a graduate certificate in Institutional Research. At Penn State she was the Chair of the History of World Campus Project which worked to provide the first comprehensive narrative of the development of a successful online education program, as well as the graduate assistant for the Center of Online Innovations in Learning. Maeghen's research is grounded in online and adult education, while also focusing on student success and higher education leadership.

Extended Abstract

This study focused on four research questions that applied Astin’s I-E-O model to the responses of the 688 qualified survey participants from Penn State’s World Campus.  The research questions include: (1) What input characteristics are highly correlated with online students’ educational environments for a desired outcome of 3.0 GPA or higher? (2) What input characteristics are highly correlated with online students’ educational environments for a negative outcome of a 2.0 GPA or lower? (3) How similar or different are online students based on environmental preferences regarding their input profile and levels of success? (4) To what extent is online students’ satisfaction with online courses highly correlated with their achievement? 

Despite the research questions providing insight into the relationships of variables or lack thereof, the study found that there is a bigger and even more important story to be told from the data.  The basic and descriptive analysis of the sample provides a larger view of the online student population of today.  From these findings, a profile based on the most common responses of today’s online student can be developed across demographics, preferences, and outcomes.  Today’s online student is female, in the age range of 25 to 39 years of age, an American student, white, non-military, not eligible for ADA, married with zero dependents and lives with a partner, family, and/or children.  They have a GPA of 3.0 or higher and take at least 12 credits per semester while working full-time and at least 30 hours per week in the field they are not currently studying. They have a household income of $50,000 to $74,999 dollars per year and use a combination of debt to pay for school.  They also have previous college experience, with an average former GPA of at least a 3.0, and typically complete less than 30 credits at former institutions.  They pursue education completely online and prefer to do so with zero credits completed residentially.  Students do not utilize tutoring, advisors, or engage with faculty and prefer a lower level of interaction with both students and faculty in their studies.  Students most prefer individual work, moving at their own pace, and deadlines, they least prefer group work, presentations, and papers as assignments.

Some of these findings were similar to those of Kolowich (2012) and Clinefelter and Aslanian (2014) which both found that the average online student is a Caucasian female in the same age range and working full-time.  However, these findings align better with those of Kolowich (2012) who stated they are working full-time and have a household income of $65,000.  Clinefelter and Aslanian (2014) found they also work full-time but with a household income of less than $40,000.  Clinefelter and Aslanian (2015) also had findings much different than this study within the variables of marital status, employment status, and military classification.   Clinefelter and Aslanian (2015) stated that many students did not have outside responsibilities including their work status as only employed full-time (44%), single (54%), veterans (5%), and active duty military (2%).  This study has found a different result: online students here have many outside responsibilities including working full-time (55.59%) or at least 31 hours per week (72.14%), married, engaged, or in a committed relationship (65.26%), veterans (11.09%), and currently serving in the military (4.29%).  These similarities and differences generalized representations of the online student.  However, these data also suggests diversity among online students as well.

Bell and Federman (2013) stated that cost and SES are both barriers to online education. However, this study found that there were equitable distributions of household income across the range of $0 to $150,000 dollars per year and is used as a proxy for a student’s SES.  It could be that cost and SES status are preventing a higher number of those students from being represented in online education or higher education as a whole.  However, from the view of this sample, lower SES is just as represented as those with a mid or high level SES.  Particularly when evaluating the differences of those GPA groups of below 2.0 or above a 3.0 there was not much variation; those with a GPA below a 2.0 even had a greater percentage of representation in the $100,000 to $149,999 dollars per year range.  The variable of household income did not have any significant relationships with outcome variables of either GPA or satisfaction, suggesting that SES may not be as big of a barrier as literature has previously suggested.

Even though these data provided the ability to construct a profile from the largest groupings of respondents, it is also worth noting the diversity of each variable from the study.  Students span a wide range of characteristics, including age, region, marital status, hours worked per week, annual household income, financial aid status, former college completion credits, number of credits completed online, average credits taken per semester, and satisfaction of online learning.  The wide range of responses in these categories provide for a diverse sample.  However, even across these differences, a sizeable majority of online undergraduate students have similar preferences about interaction with tutors, advisors, faculty, other students, and assignment preferences.  These findings show there is not just one type of student pursuing online education, and that many of their successes cannot be predicted by their inputs or environment.

The study was able to make recommendations for practitioners and researchers in many areas of higher education including marketing, student services, recruiting, and pedagogy.  While also prompting questions for further research including a challenge to popular adult and online education theory Community of Inquiry. This study sought to find commonalities of those who are successful and satisfied in online education and while no strong evidence was found to connect these pieces, a bigger story was discovered.  No study before has researched student preferences of assignments and interactions with peers, faculty, and student services.  This study has provided a foundation for future research and practices of online education to better serve, graduate, and satisfy online students.  As online education is expected to experience continued growth at the undergraduate level, administrators, policymakers, instructors, and educators of all kind should be curious, invested, and open-minded to the ways online students are contributing to change in educational practices and policies.  Students are no longer preferring residential course work in which they speak to instructors regularly, work in teams to meet a goal, and pursue education on a full-time basis.  Students have families, jobs, and debt competing to be the main priority.  In order to continue to graduate and attract students to higher education, online education has to be able to meet the needs of these students by investing in understanding their needs, preferences, and outcomes on a deeper level and creating utilizable resources for them.