Characteristics of online learners

Online learners are a diverse group, and while many online learners also attend classes on campus, there are a cluster of characteristics, traits, and preferences that figure more prominently in this group of learners as a whole. Understanding the range of characteristics, some of the common reasons students are motivated to take online courses, and what common barriers they face, provide useful insight as you step into facilitating online.

Who are online learners?

Group of diverse learners

There is some evidence that there are consistent differences between learners who choose in-person courses relative to those who choose online courses (Roddy et al., 2017; Bailey et al., 2014). Online learners comprise a somewhat older and a more mature population, typically ranging from about 25–50 years old (Moore & Kearskey, 2005). They can bring rich life experience to the online course (Bostin & Ice, 2011; O’Shea et al., 2015), but they also have more commitments outside their academic life, such as busy work schedules, that can pose a challenge for these students (Greenland & Moore, 2014). Some online learners are completing their entire degree remotely and could be living many time zones away, while others are local and taking on-campus courses or are in a co-op work-term.

One of the main reasons students choose to take courses online is the flexibility that the online format provides (Bolliger & Martindale, 2004; Braun, 2008; Troop, White, Wilson, & Zeni, 2020), which enables students to learn from just about anywhere and at their own pace. This is why asynchronous formats are so widely used, as synchronous formats such as live stream lectures and virtual classrooms require students to be online at a given time, reducing some of the flexibility that they value in their online courses.

Because there is a shift to asynchronous methods in online courses, a greater degree of self-regulation, self-motivation, metacognition, and self-direction is required of online students (Brown, 1997; Tsay et al., 2000; Khiat, 2015; Kırmızı, 2015; Johnson, 2015). Not all students realize how difficult this aspect of online learning can be; however, online facilitators can have a big impact on student motivation, persistence, metacognition, and academic outcomes (Muilenburg & Berge, 2005; Jaggars & Xu, 2016).

includes formats that are not live. Students can interact with content, assessments, and/or facilitators and peers in their own time, rather than at a specific time. Asynchronous design typically still includes deadlines, but students are given a window of time.
includes live formats. Students are required to interact with content, assessments, and/or facilitators and peers at a specific set time.

Online student strategies and barriers to success

Given the amount of flexibility and control online learners have over their learning, they must take responsibility for their own learning. Adopting effective learning strategies is a positive predicter of higher grades (NSSE, 2013).  However, online facilitators very much contribute to student success (Hughes, 2014).  In the following units we’ll explore this important role more closely and provide you with strategies and approaches that contribute to student success.

Strategies that online learners use to succeed

Alan Roper (2007) groups learning strategies used by online students into seven categories, encouraging them to

  • Use proven time management techniques,
  • Use online discussions to their advantage,
  • Find ways to apply course concepts,
  • Delve deeper into the content by asking questions,
  • Motivate themselves to keep going,
  • Provide useful feedback to the instructor on instructional strategies, and
  • Forge connections with virtual classmates

Supplementary Resource

To learn more about each of these strategies so you can better guide students, check out Alan Roper’s article here:

Common barriers for online learners

In a larger-scale factor analysis study, Muilenburg and Berge (2005) identified eight barriers to student success in online courses:

  • administrative issues,
  • social interaction,
  • academic skills,
  • technical skills,
  • learner motivation,
  • time and support for studies,
  • cost and access to the Internet, and
  • technical problems.

As will be outlined in the following units, the facilitator can have a significant impact on helping students to overcome these barriers (Lovitts & Nelson, 2000; Beaudoin, 2002; Muilenburg, & Berge, 2005; Dennen, 2008; Oomen-Early & Murphy, 2009; Joyner et al., 2014; Jaggars & Xu, 2016; Roddy et al., 2017).

Student mental health

'Engagement, Community' arrow and 'well-being' arrow on same trajectory upwards

Another important issue to consider here is the possibility that during the term some students, in both in-person and online courses, will experience a disruption to their mental health and wellness, such as anxiety, depression, or an exacerbation of a pre-existing condition during the term. While many of the principles around student mental health and wellness that have been explored in the on-campus context apply to the online learning context, identifying and offering support to online students, who may not be local, poses additional challenges. In Unit 3: student-facilitator interaction we provide more detailed guidance on identifying students at risk and addressing mental health and wellness issues. Most of the approaches and strategies we suggest throughout this resource to enhance student engagement, interactions, presence, and a sense of community also positively contribute to student well-being.

Accessibility online

If you are creating learning materials, resources, or experiences (e.g., labs or tutorials) for your online course, it is important to remember that some of your students may be hearing or visually impaired and video is not an accessible format. If you have included a video in the course (e.g., asynchronous presentation, demo, or announcement) or a virtual classroom session (e.g., synchronous tutorial) you may be required to provide a transcript and/or verbal description of what is being displayed in a video.

Synchronous sessions are particularly problematic, as some students will not be able to join the session due to Internet limitations (i.e., streaming video has a high bandwidth requirement and uses a lot of data if students are relying on a mobile device) or technology limitations (e.g., students may not have a camera or mic). If you do plan to host synchronous sessions in the course, 

  • provide an alternative for students who cannot make it to the session (e.g., record the video session); and
  • do not require or force students to turn their video on, as this can be a real privacy violation, as the camera shows not just them, but also their home, which may not be a quiet or safe space or something they feel comfortable broadcasting to you and their peers.

Strategies for creating accessible alternatives to video and synchronous sessions

  • Video recording of a synchronous session (may require text alternative - transcript and/or visual description)
  • Written summary of a synchronous session (e.g., summary of a discussion, questions asked and answered, information shared and/or concluded)
  • Alternative participation, activities, and assessments should be made available to students who cannot participate in a synchronous session, especially if they include a graded component (e.g., participation grade or graded activity/assessment). Students should have the opportunity to submit at a later date/time for grading or feedback or support. For example, if a synchronous session is centred around a theoretical debate or a discussion, a student who cannot attend/participate in the live session could submit a summary of the discussion and some of their own thoughts, points, and reflections in order to receive a participation grade.

Supplementary Resource

You can find some further guidance around synchronous/asynchronous approaces here:



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