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Evolve Analysis: Student Perception of the Benefits of Online Courses

May 15, 2014

The Evolve Conference sponsored by the Michelson 20 Million Minds Foundation brought together students, faculty, administrators and policy-makers to discuss what is required for online education to help students succeed. In the introductory post to this series we described how the conference format was unique in its inclusion of students in every panel. In the first analysis post we described the unacceptable status quo and need to focus on student success. In the second analysis post we described the need for student support services, and not just the availability of online classes, to ensure student success. In this final post we will tackle the subject of what students perceive as the benefits of online courses.

Consistent Theme: Flexibility

Students at the conference consistently described the primary benefit of online courses to be flexibility – anywhere, anytime – which was particularly important for those trying to get a degree while working. This theme was often expressed in terms such as “allowed me to get my degree” or “couldn’t have succeeded without it.”

There were other benefits mentioned, but they appeared to be secondary to the flexibility issue. One benefit worth mentioning is that the online environment actually improved one student’s ability to overcome his natural introversion and become much more connected in class and with campus communities. One other benefit was the exploration of different instructional models.

Taken together, these benefits all point to the perceived value of online courses as an important supplement to traditional face-to-face education rather than a replacement. Even in the case of fully-online programs, these were perceived as appropriate for a student with a family and a full-time job – not as the model for everyone. More often, individual online courses supplemented face-to-face courses in a manner allowing self-motivated students to overcome obstacles and succeed in getting their degrees.

This theme of online courses providing anywhere, anytime flexibility is consistent with other studies. We at MindWires Consulting have seen this student sentiment through focus groups and surveys at specific colleges and universities – with the flexibility benefits often rated as important by twice as many students as any other benefit.

LearningHouse commissioned a market research firm to for a nationwide study of 1,500 former, current and future online students, and they found similar results (p. 23):

Online benefits LearningHouse

Select Video Segments

NOTE: No sample of 8 students can be fully representative of the diverse student populations in US higher education. The Evolve students were particularly self-motivated and engaged.

Joe Renteria started a company doing computer repairs, is good at IT, and has a family. When the economy tanked, he had to close down his company. While still working to support his family, Renteria turned to the University of Phoenix Online to get his bachelor’s degree.

Lewis Luartz’ father lost his job while Luartz was an undergraduate at UC Riverside, meaning that he had to work while taking classes.

Luartz: During that time my father was unemployed, so I had to work throughout my undergraduate career to help support both my family and myself . . . To be honest, the only reason I probably finished within four years was because during high school I had decided to take online classes from Cal State University at Dominguez Hills. There was a high school program . . . It got rid of a few GE requirements, and I was able to take on a second major, just because I was on time.

Melody Darden came from south-central LA and needed to work hard to get herself and her younger siblings out of a dangerous situation.

I was able to obtain my BS degree – I was working full-time and taking online classes. Thanks to the University of Phoenix [online program], I was able to get my education, take care of my younger siblings, and still accomplish being able to get my career going.

Nancy Aparicio grew up with the family belief that you had to get a college education to get a better job. But with a single mother, she had to work during college to make financial ends meet.


I had to obtain a part-time job, and that was where I was introduced to online classes. Unfortunately, some were fantastic and let me do what I had to do to get by financially, but there were some classes that did hinder me in the sense that they caused more stress, or they didn’t allow me to have the one-on-one opportunity that I would have had if I had an instructor with a classroom full of peers.

Aside from that, I do believe that online classes allowed me to graduate in 5 years instead of 5.5 years.

Devon Graves is the first-generation to attend a four-year university within his family.

Dwayne Mason highlighted the difference between his high school experience and college experience as an African-American male and an openly gay male. Due to his introversion, he has found a more natural sense of building community by using digital tools and online education.

Mason: I’ve been more of an introverted kid, I was on a lot of online forums. . . . I’ve always been someone who’s confided a lot in that digital world when I didn’t feel like I had the strength or the ability to really speak in the real world.

Co-moderator Isa Adney asked whether the students would recommend to their peers to take online classes. There were some qualified answers:

  • Yes, especially for working students.
  • Yes, if you are self-motivated, organized and know your strengths.

Adney also asked the group of students whether, all things being equal including convenience, would they take online classes again. Only two people raised their hands. The general reason described was convenience and flexibility of scheduling.

Pat James, recently retired from Mt. San Jacinto College, had an interesting story of her experience as a student with online courses. After getting married, having children, but then getting divorced, James turned to education to move forward.

James: I did my masters fully online, and by doing that I doubled my pay within about five minutes after I completed my degree. If it had not been online I would not have been able to do it. But there’s a huge difference between being a graduate student online and being a community college student online.

Final Thoughts

We would like to thank the 20 Million Minds Foundation again for sponsoring this conference and for leading the effort to hear more directly from students. The insights we gain from direct conversations is invaluable.


The above post–pertaining to developments in the education technology space of mutual interest to the Michelson Twenty Million Minds Foundation, Inc. and MindWires Consulting–represent the opinions and views of the designated authors, Phil Hill and Michael Feldstein, who maintain editorial independence.