When Susan asked me to speak to your class, of course, I agreed. Here was an opportunity to learn from and share with other educators perceptions regarding the experience of teaching and learning online. Within a short time of my saying yes, reality set in. What topic should we explore? How should I organize my material? My questions soon turned to the students in this special online community that Susan had asked me to join (of course - that is you). Who are you? Where are you from? What do you do?  What are your needs? How do you learn? What motivates you?

With the help of Susan, I began to create a profile of the learners in this class. The process of profiling the students in this online class facilitated my ability to prepare for our discussion and to identify opportunities for creating collaboration and community.  The following discussion explores the profiling your online students in terms of the following: (1) demographics, (2) access and location, (3) social and communication needs, (4) psychological characteristics, and (5) cognitive learning styles.

I. Profiling – Demographics

First, demographic data relevant to your course can serve as a foundation for course construction.  Data regarding your students’ gender, age, and employment status can provide valued insight into how to plan the course and schedule key activities.  Resources, such as the Illinois Virtual Campus (http://www.ivc.illinois.edu), release demographic information regarding all students enrolled in Illinois online courses and may serve as a starting point for your demographic data collection.

 II. Profiling – Location and Access

Second, obtaining profile data related to your students’ backgrounds with online learning and how  your students will access your online course is essential to your ability to effectively design web pages and course communications that students can easily download, read, and interact with. This information also provides some insight into what technical support your students might require.  In a research report issued by eCollege.com (Report #99-176) in 1999, online students typically have little experience with online learning but are comfortable with basic computer skills:

  • 78% of online students are taking an online course for the first time.
  • 62% of online students are novice to intermediate computer users.
What assumptions are you making about your students’ prior experience with online learning or their ability to access your course? You may wish to survey your students regarding the following key areas:
  • What experiences do your students have with online learning?
  • From what location will your students access your course?
  • Do your students have access to a reliable Internet connection?
  • What software and hardware are available to your students to access your course?

III. Profiling – Social and Communication Needs

Third, profiling social characteristics of your online students and what they typically express as needs for relationships and communications as part of a learning experience will facilitate your ability to design and deliver course content in a meaningful manner. The Chronicle of Higher Education (August 27, 1999) reported the following characteristics of freshmen entering institutions of higher education in the United States:

  • 83.5% of incoming freshmen report that studying with other students is part of their normal study habits
  • 54.2% of incoming freshmen have participated in Internet chat
Social Learning Stages: Case studies in online learning reveal that, typically, new online students progress through a series of Social Learning Stages as part of any course. The stages are reflected on the following diagram:

social learning stages in an online course progress through prepare to interact to share to cooperate to develop to the final level of community in a triangular diagram

IV. Profiling – Psychological Characteristics

The fourth area area that is meaningful to profile is your assumptions related to your students’ personalities, fears, and sources of motivation. Your assumptions impact how you communicate with your students and how you will provide motivation and support during the course.

The Chronicle of Higher Education (August 27, 1999) reported the following attitudes of entering freshmen:

  • 37.7% of incoming college freshmen report that they are often bored in class
  • 29.6% of incoming college freshmen feel overwhelmed by their workload
  • 49.8% of incoming college freshmen consider recognition from colleagues essential or very important
What assumptions are you making about your students’ attitudes and psychological characteristics? You may choose to organize your assumptions around the following areas suggested by John Keller in Motivation in Teaching and Learning: New Directions for Teaching and Learning:
  • Attention – What best captures your students’ attention?
  • Relevance – What do your students see as relevant to their personal and career goals?
  • Confidence – Where do your students lack confidence? What fears do they have regarding their skills or abilities?
  • Satisfaction – What do your students perceive as a positive learning experience?
V. Profiling – Cognitive Learning Styles

The fifth area that is meaningful to profile relates to the preferred learning style of your online students. Several instruments have been created, both print and web-based, to collect and communicate information to students about their preferred style of learning. Data in this area supports your ability to adapt your instruction to your unique students’ needs and styles. One such instrument is the DVC Learning Style Survey for College (c. 2000 Catherine Jester and Suzanne Miller, Diablo Valley College, for Educational Uses Only).  The web-based survey is available at: http://www.metamath.com//lsweb/dvclearn.htm. The instrument measures preferences in the Four Learning Styles:

    • Visual-Verbal Learning Style

    • The visual - verbal learners learn best when information is presented visually and in a written language format. Students benefit from information that is well organized, with essential points highlighted or outlined. Learners easily obtain information from printed resources. Learners often picture their notes and printed pages in their mind when they need to remember something.
    • Visual-Nonverbal Learning Style

    • The visual - nonverbal learner learns best when information is presented visually and in a picture or design format. Learners benefit from information that is supported with graphics and movement. Learners easily obtain information from diagrams, charts and maps. Learners often replay a "movie" in their mind when they need to remember something.
    • Auditory-Verbal Learning Style

    • The auditory - verbal learner learns best when information is presented in oral language format. Learners are good listeners and benefit from information that is communicated through dialogue and discussion. Learners easily obtain information from audiotapes and group discussions. Learners often replay a sound cue (music, tone of voice, or the way they previously stated the information out loud) when they need to remember something.
    • Tactile-Kinesthetic Learning Style

    • The tactile - kinesthetic learner learns best when physically engaged in a "hands-on" activity. Learners benefit from situations that provide objects and variables that can be manipulated. Learners easily obtain information from their environment. Learners often picture their surroundings and replay a physical cue (temperature, texture) when they need to remember something.
Closing Remarks

A job aide, designed to facilitate the application of the concepts introduced in the previous discussion, is available by clicking on the following link: Online Student Profile of Assumptions.

Thank you for allowing me to be a part of your online learning experience. I look forward to sharing our thoughts, insights, and questions.

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