ACM Logo  An ACM Publication  |  CONTRIBUTE  |  FOLLOW    

You Think You Know Online Learners? Think Again

By Jill Cross / August 2014

Print Email
Comments Instapaper

Did you know that 83 percent of individuals interested in continuing education opportunities took an online course in 2013? Or that 68 percent of your learning audience is over the age of 40?* There's a major shift happening in online continuing education, yet many organizations find themselves tied to an old way of thinking about their content, delivery, and audience. They fail to recognize it's that very shift that demands a keen understanding of their users and how they prefer to learn.

InReach, a continuing education solution provider, recently conducted a survey to uncover the wants and preferences of online learners. More than 5,000 legal professionals, who participate in corporate continuing education programs, were polled. Our findings, which are shared within, can help identify the key factors that make up a successful online program in the eyes of your most important audience—your customer.

Who is Your Audience?

When it comes to providing any kind of continuing education, be it online or in-person, knowing your audience is a top priority. For years, companies have operated under the assumption that interest in online courses skews toward younger professionals—namely, millennials—while older generations still prefer to attend in-person events for their continuing education needs. That's not the case at all. On-demand courses, webinars, self-study, and podcasts are no longer just for younger generations. In fact, only 32 percent of online learners are under the age of 40.

In the last several years, the content many organizations provide online has caught the attention of an entirely new subset of employees, members, and industry professionals who previously looked to other methods for professional learning.

What do They Want?

It might go without saying, but content is king in online learning. When deciding on an online learning provider, 78 percent of people look to the specific information included in the course; it's incredibly important to put time into developing useful, informative, well-defined content and making sure its presentation quality is top notch. This holds especially true when looking at the over 40 audience; nearly 80 percent of that group looks for excellent content above all else.

But it's more than just what you say; it's also about how you say it. Two-thirds of online learners believe the quality of instruction is almost as important as the content itself. This means you should develop clear, easy-to-understand audio, sharp video and images, and presentations that are well organized and easy for the learner to comprehend.

What may surprise you is that learners, especially those under the age of 40, are less concerned about price than they are about content and quality. That's not to say price is irrelevant—most learners get more than half of their continuing education for free, and as a provider, you have to compete with that. But it is worth noting your learners will be more receptive to a higher price if the quality content is there. Remember, if you want users to make an investment in your services, it's important to show you have made an investment in them.

How do Delivery and Format Fit In?

In the past, continuing education programs took place in-person, with individuals gathered together for a day of learning about a broad topic area. Though it proved fruitful for some, many learners disliked the inconvenience of traveling to a live event, and felt that in-person attendance didn't provide enough value for the time spent (only about one-third of people believed they learned better at live events). To combat this, many turned to online platforms for their education. In fact, 83 percent of individuals interested in continuing education took an online course in 2013. That number will only continue to grow, especially as more people gain comfort in participating in online learning programs.

While we know learners prefer online education to live events by 5:1, what are they specifically looking for in an online program? For all ages, convenience is key, meaning on-demand replays of a course or online documents, which can be accessed at will, are preferred over a webinar or webcast streaming. And while podcasts are gaining popularity in pop culture, there's slower adoption among online learners—only 42 percent of learners preferred audio only as a learning method.

When it comes to length, most people are looking for something between 30 minutes and two hours, with the preference leaning to the one- to two-hour time limit. Often, this is due to the fact that professionals prefer to schedule their sessions during weekday lunch breaks, particularly if the event is a live stream.

Understanding these preferences are important; they help set the tone for a truly learner-focused continuing education program. But ultimately, as an organization, you have provided some added value to your members and employees, and have done so in a way that fits their needs. This leaves two questions: How well do you know your learners and their needs? And, are you equipped to meet their expectations? If you know the answers, you are well on your way to creating loyalty and true value for the professionals you serve.


*Data provided in this article is original research conducted by InReach and Edge Research.

About the Author

Jill Cross is responsible for the integrated marketing and communications efforts to build awareness and generate demand for InReach, a continuing education solution provider. Previously, she held positions at OutboundEngine, Blackbaud, Convio, and FXpress Corporation. Her experience includes branding and positioning of products and services to both non-profit and for-profit sectors, public and analyst relations, market research, content marketing, social media, events and strategic corporate partnerships. She holds a bachelor of journalism from The University of Texas at Austin.

Permission to make digital or hard copies of part or all of this work for personal or classroom use is granted without fee provided that copies are not made or distributed for profit or commercial advantage and that copies bear this notice and the full citation on the first page. Copyrights for third-party components of this work must be honored. For all other uses, contact the Owner/Author.

2014 Copyright held by the Owner/Author. 1535-394X/14/08-2662964


  • There are no comments at this time.