Selecting and describing target groups in online, tertiary education

By  Sven Åke Bjørke  April 2014

Online delivery of education – students on campus, students online – aren’t they all the same? Do we have to adapt and customize? Do we have to know each student personally?

Why? Aren’t they just students?

Henry Ford allegedly once said: “You can have the T-ford in any colour you like as long as it is black”. Mr Ford is often regarded as the icon for the era of the assembly line; the modern, industrialised society, with mass production. Charlie Chaplin depicts this era in his movie “Modern times“. The slogan at that time was: produce for the masses in a limitless market. The consumer buys the product available. In short: the modern, industrialised times were producer centred. The education delivered for the industrial society was necessarily teacher centred.

Gradually, the markets became saturated with the mass-produced items. In order to sell more, the producers had to make products adapted to the individual, who wanted to display not just the ability to buy a product, but a special product that helped give him or her an identity. In the postmodern age, the individual to some extent builds his or her identity through the artifacts s/he buys and displays. In the consumer age, the commodities are personalised.

In the “post-modern” times, the producers thus have to identify their ‘clients’; find out about their needs and interests, in order to make a range of tailor-made products. There is a clear shift of interest from production to marketing. In short, in the post-modern times, the focus is on the individual consumer or user.


Internationalization of education

It has been argued that internationalization of education, using ICT and the Internet empowers the learners while the education providers have to meet the users’ needs rather than just transmit a ready-made curriculum of information. Just like businesses, educators have to be more flexible. Again, in short: globalisation of (distance) education entails a reorientation of focus away from the teacher, over to the learner. The learner becomes a kind of customer, asking “what’s in it for me? Why should I take this course?”

The traditional restrictions on what an academic year is, how to accumulate credits, how to modularise a course, quality etc are up for questioning. The global student is no longer a representative of the traditional small elite of middle and upper class males, white, rich, on-campus students aged between 19 and 26.

Students? Teachers? or Both? Teachers and students at Omaha university

Students? Teachers? or Both? Teachers and students at Omaha university

The modern, global students are life-long learners of all races, genders and in the age range between 18 and 90.  As any modern consumers they demand a product (the course) that is flexible, adaptable, widely recognized, portable, interactive, relevant, just in time, to be taken anywhere, a course that respects them as experienced and educated, and last but not least: a course that can be attended to at times convenient to the learner. The course will also contribute to build a profile or identity.

In other words, the more you know about your potential learners, the better you can adapt your course to their needs.


How can knowledge about learners help?

We might be in a better position to:

  • give advice about the most appropriate course according to interests and needs
  • select scope and length of the course
  • select type of course, such as self- instructional or tutor-led
  • select and prepare appropriate learning  resources
  • plan an appropriate student support service
  • decide whether the course should give credits
  • decide level of tutor assistance
  • calculate time needed for the various learning activities


Learner characteristics

  • Estimate how many learners you are going to have: 10 – 100 – 1000 – over 10 000?
  • Age range? Children – teenagers – young adults – adults
  • Gender?
  • Different races and cultures?
  • Disabilities?
  • Likely occupations?
  • Where are the learners staying? In one country or in several?
  • What are their likely motivation(s)?
  • Language proficiency:
    • English as first, second or third language?
    • TOEFL-test or similar necessary – or should automatic “gate tests” be passed to allow access?
  • Experience in online education?
    • Experience in online learning?
    • Should an introductory course to e-learning be arranged?
  • Learning skills and strategies?
  • Will the participant mainly be interested in gaining concrete, practical know-how, or will s/he be more interested in academic and research based theory?
    • if academic theory is the main interest, should the participant take a short course in e.g. academic writing prior to course start?
  • Where, how and when will they be learning?
  • Time available?
  • Any learning style preferences?
  • Do the learners have knowledge, skills and experience in the field already?
  • Supportive partners?


The new realities for course creators

Gone are the days when a university lecturer or a professor simply could find a suitable amount of relevant literature, plan the titles of a string of lectures to ensure progress, and complete the study program with a three days’ exam.

Modern student groups are heterogeneous

Modern student groups are heterogeneous

Today you have to consider whether you want to offer the course internationally or not.

If you choose the internationalized option – which eventually might be the only option – you quickly realise you are competing on a global market.  You inevitably have to ask yourself whether your course is good enough. What kind of quality assurance system does your college or university have? Is the system sufficient? Is the system static or dynamic? A dynamic quality assurance system will provide for continuous improvements. What is good enough – relative to what?

Is there any international standard? The EU tries to develop and implement such a system:

The European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education (ENQA) is an umbrella organisation which represents quality assurance organisations from the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) member states. ENQA promotes European co-operation in the field of quality assurance in higher education and disseminates information and expertise among its members and towards stakeholders in order to develop and share good practice and to foster the European dimension of quality assurance (ENQA, 2014)

Fair enough with the EU, but is this sufficient if we want to attract students from other continents?  According to a recent report by the EU commission to the European Parliament, European higher education faces significant challenges, like a greatly expanding student population; how to raise quality and align teaching and learning more closely to wider societal and labour market needs; adapt to globalisation and the growth in the number of students and institutions across the world. These factors challenge Europe’s position as a world leader in education.

It is seen as important to improve and widen the delivery of higher education by harnessing new technologies such as MOOCs and virtual or blended learning all over the EU area. The EU commission apparently perceives blended learning or massive open online courses (MOOCs), as having the potential to change how education is delivered. Quality assurance “frameworks and institutions need flexibility to support institutions in adopting different modes of innovative course delivery, adapting their concepts of quality and developing new indicators to enable these changes” (EC, 2014).

If the EU actually implements a quality assurance control program, and checks that universities live up to their standards – what consequences might that have for the traditional academic liberty? Norwegian universities might perceive quality standards differently from French and Greek universities. Will these European standards be compatible and/or competitive with American or Chinese standards? Will there be different criteria for online, blended and on-campus course qualities?

There are plenty of issues to discuss. One thing is certain – life is not likely to become less complex for course developers in the coming years.



European  Commission (EC) (2014) Report on Progress in Quality Assurance in Higher Education,

European association for quality assurance in higher education (ENQA) (2014) Promoting the European dimension of quality assurance in higher education, in ENQA,

Gutierrez, K (2015) The 5 Best Ways to Research Your eLearning Course Target Audience

About svenaake

University Teacher.
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