Potential Online students have significantly different top tasks

Potential Online students: Top Task survey

We recently carried out a Top Task Identification project for a College with our partner Bob Johnson, surveying visitors for their top tasks on the College website.

The 1,545 respondents included potential students considering Online learning, and potential students considering ‘traditional’ on-campus learning.

The responses confirmed previous findings that costs and affordability are by far the top concerns of potential Online students. Bob has written two short blogs summarizing the main findings:

Increasing importance of potential Online students

The results also clearly showed that there are significant differences in the top tasks of potential Online students versus more traditional campus-based students. Given the growth and increasing importance of Online learning to higher education (it’s probably critical to the survival of many institutions), these findings should be used to prioritize navigation, search and content of any higher education website targeting potential online students.

Higher education websites must prioritize the top tasks of potential Online students.

Career outcomes? That’s why I’ve gone back to school.

Traditional students often want to know about the potential career paths and salaries of any given program—especially if they are high school students with little or no work experience. The survey results confirmed this: potential on-campus students ranked ‘Career advancement and outcomes’ high, potential Online students ranked it much lower.

This suggests that potential Online students already know about career outcomes. This makes sense if they are adults intending to take an Online course while still working. In fact, the outcome may have been the motivation for the online learning: “I need to work on my leadership skills if I want promotion” or “I need to fill in gaps in my expertise” or “I want to change careers” for example.

For Online students, career outcomes are less important: they often have an outcome already in mind when choosing Online learning.

On a related note, potential on-campus students ranked ‘Career advice’ much higher than did potential Online students.

How does ‘Online’ fit into my life?

Traditional students commit to college or university, usually full-time, with expectations of a relatively fixed number of years. For potential Online students, things are less clear, and study has to be flexible; various aspects have to be coaxed to fit into the student’s life.

As a result, there are a cluster of related tasks that are much more important to potential Online students than to potential on-campus students.

Transfer of credits

Potential Online students ranked this task very highly, whereas, for on-campus students, this was in the lower half of their priorities. This issue increasingly includes credits for work experience.

Program completion time

Again, this turned out to be much more important to potential Online students than for on-campus students. Completion time is clearer for on-campus students. Potential Online students need to know how the program can fit into their lives, including how life events might impact—usually delay—completion. They need to know if they can pick it up again later if they have to drop out.

Course schedule

Probably seeking to add more detail to Program completion time, potential Online students gave a high ranking to the Course Schedule compared to the ranking by on-campus students.

Experienced students thinking of Online learning are also likely to be aware that working and collaborating online requires more discipline and good communications skills than working in a shared physical environment. They will therefore be more concerned to know how the Online program and classroom will work: How is collaboration supported? What support is there if I struggle?

Prioritize practical information about how Online learning can integrate flexibly into a working student’s life.

Campus visit? No – your reputation matters more

A campus visit has typically been high amongst the top tasks of ‘traditional’ potential students (and parents). Not too surprisingly, our potential Online students are not interested in visiting the campus – they ranked Campus Visit as #48 out of 54 tasks.

The physical campus, libraries, laboratories, facilities and equipment, plus campus life, are all less relevant to potential Online students—the digital equivalents are more relevant. On a campus visit, potential students can judge the physical evidence of your culture and budgetary and academic priorities.

For potential Online students, though, your reputation matters more. They ranked Accreditation information seven places higher than potential on-campus students did.

Summary: Prioritize content to match changing customer needs

One mistake many organizations make is to assume that a website’s Information Architecture is unchanging. But—like any other aspect of communications and engagement—it must match users’ needs, and must therefore evolve as needs change. Visitors’ tasks change in priority, so existing content must be refreshed, new content created, out-of-date content removed, and higher priority content made easier to find through navigation and through (internal and external) search.

We are in a time of unprecedented change in higher education, and increased competition means that organizations must react quickly to the changing needs of the customers. This includes your website Information Architecture.

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