By: – Associate Editor, BostInno

More than 7.1 million students are taking at least one online course. Yet, although the need and necessity for lifelong learning is clear, the textbook definition of a “student” is becoming increasingly blurry — equally as fast as the field is evolving.

As Penn Foster CEO Frank Britt noted, “In the age of virtual classrooms, unlimited by space or time, education is becoming more and more accessible — and affordable.” The benefits have continued attracting the masses latching on to online learning, whether to further their career or further themselves.

VirtualClassRoomResearch surfaced in mid-2012 painting the picture of today’s average online learner: A white, 33-year-old female with a full-time job that pays roughly $65,000 per year. Her aspirations gravitate toward those of the world’s most prosperous business magnates, and she is looking for a way to quickly advance in her current career.

Now, the description differs by platform and case. Local online learning nonprofit edX just released working papers on 17 of its courses, stating the most typical registrant overall was a male with a bachelor’s degree, age 26 or older. Given it’s a massive open online course rather than a degree-granting one, however, that profile still only describes 31 percent of students enrolled.

Whether a massive open online platform or university-sponsored, accredited one, online students tend to share several similarities, particularly their motivation for taking to the Internet to learn, such as:

The Drive to Further Their Current CareerHow-To-Minimize-Distractions

For individuals slaving away at full-time jobs, online learning provides an opportunity for them to get ahead, yet around their own schedule. When Brandeis created its Graduate Professional Studies’ program, which offers online master’s degrees, the University ensured it was “flexible” and made with working professionals in mind. There’s no easier way to advance in your chosen field than by educating yourself in that field.

The Need to Find Work-Life Balance

Flexibility is also a perk for individuals heading their household. For parents who dream of going back to school, yet have a family full of alternating schedules they need to coordinate around, online education provides the work-life balance they crave. Students can learn at their own pace, and when it’s most convenient for them.

The Need for Access

Around the world, lifelong learners crave an education their underserved community might not be able to adequately provide. For thousands, online learning opens up doors previously unimagined and fills the education divide — paving the way for a future once deemed impossible.

The Desire to Test Drive

An added benefit of online courses is that they allow people to test out fields before fully jumping into them. Take Brandeis’s GPS, which allows students to take up to two courses before applying to a degree program without any strings attached. Anyone considering changing fields, but hesitant to make major moves, should engage in, oftentimes, free online education to dFLIPPEdetermine whether or not they’re ready to take the plunge.

As Britt argued, the way we define “students” is changing, and that’s because of the Internet. Education no longer needs to be a luxury of the few, but rather a right of the masses. There’s no typical learner anymore.

To help determine the option that’s right for you, click here

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