Bridging the Gap for Nontraditional Students with Distance Learning

EpsonDecember 7, 2018

When you think of a “college student,” do you picture a fresh-faced 18-year-old strolling the quad with a backpack? Today, that stereotype may have gone the way of the chalkboard, as more students than ever are deemed “nontraditional students,” commonly defined as those who delayed university enrollment after high school, and often work full-time or have a family.

In fact, nearly 60 percent of the student population can be classified as nontraditional, according to research from the American Council on Education (ACE).

To reach these nontraditional students, successful universities are focusing on the “virtual classroom,” through distance learning offerings that consider the needs and competing priorities of this demographic.

The number of students taking distance learning courses has increased for 14 straight years, topping six million students in 2016, finds a study by Babson Survey Research Group.

Online learning has the potential to improve educational productivity by “accelerating the rate of learning, taking advantage of learning time outside of school hours, reducing the cost of instructional materials and better utilizing teacher time,” according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Fortunately, given advances in technology in the classroom, universities are increasingly equipped to use distance learning to reach their students, wherever they may be. Here are three models gaining popularity.

Online integrated classrooms

Early attempts at the “virtual classroom” consisted almost entirely of “asynchronous delivery,” which means that students logged in on their own time to complete their work within a prescribed time window, such as a week. The key advantage to this type of distance learning, of course, is that you can participate at a time that is convenient for your schedule, whether that’s 2 a.m. or 2 p.m.

But many students found that these autonomous courses lacked the interactive element that contributes to a rich educational experience, which has led to the rise of the “synchronous” online classroom.

Now, thanks to the advances in technology in distance learning like video conferencing, livestreaming, web conferencing and even social media, the classroom experience can be more communal. In many ways, this experience might be even more vibrant than a traditional lecture-based classroom environment, as it promotes interaction with students from around the globe.

In this model, all students participate at a designated hour and therefore benefit from the personal connections inherent in “real-time” conversations.

While nontraditional students will still need to work these classes into their schedules, they can participate in the courses from their own home. This alleviates some of the burden of attending classes on campus, such as travel time and expenses associated with transportation and parking.


Students from around the globe have found they can learn from top professors at schools like Stanford University or Massachusetts Institute of Technology through “massive open online courses,” or “MOOCs,”

Now offered by more than 800 universities around the world, MOOCs offer a new way for universities to merchandise their course offerings. That’s because while this type of course primarily started as a free offering, a majority have evolved to a tiered pricing structure. While classes may still be free to audit, most universities now typically include a fee for students intending to earn a certificate or college credit.

In that way, universities can expand their potential reach. Wharton, for example, found that students were clamoring for its MOOCs. Between 2012, when it released its first course, Introduction to Marketing, and 2015, 2.7 million people had enrolled in Wharton’s 18 MOOC courses, bringing the school an additional $5 million in revenue in 2015.

A host of other schools are monetizing MOOCs as well: Arizona State University, for example, has partnered with MOOC provider edX to offer “The Global Freshman Academy.” Students have the opportunity to take the same courses as are offered on ASU’s campus, with credits that are transferable toward an eventual college degree.

MOOC provider Kadenze, which specializes in art and creative technology, offers courses from universities that include Princeton, Stanford and University of Texas. Students can audit courses for free, or pay a monthly $20 “premium membership fee” and then $300 per academic credit.

Blended learning

Many schools today take advantage of the best of both worlds: With “blended” or “hybrid” learning, students essentially combine “face time” on campus with “FaceTime.” In this model, they complete much of the classwork online, supplemented by in-person group sessions for the components that are more conducive to live interaction.

Blending learning frequently entails a concept called the “flipped classroom,” where professors use video to prepare their lectures, which students can absorb online on their own time. That allows in-class time to be devoted to “active learning,” such as group projects or robust discussion. Preserving in-class time for discussion-based activities can be particularly helpful to nontraditional students who might find it more challenging to get together with groups outside of class time.

Most students find this approach combines the benefits of each type of learning; for example, allowing you to make valuable personal connections to students and professors during class time, yet preserving flexibility to do the bulk of your learning when it’s convenient for you.

“Teaching methods need to evolve to keep up with the times and incorporate integrated technologies into the learning modal,” reports TeachThought, a website dedicated to innovation in K-12 education. “Successful blended learning occurs when technology and teaching inform each other: Material becomes dynamic when it reaches students of varying learning styles.”

Universities are finding that the evolution of the virtual classroom may be the silver bullet to help them attract and retain the nontraditional student. As technology in the classroom continues to advance and bring student and instructor closer together, the term “connected education” might be more apt than “distance learning” to describe this powerful form of education.

Explore technology to support your non-traditional students by learning about Epson’s products for education.