Online learning isn’t for every professional. It might work for you, let’s find out.

For me, I have been taking and creating online courses for several years now, and it occurred to me that I should look at the characteristics of successful online learners to see if they jive with the way I approach my own professional development. So, if you’ve ever wondered if you are the “online learning type” then this article might help you figure that out: read on!

After doing a little research, I discovered some interesting ideas about past, present and emerging online learning characteristics. The online learner has changed! Characteristics of online learners in the 1990’s are not the same as today, and there is a new emerging portrait of online learners that is almost the opposite of past online learner characteristics. By comparing these learner profile characteristics to your own preferences, you’ll be able to better see if you are a good candidate for an online course.

Adult learners are a breed of their own

To get started, let’s review the characteristics of adult learners generally and use this as a foundation for what is coming in the online domain.

So far, we know from lots of research about how grownups learn. Typically adult learners are:

  • Self-directed – know what they want and look for it.
  • Motivated – put effort and energy into their learning.
  • Experienced – have a lot of life skills and want to make sure their experience is used and valued. They validate course content using their own experience and look for opportunities to discuss their experiences.
  • Practical – want information they can use immediately and look for ways to improve skills, boost productivity and increase confidence.
  • Ready to learn but less open-minded about it – chose the learning and want to get right to it, but disengage easily if the course doesn’t show the “why” or explains how new concepts are linked to older ones.
  • Oriented toward problem solving – have specific problems and want them addressed, solved or at least understood.
  • Slower to put concepts into practice but integrate them more fully – apply new learning broadly across work and personal life.
  • Have lots of responsibilities and little time – adult learners juggle families, work, friends, volunteer work and a host of other responsibilities. They need to get to the course fast and derive benefit in the beginning if they are to stick to the longer and more complex aspects that will come.
  • Hold high expectations – expect the course to deliver, and have no patience to waste their time and money.

Does this sound like you? It certainly fits my portrait! Especially the part about high expectations. I figure when my time and money are involved, it better be good. I have found that in the online course market the courses are, for the most part, really outstanding – way better than most university courses I took. While online courses sometimes sacrifice complexity in an effort to be practical, I have found that those creating the courses are truly experts in their area and they are super passionate about sharing what they know with people in a way that will help their students succeed.

But what about online adult learners? Are there any additional characteristics worth checking out?

Well, I found out that adult online course users do have a few additional characteristics to add to the mix.


  • Want to know who they are learning from and have proof that whoever created the course knows what they are talking about.
  • Look for social proof, meaning they want to know if others are benefiting from the course.
  • Use technology at work and at home and don’t give up if they have a snag in the technology here and there.
  • Spread the word: if the course solves the problem they were working on, users often become fans and evangelists for the course.

So, are you seeing any emerging patterns here? I was interested to find out that some recent research into the portraits of online learners showed that whereas in the past online learners were only the most motivated and self-disciplined of adults, there have been some significant changes in the trends.

For one thing, it used to be mainly young men in technical fields who were engaging in online learning and now the demographics are all over the place. You can see 14 year-olds taking online guitar courses and participating in the discussion forums with senior guitar greats. There are car enthusiasts of all ages, races, and demographics taking online courses about customizing their rides. And of course there are professionals and entrepreneurs who consume online learning from YouTube, Wikipedia, Blogs, Simulations and more and more frequently – specific online courses that meet their professional development and business needs.

Ready to give eLearning a go?

The Online Learner Portrait

Nada Dabbagh’s research shows a number of changes to the online learner portrait over time. I have added on a few characteristics from other researchers, and separated them into these three categories: past, current and emerging.

PAST online learners: “2 words to describe me: disciplined and organized”

These are your typical good students who know how to study and have the additional characteristic of being comfortable with technology. They:

  • Can manage their time
  • Are organized
  • Have self-discipline
  • Motivated
  • Can communicate in writing
  • Are comfortable with technology
  • Interact online
  • Have established a study environment – quiet room, headset to guard against distractions, set time and place to work on the course

CURRENT online learners: “I have a problem to solve”

This type of online learner is more problem focused. They are likely to be more tech savvy than your average classroom learner and more driven to get to the answer and then apply it to whatever problem they have. They:

  • See technology as a tool and use it in a variety of ways
  • Enjoy interacting online with others
  • Use a variety of virtual interaction tools, games and apps
  • Are usually between the ages of 34-45
  • Expect to be successful with the course
  • Look for specific answers to specific questions

A student’s academic self-portrait also plays a role in the above portraits: Do you see yourself as being in charge of your own learning and knowledge? Or do you think what you know is either destiny or “luck” and your actions can’t influence it? If you think you have some or a lot of control over what you make of your life, you are likely to be attracted to online learning.

The current learner’s portrait still tends to be organized and disciplined, but not necessarily as a general characteristic, rather to the degree that the course topic interests them and has relevance to their lives. So they may be very disciplined with the course, but not necessarily in all other aspects of their lives.

EMERGING online learners: “You are my peeps, let’s learn from each other”

This is the most radical departure from the past online learner, although the characteristics of focus, discipline, passion and drive to find solutions are also often- but not always – present. The biggest change here is the strong focus on social, collaboration and community, even above the desire to know and to consume content which drive the other two learner portraits. The emerging learners:

  • Seek community, long for affiliation with a group
  • Enjoy and collaborate online with others
  • Share what they are learning
  • Share their work and their resources
  • Have strong interpersonal skills
  • Communicate well in writing
  • Are savvy with web technologies
  • Are aware of their own learning and what they need to do to learn something
  • Have confidence in their own capacity to learn new skills
  • Can work independently
  • Create and manage a personal presence online
  • Seek group input and self-evaluation opportunities
  • Can self-reflect and make adjustments to get to where they need to go
  • Are accountable to the group
  • Are open minded

Interesting isn’t it? What you see from this list is a socially-driven portrait. We aren’t talking about the loner tech geek working after midnight on a laptop; we are talking about people who are looking as much for community around a topic as they are for increased knowledge.

What is still common to all the groups is the drive to know and to work independently. You have to discipline yourself to do an online course. Nobody is going to nag you – and if you don’t like the course email reminders to keep you on track or don’t want to attend course webinars, nobody is going to call the police. But interestingly, emerging online course learners who don’t complete a course are still likely to come back to the course and finish it when they can make it a priority.

Remember what I indicated in the beginning about the adult learner? Adults are motivated to learn. If they don’t seem like the ideal student in the beginning, they are likely to come back later when they get a grip on whatever is upsetting the apple cart in their lives. BUT if the learner has a community, and that community feeds his or her deep need to belong and be affiliated with a group, then that course will take on more value and more urgency.

So back to the original question of this article: Are you a candidate for online learning?

You are if you have some or all of these key characteristics:

Past learner:

  • Motivated to learn because you have a specific problem to solve
  • Can set aside time for the course and be disciplined about it

Current learner:

  • Are comfortable enough with technology to get started
  • Can communicate in writing

Emerging learner:

  • Want to interact with and belong to a learning community that meets your needs
  • Like to collaborate with others

Now for your action item: If you think you are one of the online learner types, I would love, love, love it, if you would go to the Shift course catalogue and browse the courses to see what meets your professional development needs. If you don’t find something there you need, please email me at and tell me what you DO need: I’ll do my best to direct you towards something that suits your purposes.

Got more questions?

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Nada Dabbagh. The online learner: characteristics and pedagogical implications.
CITE journal. Retrieved from

10 Types of online learners in eLearning:

Dirksen, Julie. (2016). Design for how people learn (2nd edition). San Francisco: New Riders, Peachpit Press, a division of Pearson.