Chapter 6: Building an effective learning environment

6.3 Learner characteristics

Figure 6.3.1 Learner characteristics

Probably nothing more reflects teaching in a digital age than the change in learner characteristics from the industrial age.

6.3.1 Increased diversity

I noted in Chapter 1 (Section 6) that in developed countries such as Canada:

public post-secondary institutions are expected to represent the same kind of socio-economic and cultural diversity as in society at large, rather than being institutions reserved for an elite minority.

In an age where economic development is tightly associated with higher levels of education, the goal now is to bring as many students as possible to the standards required, rather than focus on just the needs of the most able students. This means finding ways of helping a very wide range of students with very different levels of ability and/or prior knowledge to succeed. One size clearly does not fit all today. Dealing with an increasingly diverse student population is perhaps the greatest of all challenges then that teachers and instructors face in a digital age, particularly but not exclusively at a post-secondary level. This is not something for which instructors primarily qualified in subject matter expertise are well prepared.

A combination of good design and an appropriate use of technology will greatly facilitate the personalization of learning, allowing for instance for different students to work at different speeds, and to focus learning on students’ specific interests and needs, thus ensuring engagement and motivation for a diverse range of students. However, the first and perhaps most important step is for teachers and instructors to know their students, and in particular, to identify from the vast range of information regarding students and their differences, which are the most important for the design of teaching and learning in a digital age. I list some of the characteristics that I think are important from the perspective of designing teaching.

6.3.2 The work and home context

Two factors make the work and home context an important consideration in the design of teaching and learning: in post-secondary or higher education, students are increasingly working while studying (about half of all Canadian post-secondary students also work, and those that do work average 16 hours a week – Marshall, 2010); and the age range of students continues to spread, with the average age of students slowly increasing (in 2021/2022, at the University of British Columbia Vancouver, the average age of undergraduates was 22, and the mean age for graduate students  was 30 – UBC, 2022)

There are several reasons for the average age of students increasing, at least in North America:

  • students are taking longer to graduate (partly because they tend to take a smaller study load when working);
  • increasing numbers of students are going on to graduate school;
  • more students are coming back for additional courses and programs after graduating (lifelong learners), mainly for economic reasons.

Partly or fully employed students, or students with families, increasingly need more flexibility in their studying, and especially avoiding long commutes between home, work and college. These students increasingly want hybrid or fully online courses, and smaller modules, certificates or programs that they can fit around their work and family life.

In the k-12 sector, the Covid-19 pandemic brought to light a number of issues regarding the home environment for many students. There was considerable inequity in the conditions for studying at home. Many children did not have an adequate, quiet place where they could study. A significant number of students (between 20-25% in the USA and Canada – see for instance Salman, 2022) did not have adequate home access to technology, such as computers or the Internet. This becomes more important the more students are expected to study at home as well as at school. This may mean providing alternative arrangements for some students, such as equipment loans, local wi-fi hotspots, or extra time on school premises where there is access to the technology that students need for studying in a digital age (Salman, 2022).

Overall, teachers and instructors need to pay more attention to the students’ learning environments outside the school or campus, such as at home, work or when travelling, and should take steps to mitigate or improve the learning conditions beyond school or campus premises.

6.3.3 Learners’ goals

Understanding the motivation of students and what they expect to get out of a course or program should also influence the design of a course or program. For academic learning, it is often necessary to find ways to move students whose approach to learning is initially driven by extrinsic rewards such as grades or qualifications to an approach that engages and motivates students in the subject matter itself.

Potential students already with a post-secondary qualification and a good job may not want to work through a pre-determined set of courses but may want just specific areas of content from existing courses, tailored to meet their needs (for instance, on demand and delivered online). Thus it is important to have some kind of knowledge or understanding of why learners are likely to take your course or program, and what they are hoping to get out of it.

6.3.4 Prior knowledge or skills

Future learning often depends on students having prior knowledge or an ability to do things at a certain level. Teachers aim to bridge the difference between what a learner can do without help and what he or she can do with help, what Vygotsky (1978) termed the zone of proximal development. If the difficulty level of the teaching is aimed too far beyond the capability or prior knowledge and skills of a learner, then learning fails to occur.

However, the more diverse the students in a program, the more diverse the knowledge and skill levels they are likely to bring with them. Indeed, lifelong learners, or new immigrants repeating a subject because their foreign qualifications are not recognised, may bring specialist or advanced knowledge that can be drawn on to enrich the learning experience for everyone. At the same time, some students may not have the same basic knowledge as others in a course and will need more help. In such a context it is important to design the learning experience so that it is flexible enough to accommodate students with a wide range of prior knowledge and skills.

6.3.5 Digital natives

Most students today have grown up with digital technologies such as mobile phones, tablets and social media, including Facebook, Twitter, blogs and wikis.  Prensky (2010) and others (e.g. Tapscott, 2008) argue that not only are such students more proficient in using such technologies than previous generations, but that they also think differently (Tapscott, 2008).

However, it is particularly important to understand that students themselves vary a great deal in their use of social media and new technologies, that their use is largely driven by social and personal demands, and their use of digital technologies does not naturally flow across into educational use. They will use new technologies and social media for learning though where instructors make a good case for it and when students can see that the use of digital media will directly help them in their studies. For this to happen though deliberate design choices are required on the part of the instructor. (For more on the issue of digital natives, see Chapter 10, Section 2.2)

6.3.6 Technology access

The Covid-19 pandemic clearly illustrated that even in the most economically advanced countries, there is still a significant proportion of students who lack technology access. Technology access will be discussed more fully in Chapter 10.2.

6.3.7 In conclusion

The work and home context, learners’ goals, and students’ prior knowledge and skills (including their competence with digital media) are some of the critical factors that should influence the design of teaching. For some instructors, other characteristics of learners, such as learning styles, gender differences or cultural background, may be more important, depending on the context. Whatever the context, good design in teaching requires good information about the learners we are going to teach, and in particular good design needs to address the increasing diversity of our students.


Marshall, K. (2011) Employment patterns of post-secondary students, Ottawa: Statistics Canada

Prensky, M. (2001) ‘Digital natives, Digital Immigrants’ On the Horizon Vol. 9, No. 5

Salman, J. (2022) How one city closed the digital divide for nearly all its students The Hechinger Report, April 14

Tapscott, D. (2008) Grown Up Digital New York: McGraw Hill

University of British Columbia (2022) University of British Columbia Annual Enrolment Report 2021/22 Vancouver BC: University of British Columbia

Vygotsky, L. (1978) Mind in Society: Development of Higher Psychological Processes Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press

Activity 6.3 Who are your students?

1. How would you characterise the students you are teaching: students attending school full-time; students taking some courses online and some in-person at school; full-time students straight from high school; ‘full time’ students who are nevertheless working part-time; or students working full-time? How would a typical class of yours break down between these groups? Do you have the information necessary to do this analysis?

2. Do you think students think or study differently these days because of social media? How does that affect their studying? Do you feel you need to respond in some way to this?

3. How much variance is there between your students in prior knowledge and/or language ability? How does this affect the way you teach?

You may want to read Chapter 10, Section 2 and Chapter 11, Section 3 before you answer these questions.

This exercise is mainly for your reflection, but I do have a few comments on these issues in the podcast below:


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Teaching in a Digital Age: Third Edition - General by Anthony William (Tony) Bates is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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