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What is a persona?

An introduction to personas, and how to use them to identify a target audience for your course.
Woman smiling lying on bed typing on a laptop.
© Liza Summer (2020) CC0

Before we look at personas (or personae) and how we can use them to design a short online course, firstly we need to understand what a persona is and why they are beneficial.

A persona can be described as a representation of a fictional person or group, based on user research. This would identify typical learners that may be interested in your course or content. It is important that personas are realistic and not a caricature or stereotype.

Why use personas?

Creating personas can help you take a step back from your content and away from your own, perhaps biased, perception of what you are creating. They allow you to look at the different needs and expectations of your intended users. This will help you get an understanding of your learners’ needs, experiences and expectations of the course.

It may even challenge you to think about concepts you might never have considered before, in order to foster greater engagement with your course.

Target audience

When creating a persona, it is important to keep your target audience in mind. Personas can be used in the development of online, face-to-face, and blended courses and programmes.

When thinking about your online course, think about the type of learner who might be interested in this mode of learning. This will give you an idea of the range of learners that could take your course.

To ensure that a persona is realistic and useful for informing your course design, you should consider a range of key aspects such as motivation and expectations for the course, background, experience, digital skillset, age, education, and so on.

Benefit of personas

You might be thinking that it’s obvious who your target audience is. However, creating a persona will give you the opportunity to review and reflect on your ideas. It will also enable you to evaluate and improve on aspects that you might not have considered before, such as accessibility, diversity and inclusion.

Most importantly, it will inform the content development process to ensure your learners get the best out of your course!


Let’s now look at some student persona examples who have chosen the University of Edinburgh to study. Review the examples to discover the range of possible students that could be studying any course in any format.

You might also find this personas guidance useful when thinking about your own target audience. It outlines how best to create a persona, as well as how to conduct research on who your users will be and why they would want to study your course.

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How to Create an Online Course

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