Online degrees: A guide to attending university virtually

Until the pandemic hit, virtual learning was an alien concept. Yes, online tutoring was already gaining popularity. But the idea that entire university courses or school curricula could be taught remotely was considered largely impossible. As the world returns to a resemblance of reality, however, online degrees are taking off. This is allowing students to work more flexibly – and save money.

Here are some of the opportunities available to students today – plus a few things to bear in mind before taking the leap.

The Open University – and its rivals

Distance learning is an alternative route to a university degree. Instead of attending lectures and classes on campus, students work at home and all teaching materials are delivered online. Courses are broken down into bitesize chunks and students are typically awarded credits as they complete each module.

The Open University is probably the most famous provider of flexible learning in the UK. Offering undergraduate degrees, certificates and diplomas of higher education, foundation and honours degrees, and postgraduate qualifications, students benefit from flexibility and value that is not always available at classroom-based institutions. 

Like all students, online attendees receive study materials. They can also access an online study portal, dedicated tutors, student forums and learning events. How long it takes to complete your qualification can vary, and students spend more or less time studying each week, depending on their schedule. (Over three quarters of Open University students fit study around full- or part-time jobs.)

Arden University, a private teaching university based in Coventry, also specialises in blended and online learning. If you explore what’s out there, however, you will find much more, from the University of Essex to the University of York.  According to UCAS, the exact tuition fees students must pay varies depending on their course and provider. It is important, therefore, to check this directly with your chosen university.

Vocational courses

In the wake of Covid-19, more vocational institutions are allowing students to study online for a discounted price. The University of Law – which trains up future solicitors and barristers – is an excellent example of this. The UK’s largest law school now offers a wide range of its undergraduate and postgraduate courses remotely via its new ‘online campus’. Students leave with exactly the same qualifications and often a lower level of debt. 

Meanwhile, the University of Arts London, which specialises in arts, design, fashion and the performing arts, offers online short courses to help anyone over the age of 18 to master new skills. 

Online degrees abroad

The idea of studying abroad remotely is hard to understand. Surely the whole point of international study is to experience new places and cultures? This may be true, but online degrees are becoming a popular option for international students looking to advance their education.

Many of the popular universities are located in the United States. Here it is often prohibitively expensive for international candidates to study in-person. A host of universities in the US – from Harvard Business School to California State University – offer online courses. It is crucial to do your research, therefore, to ensure that you will receive a high standard of teaching and that you won’t be ripped off by poor quality courses.

Residency and visa requirements are also worth paying attention to. Is there any on-campus element to your course that you need to be aware of, for example?

Again, tuition fees can vary dramatically and is course-specific, so do your research. However, without the need for plane tickets and university accommodation, you are likely to save money in the long run.

Online degrees: The pros and cons

Cost: For many, distance learning works out cheaper than an equivalent in-person course. This is partly due to tuition fees: some universities don’t charge as much for online programmes than in-person ones. There are also other costs involved. A study by UCAS, for instance, found that the average first year student spent over £2,000 on items before getting to university, when travel cards and homeware was thrown into the mix. 

Flexibility: Online courses are ideal for people who are juggling other demands. Whether its childcare or a demanding job, remote courses can fit around your schedule. You may also have the option to study part-time, if you cannot manage the time demands of a full time course.

Lack of social life: While the practicalities of online degrees are often impressive, you risk missing out on important social aspects of university life. Learning via screen could mean you struggle to establish the friendships and academic connections that often emerge as an undergrad or postgrad. There are also likely to be fewer networking opportunities.

Screen fatigue: As many of us will know after months of lockdown lessons, Zoom calls and on-screen meetings, screen fatigue is a real risk. Sometimes, after a long day, it is easier to concentrate on in-person classes than computer videos. 

Cost considerations: Concerns have been raised that online learning is not worth the tuition fees being charged. Only you can really decide whether it is worth the price but be thorough in your research. What online platforms does the university use? How have other students found the course? And most importantly, is it right for you?