for most students, choosing a university is as simple as counting up Ucas points, checking a league table or two, and signing up to a few open days to whittle the list down. But things are more complicated for distance learners, for whom studying off-campus brings a whole new set of considerations.
What’s the learning platform like?
“The technology can vary widely between courses,” says Tom Taylor, head of degrees at work at Anglia Ruskin University. “Students want to know what it will be like to learn online; whether they will get to communicate with other students, and how interactive the course will be.”
To get a feel for the learning environment, you should ask universities if they offer a taster session, according to Ian Myat, director of educational enterprise at Birmingham University: “Some providers allow students to sample a module and try the course in the same way you would if you were enrolled,” he says.
Is it the real deal?
With traditional degree courses, university league tables are a popular way to get a feel for a institution’s reputation. But Myat warns that these may not include some of the best online courses. “Newer courses may not feature in league tables as there is not yet enough data, but these often take advantage of new technology like video conferences and streaming,” he says. “So it’s a trade off for students between the security of established courses that might be less cutting-edge, and newer, more advanced courses.”
Many providers will also let you talk to current students or give you information about graduate paths. Worried that her Open University qualification wouldn’t be seen as a “real” degree, Georgina Crop, who is studying for a BA in English literature and language at the Open University, did her due diligence: “I checked its accreditation and also read success stories about recent graduates,” she says.
How much does it cost?
Another factor to consider is budget. Although online learners can often cut the cost by being based off-campus and working alongside their degree, tuition fees still tend to be in the thousands.
“There is sometimes a perception that online learning is free,” says Myat. “In fact, the costs are often similar to campus courses and if you want to gain a recognised qualification, you should expect to pay for it.” Prices fluctuate based on where an institution sees itself in the market, so costs can be a rough indication of quality.
Are there any offline options?
If you like the idea of doing part of your course on campus, it is sometimes facilitated and can even be compulsory. “Some subjects, such as sports science, have elements that are harder to teach online and require a face-to-face module,” says Taylor.
Is it flexible enough?
One of the big draws of distance learning is that there are fewer timetabled events and study can be fit around your lifestyle. “My course allowed me to go Kärsämäki in Finland for six months, doing European Voluntary Service,” says Crop, who also spent time in Greece on an Erasmus young entrepreneur programme. “No traditional university course would’ve allowed me to do that while studying,” she says.
But if you want to fit work, travel or volunteering around your studies, find out whether your schedule will actually allow it. “Although most online study is part-time, the concentration of the hours you need to put in can vary between institutions and courses,” says Myat.
Everyone’s requirements are different and universities will be happy to give you as much information as they can. The main thing, Myat says, is to remember that online learning is changing all the time. “It’s an evolving market, so I’d encourage students to speak to course providers and ask lots of questions,” he says.
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