Online learning allows you to pursue a degree, by studying in your own time, rather than on campus. Learn more about this alternative, including who offers it, and whether employers recognise it.

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What is online learning?

Online learning – also referred to as ‘distance learning’ – is an alternative route to studying a degree course offered by a university. Instead of attending lectures and seminars on campus, you study at home or work. All teaching, materials, and support are delivered online.

You submit assessments online too. However, you may have to travel to sit exams, in person.

Online learning is far more flexible. Courses are broken down into bitesize modules, each worth a certain number of credits and study hours. You’re awarded credits as you complete each module, until you’ve achieved the total credits for the course.

The flexible and independent nature of online learning often appeals to those whose circumstances prevent them from studying on campus, at a fixed pace, for several years. This might be due to a full-time job, or other responsibilities, such as caring for dependents. However, there are many students who can benefit from online learning.

While you don’t experience the same ‘campus culture’, online learning offers a legitimate and practical route to achieving a recognised degree qualification.

Don’t be mistaken, an online degree is a massive commitment (and it’s not free, either). So seriously consider your decision, before applying. This means getting a full understanding of what a course involves, and weighing this up against your lifestyle, as well as what you want to get out of it.

Learn more about how studying an online degree works, including how you complete assignments, and the support you receive.

Don’t get confused with other types of online learning...

When we talk about ‘online learning’ or ‘distance learning’ here, we’re referring to degree courses offered by a university or higher education provider, that are taught online. That means you study the same course as a (full or part-time) student studying on campus, and you achieve the same qualification.

This is important to clarify, because there are all sorts of online courses which do not lead to a degree. While these can help you develop skills and knowledge in a subject – and may be delivered in a similar format – these are completely different. One popular example is ‘Massive Open Online Courses’ (MOOCs): short courses that are free to access online through universities and private providers, but don’t result in a formal qualification. 

This is also different from a campus-based degree course that has been moved online temporarily as a result of mitigating circumstances, such as the recent coronavirus outbreak.

When researching any online course, make sure you’re clear about what it involves, that it’s offered by a legitimate university or provider, and the qualification you get at the end – if there is one, is it professionally recognised?

To help you, below we talk about who offers online degrees.

Who is online learning for?

Online learning allows you to progress academically, and to fit your studies around your lifestyle. It has often been perceived as an option for mature students (including full-time employees who wish to progress in their company).

However, there’s nothing to stop school-leavers from taking up online learning. In fact, it can make sense financially, while the flexibility (to also work part-time, for instance) may appeal.

International students can study remotely from their own country.

Online degrees may have entry requirements too, though these often accommodate applicants who’ve been out of education for some time, or who have other valuable skills and experience in lieu of academic qualifications. Therefore, entry requirements for a course taught online may be more flexible, or broader, than for a campus-based equivalent. In the case of The Open University, most undergraduate courses have no formal requirements. If in doubt, speak to a university about your circumstances, so they can tell you about your options.

Learn more about who can study a degree online, including the pros and cons of doing so.

What can you study, and who offers it?

Both undergraduate and postgraduate degree courses are available via online learning. 

The Open University specialises in distance learning, and has an extensive offering of courses. Arden University offers courses which blend online and campus learning.

You may be surprised by the breadth of subjects you can study online. Search for a course or subject now, on ucas.com  (you will need to select the second option on the initial pop up for all courses, then select your provider in the filters) or explore The Open University website for their available courses online.

Does online learning lead to a recognised qualification?

Yes, you can achieve the exact same qualification through studying a degree course online, that you would if you studied on campus. But as we’ve explained above, you should thoroughly research an online degree course before applying. This includes checking who offers the course, plus the qualification you’ll receive at the end to ensure it’s recognised in the field or industry you plan to work in.

Pursuing a degree online shouldn’t put you at a disadvantage. In fact, it can help you demonstrate strengths and transferable skills that your campus-based peers can’t.

Learn more about how employers view online degrees

How can you fund an online degree?

While online degrees also have tuition fees, these are usually lower than campus-based degree courses – another excellent incentive. How much you’ll be charged will vary depending on the course, and who’s offering it.

There are a few ways that you can fund an online degree, including:

  • Apply for student finance – you can apply for a tuition fee loan to cover your fees upfront. You need to apply to the student finance body in your country, who may offer further (non-repayable) support.
  • Pay in instalments – your course provider may let you pay per module, or in instalments over a year. Talk to them to see what options are on the table.
  • Get sponsored by your employer – your employer may have a scheme in place to support employees who wish to return to education, in order to progress further in their role. Talk to your human resources department, or your line manager, about your development, and how they can support this.

While your living costs won’t be as high as they would be if you moved away to university, consider any impact that pursuing online learning will have on your budget. For example, will you have to pay for childcare when you need to knuckle down to study?

Learn more about funding an online degree, including how student finance works across the UK, and budgeting tips.

Weighing up the cost of university? Try our student budget calculator to see how much you may need to live on at a particular university, and weigh this against what it might cost you to study online with The Open University.

How do you apply for an online degree?

Once you’ve found an online degree course that you’re interested in, you can apply directly to the university, on their website. You’ll have to complete an application, including information about your previous education, skills, and experience.

Because they’re flexible, online degrees may have more than one start date per academic year.

While you’re welcome to visit any open days that a university hosts, it isn’t really necessary if you’ll be studying remotely, therefore some online providers like the OU don’t have any.

Learn more about applying, including entry requirements you need to satisfy, in our guide to how online learning works.

Alternative study options 

  • Degree apprenticeships – combine university learning with working in a company or organisation, who pay your tuition fees.
  • Two-year degrees or accelerated degrees– condense a three-year degree into two years, save a year’s worth of living costs, and kick-start your career sooner.
  • Gap years – take a break from learning, and use your travels or work experience to inform your university decision and boost your personal statement.