The Open University
Traditionally, online learning or distance learning has been viewed as an option for mature students, or those returning to education after several years.
In reality, the flexible and independent format lends itself to many types of students seeking a recognised degree qualification.
You may want study a degree online if you:
- are a school-leaver who isn’t keen about moving away to university
- are an international student who wants to study with an overseas university, without leaving your home country
- want to progress professionally, or within your current company, but lack the necessary academic qualifications
- are a parent, guardian, or carer responsible for one or more dependants
- have a health condition, disability, or other personal circumstances that make it difficult to move to or study in a campus environment
- don’t have the strongest academic record – universities appreciate that applicants arrive at online learning via many routes, and will set entry requirements for online courses accordingly. They may recognise other work experience or skills, or suggest top-up courses to help you prepare.
- don’t want to break the bank – online tuition fees are typically lower than campus-based fees for the same course, and you won’t have the same living costs as a student living away from home. You may also be able to work part-time, or eligible for extra financial support.
- are mainly focused on the qualification at the end, rather than the ‘student life’ aspect
- are an independent learner, or you like having control over your time
If you fall into one or more than one of these categories, online learning could be a more compatible option than you first thought.
Still on the fence about online learning? Below are some pros and cons to mull over.
- Fit your studies around your life – while studying online has its demands, it’s considerably less of a disruption than moving to university altogether, for instance.
- Manage your own time – the independence of online learning may appeal to those whose circumstances don’t guarantee a fixed study routine.
- Learn in different ways – learning is often delivered in a variety of ways, including text, video, and audio.
- Apply what you learn – if you’re studying a course related to a current job, you don’t have to wait to put this into practice. This can inform your learning, too.
- Pay less – avoid higher tuition fees and living costs of moving to university or studying on campus.
- Access world-class teaching from home – if you live somewhere remote, or you can’t relocate, you’re no longer limited to just the study options around you.
- Study in a modern (and greener) way – everything you need is available online, so you can be more productive with your time. Plus, with no regular trips to campus, and no printing to submit assignments, you’re doing your bit for the environment.
- Graduate with your fellow students – studying remotely doesn’t mean you miss out on the graduation experience. It's an opportunity to celebrate your hard work, with family and friends.
- You don’t get the typical ‘university experience’ – you miss out on things like moving to a new city, meeting and living with people from different backgrounds, and joining societies.
If you already have an active social life, fulfilling hobbies, or other responsibilities that keep you busy, this may not bother you.
- It can be tricky balancing everything – this is true for all students, but depending on your circumstances, you may find yourself flicking between lots of different roles and responsibilities in an average day or week.
- It’s not as social – whether you want to discuss your work, or vent about a difficult tutor, on campus you’re constantly surrounded by students to lend an ear.
That said, online learning does involve interaction with students and tutors ‘virtually’, and there are usually opportinities to connect over social media.
- Staying motivated can be hard – a lot of things can hinder your motivation when studying remotely from home: not attending lectures physically, juggling other responsibilities, distractions at home etc.
- Relying on technology – this can be a hurdle for those who aren’t tech-savvy, although online courses are designed to be as accessible and supported as possible.
Also, you need to sort out your own (working) equipment, as well as a comfortable place to effectively study at home.
- The cost – you still need to figure out how you’re going to fund your studies. Plus, how will studying impact you financially e.g. will you have to work less or more?
Common costs that tuition fees don’t cover include equipment, childcare, and graduation (e.g. cap and gown, guests’ tickets).
- Not everyone is your age – online learning often attracts a far wider range of ages or backgrounds, than you get on campus. Therefore, you may have less in common with other students on your course.
However, it can be extremely rewarding to study alongside such a diverse group of individuals, whom you normally wouldn’t come across. They may bring unique perspectives and experiences that you can learn from.
Not every university in the UK offers online or distance learning. Only some do, and only for a small proportion of their degree courses – see which subjects are most likely to be available online, above.
Additionally, there are universities that specialise in online and distance learning:
- The Open University (the OU) has been synonymous with distance learning and part-time study, in the UK and around the world, for over 50 years. They have an extensive offering of 200+ courses and accredited qualifications. The OU has a network of 5,000+ tutors, plus specialist advisers to support students beyond their course experience. The OU’s materials are effective and appropriate for online learning, using technology such as podcasts, online forums and interactive media, all accessible by smartphone and tablet. From the OU’s longstanding partnership with the BBC, advising on series such as Blue Planet II, to integrating tech such as AR, remote telescopes and virtual labs into their teaching, they’re constantly driving things forward.
Search for a course or university now to learn more, including if you can study online.
Both undergraduate and postgraduate degrees are available to study online, plus top-up courses or access modules if you need to refresh your knowledge and skills before progressing further.
While it will vary from one university to another , the variety of subjects you can study online may surprise you. These include business, computer science, economics, engineering, English, history, and law .
Degree subjects with lots of practical elements, or that involve advanced equipment and facilities, like medicine or biomedical sciences , aren’t normally available online.
How to find the right online degree course: checklist
- Thoroughly research a course before you apply. Make sure you understand what modules and topics you’ll study, how you’ll learn and be assessed, what support is available, and the qualification you’ll receive at the end (i.e. that this is professionally recognised where you live, and what you can do next).
- Contact a university directly to ask any questions, especially if you’re unsure whether you’re eligible for a course they offer. They can learn more about you, and give you more personalised advice, whether it’s suggesting a top-up course, or putting you in touch with other staff.
- Check out case studies with students and graduates, to learn about their experience, as well as what they’ve gone on to achieve – this can help you decide if a particular course will get you where you want to go.
Learn more about online learning in our dedicated advice hub.