What does the "e" stand for in e-learning? For many students it stands for "easy" – not in the academic sense but because you can work from home, or anywhere else with internet access. Actually the "e" stands for electronic – students use digital study materials, usually on the internet, and communicate with one another and tutors online, through discussion groups and email.
E-learning is the latest form of distance learning, a type of education normally associated with the Open University. The OU is the UK's biggest provider of distance learning, which it calls "supported open learning". That means you study in your own time, with support from a tutor.
But what if you want a purely online course? Perhaps you want to fit studying around work or family, and avoid the cost of attending a campus. "We believe e-learning is the way of the future," says Frans Coenen, director of studies for online computer science programmes at Liverpool University, the first UK university to deliver an entire programme via e-learning.
The workload was "pretty hard-going", says Coenen. The students are all part-time, and study one module at a time, which takes 20 hours a week. They are continually assessed, with weekly assignments and discussion questions, and they are expected to log on every day – as are the tutors.
But here's a thought, what if you're an online student and you get a friend to do the work for you? Coenen says this isn't an issue, and that a student could as easily send someone to campus to do their degree for them.
Liverpool's online degrees are offered with its e-learning partner Laureate Online Education. Students can choose degrees in management, public health, and information technology. The MBA, with 2,000 students, has proved most popular. In the future, courses may be offered in international law.
Online class sizes tend to be small, with a maximum of 20 students, while campus classes can be as big as 200. But do online students really get to know each other? "Surprisingly, yes," says Coenen. "And because they're all over the world, there's a feeling of international harmony."
The University of Derby, which offers online courses, charges fees ranging from £180 a module for a BA in business studies to £1,035 for an MBA. Initially online students wanted Masters degrees, says Julie Stone, business manager at Derby's School of Flexible Learning. But now applications to the undergraduate programmes are on the rise. Derby's website cites satisfied students such as Elly Phillips from San Francisco who graduated in the online BSc in applied psychology. She did the course entirely online except for a residential week at Derby.
What if you're a British student and you want to study online at an American institution? The University of Phoenix, for example, has a range of online degree programmes with an average class size of 15.
In the UK, Kaplan Open Learning runs online courses in business and management, marketing and sales, and criminal justice. Last year Kaplan launched a business studies foundation degree with Essex University, the first online course run by the university. Essex now has another online foundation degree, in criminal justice.
Business management student Vannesa McGuin likes the flexibility of studying online. "I can email, text or phone tutors when I want," she says. However, online is yet to take off in the UK in the way it has in the US. Many people still don't believe an online degree is as credible as a campus-based one, and they worry about being isolated.
Mayuri Parmar, another student, is a qualified medical secretary, who wanted to improve her skills and job prospects. You need commitment to study online, she says, but she doesn't feel isolated. She has met up with four fellow students – and that was in the real world not the e-world.