Going the distance: Why online learning is gaining ground

Some students never set foot in a lecture theatre. They never pace the library aisles, queue for a computer or struggle to get their voices heard at a seminar. In fact, some students manage to complete their degrees without so much as leaving their homes – and, according to Julie Stone, business development manager at the University of Derby, they are among the most dedicated. "Learning online requires commitment," she says. "When we started developing online programmes, in 2001, it was a marginal activity because there simply weren't the students." That changed in 2008, when applications suddenly flooded in – there are now about 1,500 online students on Derby's books. "We anticipate significant growth over the next five years," says Stone. "We're investing in online education as a core part of our business."

At the Open University (OU), online education is old hat. Niall Sclater, director of learning innovation, believes technologies such as Smartphones, the iPad and Kindle will now push learning to a new level. "We've got the dual movements of online and mobile happening at the same time, and that suits distance learners. They can stay in touch with their course, and with each other, portably and comfortably." The OU exploits technology well: their Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) attracts 50,000 unique users a day, there have been 31 million downloads of their podcasts on iTunes U and they offer more than 800 videos on YouTube EDU.

Resource Development International (RDI) is an independent provider of UK qualifications via distance learning, with more than 7,000 students. Marketing co-ordinator, Carrie-Anne Rice, explains: "People can study with us anywhere in the world."

It currently costs up to £3,290 a year to study full-time on a UK university campus, which, potentially, is £9,870 for a three-year degree. A degree with RDI costs just under £6,000. In 2012/13, when the fee threshold increases to £9,000 a year to study on campus, online degrees will seem even more financially attractive. "We have no immediate plans to raise our fees," says Rice, although she adds, "we have to be guided by our university partners."

Sclater concurs: "We will have to raise fees because of a massive cut in government grant, but we will still charge considerably less than most face-to-face programmes." Interestingly, he says the reverse can be true overseas. "In the United States, some online courses charge higher fees than face-to-face qualifications because they can take more resource to run them – facilitating online forums, for example. Students there are prepared to pay more for the convenience of studying when they want, from the comfort of their own homes."

While distance learning was traditionally favoured by mature students, who slot their course between work and family commitments, both Stone and Rice note an increasing number of younger applicants. At the OU, 25 per cent of this year's intake is under the age of 25. Sclater has a theory: "Increasingly, students have to work to support their studies. They're juggling the two and consequently sometimes miss lectures. Campus universities respond by putting content online." Email contact with tutors, discussion forums between students and social networking are now the norm and this, he suggests, narrows the distinction between online and face-to-face student experiences.

Brendon Fulton gained his first degree on campus and is now completing an online BSc with the University of Derby. "I've got a huge amount out of both," Fulton says. "I absolutely love the degree I'm doing. I mix with students from all over the world via Skype and email, so there is a strong student community. The materials are fantastic, the standards are high and the tutors are supportive".

Could online degrees overtake face-to-face learning altogether? "I think there will still be campus-based experiences for those who can afford them but they will use more technology," predicts Sclater. "Why would you go to a library to search for a journal that may not even be there when you could do a quick Google search from your armchair? These physical things no longer make sense."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

Reach Volunteering: Would you like to volunteer your expertise as Chair of Governors for Livability?

Voluntary and unpaid, reasonable expenses are reimbursable: Reach Volunteering...

Ashdown Group: Payroll Administrator - Buckinghamshire - £25,000

£20000 - £25000 per annum + substantial benefits: Ashdown Group: Finance Admin...

Ashdown Group: Linux Systems Administrator - Windows, Linux - Central London

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Linux Systems Administrat...

Day In a Page

Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?