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."

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