By Lucy Jolin from The Guardian
Eddie Chauncy is no stranger to traditional universities – he already holds a degree in English literature from Cambridge. But 20 years after first graduating, when he realised that a knowledge of psychology would benefit his career as a business and finance trainer, he chose to study with the Open University (OU).
“I knew the OU from when I was a kid and I used to watch the maths lessons on TV,” says Chauncy, who graduated from the OU with a psychology degree in 2012. “I’d recommended it to one of my delegates and when I got home that night, I thought: why don’t I make a life change as well? My children were coming to the end of their schooling and my son was doing A-levels, so I had to be around to support him. I also had to earn a living. So it was the only option that worked. It was a wonderful experience and really helped me move forward with the kind of training I could offer.”
Distance learning is a much better fit for people like Chauncy, says Julie Stone, director of online learning at the University of Derby, points out. “Online learning offers a number of benefits that face-to-face campus based studies can’t – namely around flexibility,” she says. “People can learn at a time and place that suits them, fitting study time around work and family commitments. Few mature students can commit to fixed campus-based lectures week in, week out and technological advancements have enabled people to gain a respected education through online methods.”
And online learning, it seems, is just as effective as face-to-face learning. A study conducted by the Department for Education in the US in 2010 found that college students studying online performed better than those studying exclusively face-to-face. “They also found was that if you combine the two – some studying face to face, some online – it’s even more effective,” says Mike Sharples, professor of educational technology at the Open University.
The OU pioneered the distance learning form and is still the UK’s main provider – in 2013/14, there were 210,005 UK-based students studying for both undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in the UK, of which 150,255 were with the OU. But other UK universities are starting to see the potential of online courses that can offer all the academic rigour and support of a face-to-face degree without the inflexibility – to students all around the world.
New technology – such as forums, online lectures and interactive study experiences – is enhancing today’s online learning experience, and there are plenty of innovations in the pipeline. Dominic Micklewright, dean of academic partnerships at the University of Essex, believes mixed reality teaching and learning environments (MiRTLEs) – which enable online students to enter a real face-to-face lecture virtually – will become an increasingly popular facet of online degrees. “The online student can view the lecture, lecturer and other face-to-face students from a first-person perspective via a webcam. In the lecture hall, distance-learning students will appear either as an avatar or as themselves – via their webcam – on a large screen that the face-to-face students and the lecturer can see.”
Support and success
The right support is a huge part of successful online learning. Coventry University has partnered up with US firm PlattForm to launch two new online degrees – a BA (Hons) in management and leadership and a BA (Hons) in management and professional accounting. Each student will be assigned a student success adviser to provide telephone and online pastoral support.
“The student success advisers will play a huge part in creating a more personal experience, and providing the right kind of support when it’s needed, so no-one feels on their own,” says Anmoal Thethi, online degree development specialist at PlattForm in the UK. “The advisors have been recruited on the basis of their knowledge of the HE experience, to empathise and be supportive and motivational.”
And you don’t even have to be in the UK to study for a UK qualification. University of Derby Online Learning (Udol) currently has around 3,000 students from around the world, studying subjects ranging from business to counselling and psychotherapy. “Because the learning materials are accessible via the web using the student portal, and the virtual learning environment, time zones become irrelevant,” says Stone.
“Any virtual lectures or sessions are captured and made available for those who were unable to attend, and for those who could attend but would like to revisit it. All study group discussion and debates are done via online discussion boards and forums that can be accessed at any time,” she adds.
Technology has enabled students to enrol at any university in the world, without needing to move there, she adds: “Geography and time differences just add to the global study experience – as do cultural differences. Delivered well, online learning can be a highly interactive, rich, stimulating and rewarding experience.”