Distance Learning Degrees: A Quick Guide | Top Universities

Distance Learning Degrees: A Quick Guide

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Laura Tucker

Updated Apr 08, 2021



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Starting from correspondence education courses in the 1930s, distance learning has evolved into the dynamic and technology-driven world of online education – cited by many as the answer to time constraints, financial barriers and other obstacles to accessing education. In the past few years the distance education market has gained new attention thanks to the hype surrounding MOOCs (massive open online courses), while recent Google data suggests that many online education providers now attract more online searches than long-established traditional campus universities.

Want to know more? Read on for an introduction to the world of distance and online learning…

What is distance learning?

Distance learning does exactly what it says on the packet; it allows students to learn while in a different location to the course provider, often studying from home and most likely via computer.

The added freedoms of this approach are clear. Distance education opens up a large range of programs to students who would struggle to attend lectures and seminars face-to-face due to responsibilities or time constraints, such as parents or full- and part-time workers. Students are able to work in their own time, often at their own pace, with all the resources they need available via the internet or as downloadable materials.

There’s no geographic constraint either. Students and teachers can be separated by time zones and continents without this affecting the structure or efficiency of the program. Prospective students with ambitions of studying at prestigious universities elsewhere in the world can do so without having to move thousands of miles away from home, leave friends and family behind or give up their jobs.

How is online education improving?

In the past, the main criticisms of distance learning have focused on its inability to compete with the support and interactivity provided by traditional on-campus programs. But with online communication techniques developing and internet connections in many places continuing to get faster and more reliable, the ease with which online university courses interact with and teach their students is constantly improving.

Today’s distance education students may be able to watch video lectures, chat with teachers and fellow course-mates using forums and instant messaging, and download a wide range of reading materials and other resources. Some online education providers have increased levels of support by hiring more staff members to answer questions asked by online students, as well as nurturing peer support networks and monitoring courses to identify the points at which additional support or resources are most in-demand.

Types of distance learning

The delivery method of distance and online learning programs varies. Although many courses are conducted entirely online, some providers also give students the opportunity to meet face-to-face with tutors and classmates several times a year. This aims to give a more personable feel to the program and enables students to network, ask more in-depth questions and gain further professional and interpersonal skills.

In other situations, students will conduct all their work online and are only required to attend specific locations for exams. Others may attend weekly lectures in addition to completing work online; this combined system is known as blended learning.

In the last few years another type of online education has stepped in to the spotlight: MOOCs, short for massive open online courses. These are free online education programs that anyone can sign up to, typically offered by well-known universities, and now covering a huge range of subjects. Although MOOCs haven’t emerged (as some initially forecast) as genuine rivals to full-length degree programs, they have nonetheless had a major influence on the education sector, impacting on the way both campus universities and online learning providers deliver their materials.

As MOOCs are free and open to all with access to the internet, they are useful for people of all ages and professional backgrounds who are keen to learn a new skill or gain information about a particular subject. Most MOOCs do not offer official certification, though a growing number offer the option to be officially assessed for a small fee. To find out more about MOOCs, read this blog post.

The benefits and disadvantages of distance learning

Along with the obvious advantages of not having to travel or take years out of work to complete a degree, there are even more benefits of studying online. These can include lower tuition fees and the freedom to study in your own time.

International knowledge-sharing is another benefit. Due to the fact that distance learners come from all walks of life and from any corner of the world, online education is often an incredibly global and diverse environment, bringing together students and tutors of many different nationalities and facilitating intercultural exchanges that often bring new perspectives.

There is also the potential benefit of learning in an independent and self-reliant way – but for those who struggle with self-discipline this may be more of a disadvantage. Other disadvantages can include the lack of face-to-face communication and lack of timetabled structure.

The relatively limited potential for networking may be a deterrent for some students for whom this is a high priority. And certain subjects that require regular access to specialized equipment and practical experience (such as engineering, natural sciences and medicine) are also less well-suited to distance/online formats.

Who offers distance learning programs?

Distance learning and online university courses are offered across all higher education levels, including bachelor, master and PhD level. The number of courses offered is growing daily, with many programs designed and led by accredited, well-reputed institutions which offer both on-campus and online courses.

Popular subjects to study online include law and business, with the online MBA (Master’s in Business Administration) gaining prominence among mid-career business professionals looking for further qualifications to help them progress up the leadership ladder. Often these subjects lend themselves well to part-time study, as simultaneous experience within the field is helpful in applying learnt skills.

Whatever the subject you’re looking for, it’s likely you’ll be able to find some form of distance education to suit your needs; just search online!

Are distance learning degrees valued as highly?

If your distance program is accredited by a well-known university, your degree should be viewed just as a campus-based qualification would be. Be wary, however, of the thousands of distance/online courses on offer; not all are accredited, meaning there is room in the market for scammers creating bogus programs to try and get you to part with your hard-earned cash.

Before choosing a program it’s important that you assess your chosen institution's reputation and the reputation of your chosen course. If possible, ask employers what they think of your selection and find some current students or alumni to give you an insider’s perspective on the course.

You can also check whether your distance-learning provider is accredited by national bodies, such as the United States Department of Education (USDE) or the Council of Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA).

How long does it take?

The length of online university courses varies depending on whether you’ll be studying full- or part- time, the level of the qualification, and the subject of study.

For the majority of full-time undergraduate programs, the timeframe is similar to a traditional bachelor’s course of three or four years. For part-time courses, you may spread your studies out over an additional two or three years. Although part-time courses can be pretty flexible in terms of timeframe, most accredited online university courses will give a specific time period within which students must complete their studies.

To find out more about these time restrictions, contact the university’s online education department.

Is distance learning cheaper?

Although a respected distance/online program won’t come cheap, often the fees work out considerably less than traditional routes of education.

One of the leading providers of online education in the UK is the Open University, which provides over 1,000 tutorials online every week to its students. Fees at the Open University vary depending on whether you opt to study part-time or full-time, but the average cost for full-time study works out at UK£5,264 annually (US$8,540) for three years. This is approximately UK£3,700 (US$6,000) less per year than enrolling at a campus-based UK university as a home student, and considerably less than the amount international students would pay to study in the UK. Part-time students at the Open University should expect to pay UK£2,632 (US$4,270) annually over a period of six years.

Some online programs are considerably more expensive, particularly those in postgraduate business education. Online fees at the leading business schools in the US range from US$60,000 to US$80,000. Average costs at mid-range US business schools range between US$35,000 and US$50,000, a price typically US$5,000 cheaper than on-campus figures, and as much as US$25,000 less than figures for on-campus internationals. If you’re looking for an online MBA program, take a look at the latest edition of the QS Distance Online MBA Rankings, a ranking of the best online MBA providers around the world.

One additional point to consider is that learning from a distance may also mean a considerable saving on accommodation and travel costs. This is especially true if your chosen university’s campus is located in a high-profile, high-cost city such as London, Paris or New York, where the cost of living is a major extra expense. At the same time, remember that you’ll still need to allow for some additional costs on top of tuition, such as for purchasing course materials, resources and textbooks.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in November 2007. It was updated in October 2014.

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