The pros and cons of online degrees

GraduatesAccording to figures from RDI, one of the world's largest independent providers of UK university distance learning, the demand for online degrees has gone up 38% since 2011 – and the average age of students has dropped from 30 to just 24.

So what has caused this shift to distance learning? And is it as good as the campus equivalent?

Why choose distance learning?

It's unsurprising in a year when students have faced tuition fees jumping to as much as £9,000 a year that we've seen this shift.

But cost is not the only reason people are choosing not to study on campus.

Some have family commitments, a disability that could make campus life hard, want to top up existing qualifications at a reduced cost or - most commonly - want to be able to work and study.

Online degrees are an option increasingly popular with young working people. 90% of RDI's distance-learning students taking online degrees for 2012 are in full time jobs. The Open University reports a similarly high number; over 70% of its students are in full- or part-time employment.

The cost hurdle

Cost is a hot topic when it comes to higher education. Online degrees offer a viable alternative to the debt burden that campus students face.

At RDI, a BA (Hons) Business degree, studied through Anglia Ruskin University, would cost a UK applicant £8,995 in total for the three-year course. The full-time campus equivalent would cost nearer £24,900 based on the institution's fees and that is without factoring in living costs.

Opting for the online degree would instantly see a saving of nearly £16,000. The savings multiply for those that work while they study.

Meanwhile, at the Open University, a full-time equivalent course will set you back £5,000 a year.

Online degrees can normally be funded through the Student Loan Company (if it is your first entry into higher education), be broken into modular payment instalments for you to manage yourself or through funding from your employer.

There is a key difference though. With a campus degree, you only start paying back those fees once you start earning above £21,000. But with an online degree, you pay those fees during your study.

Are online degrees respected?

In the past distance learning has been regarded by some as beneath a traditional bricks and mortar degree. But attitudes are now changing and as long as your distance-learning degree is accredited through a well-known university then it as good as any other.

In the academic year 2010/2011, the Higher Education Statistics Agency reported that there were 384,505 students studying for a UK higher education distance learning qualification. Of that total, 113,060 were international students seeking to gain access to quality education from afar.

In fact, according to RDI, employers are increasingly viewing distance learners positively, especially those who study while working, as they are seen as showing a real commitment to improving their skills and future career.

Bogus degrees

In the past there have been some problems with accreditation with internet outlets offering dubious 'degrees' for little work but a substantial amount of money.

It is important hat you do your research and see if an institution or provider has the right accreditations before you sign up.

How to choose one

The British Council recommends finding out what award you will receive on completion and making sure it is received from a recognised UK university or college of higher education.

You can find a list of recognised bodies for awarding UK degrees on the Department for Business Innovation and Skills website.

The Quality Assurance Agency safeguards the quality of higher education, so an online course with its approval is a good sign. The agency publishes reports about provisions of distance learning in the UK and overseas that you can read for further research.

Finding a course

RDI has a few pointers for finding a decent course:

Look for a trusted provider offering a recognised qualification

Look at who the qualification is awarded by

Ask about pass rates, as you want to be sure of the quality of the teaching

Look at how the course will be delivered and what is expected of you

Check the flexibility of the course to ensure you can manage the learning alongside your job and family commitments

Check the fees – are there any hidden extras?

Talk to graduates that have taken the course already

Try to understand the structure of support you will receive throughout the course
See how you get on with distance learning with a taster course
Plenty of universities offer online degrees through distance learning. If you like the sound of a particular institution you can check to see if they offer distance-learning programmes.
But if you need some help, use the National Careers Service website to search for a course or to see what a provider is offering. Oxford University for example has an Italian BA or a Mathematics and Statistics BA available to distance learners.

Distance learning pros

  • It offers convenience and flexibility so you can study wherever and whenever you want.
  • The quality has improved thanks to improvements in technology. No more posted instructions - you can join a virtual lecture hall.
  • It can be much cheaper than studying a course full time. It will save on living costs especially if you're already working.
  • It opens up the number of institutions you can gain a qualification from.
  • You are able to gain a qualification without getting into huge amounts of debt.

Distance learning cons

  • There's not much opportunity to access the social aspect of university campus life, though this may matter less to older students or those who have already taken a degree.
  • You won't have immediate access to help from course tutors. You have to go through email, post or telephone, where misunderstandings could occur.
  • You might need to rely more heavily on the internet rather than books from a library.
  • It requires a lot more discipline in putting time aside for study.
  • You will need to be comfortable around computers and have access to the internet.
  • Some courses won't be possible to teach online, like those that require lab work.
  • It's not as easy to speak to peers about the course.
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