Online Learning – What is it and how does it work?

Online learning is a challenging but extremely rewarding way to achieve an array of qualifications – there are online options for everything from certificates to PhDs. Once surrounded by stigma, online education is now a respected way to achieve a recognized qualification. With courses available in almost every subject, and flexible timetables to suit almost every schedule, students are increasingly turning to online learning as a viable alternative to campus study. It could allow you to study abroad remotely, at a university not in your home country.

Advances in technology now allow students to study entirely online while still socializing with classmates, watching lectures and participating in subject-specific discussions.

While some consider online learning to require a greater degree of self-motivation, institutions nowadays recognize that pastoral support is just as important as tutor feedback, and take great care to ensure that their students receive the same levels of support that they would receive on campus.

The facts and figures about online learning

  • 5.8 million students are now enrolled in online courses
  • 75% of undergraduate students are aged 25 or over
  • 90% of students think that online learning is the same or better than the traditional classroom experience

Resources for online learning

The format and delivery of resources varies greatly between different online institutions. Many institutions currently utilize a combination of paper textbooks and physical resources; however, these are generally being phased out in favor of eBooks and online methods of delivery.

For those institutions that have made the transition to using 100% online resources, students can expect to study using a combination of cutting-edge resources with no need to travel to attend lectures, exams or in-person discussion sessions.

These online resources often include (but are not limited to):

  • Textbooks
  • Journals
  • Videos
  • Recorded lectures
  • Quizzes
  • Discussion forums
  • Live Q&A sessions
  • Interviews

The institution and course leader will determine the format that each course uses, and will select delivery methods that are best suited to the individual program.

What types of online resource will I encounter?

Here’s a quick overview of the main types of resources you can expect to encounter on an online course, and how to get the most out of them!

  • eBooks, textbooks & journals

These written materials are essential resources on almost every course, online or not. Using your module reading list, or guided by your tutor, a student needs to dedicate the appropriate time to reading and understanding the topics. The main advantage of using this medium (particularly eBooks) is the fact that they are completely portable, allowing you to study on the go.

Pro tip:

When you’re researching a course, remember to check whether your textbooks are included in your tuition fees.

  • Recorded lectures

An essential way of absorbing a large amount of information in a relatively short amount of time, lectures are a staple of online and campus-based learning.

Pro tip:

If you can, make notes throughout your lecture; this will make it easier to review for later examinations, and to prepare for assignments.

  • Interactive sessions

The greatest challenge an online education provider faces is how to replicate the face-to-face interaction and in-person discussions that on-campus institutions can easily provide. In order to overcome this, online providers often use a combination of discussion forums and question-and-answer sessions.

Pro tip:

Before beginning an online discussion or session, make sure you read the rules and requirements; some institutions may require you to create posts that have a minimum word count.

“For institutions using 100% online resources, students can expect to study using a combination of cutting-edge resources with no need to travel to attend lectures, exams or in-person discussion sessions.”

How will my resources be delivered?

Online students often think that their resources will be delivered via email, or even by post. However, most institutions are moving away from this unreliable method of delivery.

The course or module’s learning resources will be delivered via the institution’s online learning environment; this will vary greatly depending on the software used, but it will usually consist of a central online platform that students can access from their personal PC, mobile or tablet.

One of the major benefits of utilizing resources that are hosted entirely online is the flexibility this allows. Online students can choose to access their course information and complete their set assessment pieces at any time; this allows them to fit their studies around their work, family and other commitments. This also means that students who wish to continue working while studying do not have to put their career on hold.

How is online learning assessed?

Online learning is similar in many ways to on-campus study; students still need to be tested at regular intervals throughout the program to check their understanding of the course material. For those new to online education, this process can be intimidating; however, there’s no reason to worry. Online institutions have developed a number of ways to assess students’ learning that still work 100% online.

Here’s a quick overview of the main types of assessment you’re likely to encounter on an online course:

  • Assignments

These are probably the method of assessment that students will have the most experience with; for each assignment, you’ll receive your topic, deadline and word count and will be required to produce a structured, reasoned argument within those boundaries. 

  • Discussion activities

Face-to-face, personal discussion between friends and colleagues is something that we all do every day, however an online academic discussion requires a different set of skills, and doesn’t always come as naturally to everyone. These activities will differ depending on the institution, but your tutor will generally start each discussion off with a question or topic for debate.  Students then need to research this and post their response to the task demonstrating their own knowledge and understanding which will include entering into debate with the ideas and views posted by fellow students.

  • Journal activities

Again, these are little different and students may not have encountered them before.  A journal entry is an ongoing update  in which there is an opportunity to reflect back on what has been learned during the period under review and its applicability going forward. Unlike other assignments, it is acceptable to use a subjective, personal style of writing in journal entries and refer to oneself in the first person.  This is actually the most suitable approach as the aim is to reflect on your own learning over the course of the module

  • Exams

Although they can be nerve-wracking, exams are a great way to test your learning. Online institutions that use exams to assess learning will often partner with exam centers to allow students to complete their test in a controlled environment. Other institutions may choose to allow students to complete their exams on their own personal computer, in a location of their choosing. Because tutors have no way to oversee a virtual exam or test, they are typically open-book and open-note.

How do online institutions prevent cheating?

Many people are concerned that online students can simply cheat their way to success by purchasing assignments or using revision materials during virtual examinations. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth. In order to gain a recognized qualification from an online course, the assessment method must also be above reproach.

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