The pandemic has changed many things, at least for now. But are things like online university worth it? We cover everything you need to know.
Life has changed for many people since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Across the world, we’ve had to adjust the way we operate, at least for the time being. Luckily, we have the technology in place to make these changes as straightforward as possible. But are our technology-driven alternatives effective replacements? Are things like online university worth it? We take a closer look.
Students across the UK are gearing up for the start of a new academic year that will be like no other. For many, they may wonder whether online university study can replace the in-person equivalent, at least in the short term. We explore the history of online learning, whether it’s here to stay, the impact of COVID-19, and whether online university learning is worth it.
A brief history of online learning
Universities have been around for over 1,100 years. And, despite the internet being only roughly 30 years old, distance learning has a far longer history. The first ‘correspondence education’ is thought to date back to the year 1728, and the concept had become commonplace by the time the first intranet systems were used by universities in the 1960s.
By 1976, the first ‘virtual campus’ was launched. Coastline Community College offered degree programs through telecommuting. Essentially, students would use telephone, television, radio, and tapes to complete their degrees.
Throughout the 1980s, a variety of education networks were created and implemented in universities, giving students the chance to access course materials and submit assignments remotely. In 1989, The University of Phoenix launched one of the first for-profit online degree programs.
Into the 1990s, the wide-scale adoption of the internet meant that universities had far more opportunities to reach students around the world. All kinds of organisations started using the internet as part of their teaching methods, with technology such as Blackboard Course Management giving students online access to course materials.
Nowadays, the online learning industry is huge. Experts predict that the market could be worth as much as $325 billion by 2025. And, as internet speeds and technology improves, it’s easier, more immersive, and more practical to study online, making online university worth it for the many students who choose it.
COVID-19 and education
The coronavirus pandemic has meant we’ve all had to make adjustments and changes to our everyday lives. Education, in particular, has been turned on its head. Figures suggest that, in March, the pandemic left around 1.5 billion learners around the world out of the classroom. Yet education is fundamental to the development of children and young adults, clearly making online university worth it at these times.
For many students, learning online requires a new set of skills and competencies. As well as a range of digital skills, you also have to know how to learn online. Whether it’s the basics of internet study or the details of researching a project online, the pandemic has meant a shift in the way many people learn.
And it’s not just students who have to learn new ways of learning. Teachers also have to shift their courses online. One of the crucial elements for many educators in recent months has been how to provide continuity for their students. Whether for young learners or those in higher education, teachers have to adapt their approaches.
To make online university worth it for learners, educators need to account for a whole host of variables. Although standard lectures often translate well online, smaller group learning and practical elements often require more thought. This is why students will likely see an increase in blended learning in the coming semesters, with a mix of virtual and small, in-person sessions for those courses that require it.
How will universities work in September?
We’re moving into somewhat uncharted territories for higher education institutions. Since March, most universities have been mostly using an online learning model. Large-scale meetings are currently not feasible, which means that bustling lecture halls, packed libraries and buzzing student unions are off the cards for now. So what can new university students expect instead?
The UK government provides regular updates and advice to universities about how they can reduce risk to students. This guidance means that many higher education institutions are implementing all kinds of measures, including:
- Social bubbles. For those students who are on campus and in halls, they will have limited pockets of people they can interact with while studying.
- Blended learning. While things like large lectures will take place online, smaller seminars of limited numbers may take place face-to-face.
- Online exams. The end of year exams may be held online, with either open-book or online proctoring options.
- Deferred start dates. Some universities are giving students the chance to start their courses in January rather than September.
- Virtual careers fairs and freshers’ week. Events that would usually take place in-person are also being moved online, with opportunities for virtual reality experiences.
Of course, things like online degrees aren’t totally new. Many universities already offer learning opportunities that are totally online and remote, and many learners have taken advantage of these over recent years.
Is online university worth it?
So, given that many students in the UK will be getting their exam results shortly, is online university worth it? As you might expect, this isn’t a particularly easy question to answer. There are plenty of positives and a few negatives that you could argue either way.
Ultimately, it’s a question that often comes down to the individual and their learning aims. However, to give a bit of context to the decision, we’ve outlined a few of the pros and cons that you might want to take into account.
The pros of online university
Although we might be a little biased, we think there’s a lot to like about studying online. With technology where it is today, eLearning has never been easier or more effective. Here are some of the things that make online university worth it:
With a distance learning program, you get a lot of freedom to decide where and when you study. You don’t have to be physically present in a lecture hall or classroom, and oftentimes, your timetable is also fairly flexible.
For those with an already busy life, an online degree can mean that you can fit your studies around your existing commitments. New students can ease into the life of degree study, and mature students can balance work and family life.
University is often an expensive undertaking. As well as things like tuition fees, students studying on campus must also think about accommodation, food, and lifestyle costs. With online university study, you don’t necessarily have to have these expenses (depending on your circumstances).
With the diverse range of distance learning degrees on offer, you can find a qualification that matches your financial situation. Online-only programs also generally tend to cost less. What’s more, for the 2020/21 academic year, those students whose degrees will be mostly online are still eligible for student loans.
If you’re trying to budget and plan financially, online studies could be the ideal choice. Aside from your tuition fees, most of your other expenses won’t change that much.
Traditional university life can often mean a lot of travel and waiting around. Not only do you have to get yourself up and onto campus for your early lectures, but you then have to plan your day around a schedule that might not be that full. These timetable gaps can give you the chance to study, but only if you can find somewhere quiet and close enough to do so.
With remote learning, you don’t have to worry about the extra commute or the lost time. You can study during the times that are convenient for your existing lifestyle. An online lecture can be attended from the comfort of your own home, while you can read and complete assignments from anywhere that suits you.
In days gone by, some industries would look down on distance learning qualifications. However, that’s no longer the case. Both nonprofit and for-profit universities across the country now offer online degrees.
Some of the top institutions in the country are giving students the chance to study at least some of their programs via the internet. As such, employers of all kinds are accepting such qualifications, making online university worth it now and in the long-term. Given the current situation with COVID-19, many students will be studying in this manner.
While it’s true that there are many skills you learn when going to university in person, there are also plenty that you can learn through online learning. These skills will help you in many different areas of your personal and professional life.
There are several study skills you’ll have to master to make online university worth it. This includes those such as:
- Studying and reflecting on what you’ve learned.
- Communicating and collaborating with others, even when you’re not face-to-face.
- Creating a professional online presence as a student.
- Critical thinking.
- Developing a research project.
- Perfecting your study techniques.
You’ll also have to work on things like time-management, setting your own deadlines, and being persistent with your studies.
The cons of online university
Of course, no form of learning is perfect for every single learner. There are some things you get when you’re on campus that you just can’t currently get when learning online. We’ve highlighted some of the common downsides of online university:
A lack of connection
For many, a significant part of the university experience is as much about meeting new people and making new friends. Although it’s not impossible to do with online learning, it’s definitely harder. For those studying totally online, you won’t have the same camaraderie that you get in halls of residence or at the student union.
And it’s not just the friendship side of things that might suffer. When you’re on campus, you encounter all kinds of new and diverse people, many of whom you’ll have to find ways to work with and get along with. Although some collaborative group work is common with online study, the teamwork side of things might not be quite as representative of face-to-face collaboration.
Fewer networking opportunities
Effective networking is an essential skill when it comes to building towards your career. At university, you’ll meet people who are studying in a diverse range of fields, and building these connections can expand your professional network for the future. The same applies to academics and other professionals you encounter along the way, such as at careers fairs and community events.
Without the face-to-face interactions, it can be a little harder (although not impossible) to build the same networks. It might take more effort on your part to find and maintain the relationships that will benefit you further down the line.
One of the big draws of moving to university is the freedom that it can provide. You get the chance to take responsibility for your own actions and decisions, which can often lead to personal growth. However, you still often have some framework and timetable within which you have to study, with scheduled seminars, meetings, and other events.
Online study often lacks this same level of structure, meaning you have to take more responsibility for your learning. Yes, this gives you more flexibility, however, for some learners, this can also mean that things like procrastination creep in.
Lack of individual attention
When you’re attending a lecture or seminar in-person, you have your professor or tutor physically there in front of you. Not only does this mean that you can raise your hand and ask questions directly, but it also means that they’ll likely have dedicated office hours when you can visit them.
Many online learning platforms are encouraging more direct contact with tutors and academics. However, it’s not quite as widespread, convenient, or personal as it is when the meeting is face-to-face. For those who like lots of guidance and tutoring, this lack of contact can be a hindrance.
Not feasible for all subjects
Ultimately, there are some subject areas that aren’t particularly well suited to online learning at the moment. Although you can learn some of the fundamentals and key principles of just about any subject online, many of the more technical and specialist roles involve some level of hands-on experience.
An example is this group of veterinary students who recently returned to university education. The practical side of their study is essential to becoming full-fledged professionals.
Online university FAQs
If you’re still trying to decide what makes online university worth it or not, we’ve got answers to some of the most commonly asked questions to help you out:
Q. Are online degrees challenging?
A. Yes, you’ll find that many online university qualifications are designed to challenge you and improve your knowledge. You’ll also usually have access to support to help you along the way.
Q. How long does it take to complete an online degree?
A. The answer to this depends on a few factors. For example, if you’re studying on a part-time basis, it will take you longer than a full-time qualification. It also depends on the subject, and even the university.
Q. Will I meet other students?
A. It’s highly likely that you’ll get to interact with other students taking the same course as you. You might not get to meet in person as part of your studies, but you’ll still communicate and collaborate with them.
Q. What will assignments be like?
A. Again, this will vary quite a bit from program to program and university to university. However, online assignments will usually follow a similar structure to in-person counterparts.
Q. How about exams?
A. There are several options when it comes to exams, again depending on the subject/university. Some will opt for open-book exams, while others may choose proctored exams at a local testing site. There may also be online exam proctoring, where the test is virtually monitored by a person or software.
Q. Where can I study from?
A. The beauty of online university is that you can study from just about anywhere, provided you have a reliable internet connection.
Q. I’m feeling anxious about studying due to the coronavirus, what can I do?
A. It’s not uncommon to feel unsettled during this time. Many universities have student wellbeing resources and services to help in these circumstances.