Whether you're looking to update your skills or are planning on studying a degree alongside other commitments, consider what online learning platforms have to offer and choose one that allows you to get the qualification you need while learning at your own pace

An online learning platform is best described as a website where you can access and interact with a wealth of educational content on a range of subjects and at different levels, with online courses typically available from beginner to degree standard, depending on the provider.

Once signed up for a course, you'll be able to utilise the learning resources designed for that programme. This could be in the form of recorded lectures or course materials such as documents or videos. You’ll also be able to track your progress while completing the award.

These platforms offer flexible online learning experiences to their users as they provide a dedicated virtual learning environment (VLE) where students can learn new skills and achieve qualifications.

They may also serve as a community for like-minded individuals, providing a space to meet your course tutors and other students through Microsoft Teams, Google Meet or Zoom calls.

Comparing online learning providers

When it comes to deciding on the right platform for your needs, you'll need to consider the following:

  • Platform structure and ease of navigation - this would relate to the system features and course delivery. For instance, how easy is it to sign up for a course and achieve a certificate? Is the site set out well and can you find what you're looking for? Is it easy to learn through the platform?
  • Type of course and qualifications - do you want to study for a degree, short course or professional qualification? There are online providers that offer a range of options in terms of subject or qualification level, while others are more specialised. You'll also need to know if the course is certified by a professional body or if it’s nationally recognised.
  • Course length and flexibility - short courses can be studied online within a matter of hours while undergraduate and integrated Masters degrees can take up to four years. You'll need to think about how much flexibility the provider offers in terms of online attendance and learning as you go along.
  • Course content and its presentation - closely linked to the point above, will you be studying a series of modules delivered through pre-recorded lectures, webinars and ebooks? Do you need to buy your own materials and be available for live seminars, with an increased level of participant involvement? Are the videos provided up to date and of a high standard? How are exams administered, and how is the coursework assessed?
  • Community and support - does the platform allow for students to discuss the course, their ideas and plans for after graduation? Are you assigned a personal tutor, and is one-to-one support available? Is this delivered through video sessions or a chat facility?
  • Cost of study - is the course providing value for money? Is the qualification more expensive than learning through the in-person option? Are any of the expenses included, such as course materials?
  • Reputation and quality - does the online learning platform have a good record in terms of satisfied learners? Do students consistently graduate with strong grades comparable to universities and other institutions where you can only study in person? How do recruiters view qualifications gained through online learning?

The cost of distance learning courses

Here's what you can generally expect to spend on course fees for a range of qualifications:

  • Masters degrees - fees are similar or slightly cheaper than a classroom-based course, which range from £4,000 to £22,000 (averaging at around £8,500). For example, a two-year online MSc Master of Business Management (MBM) with the University of Essex Online in 2023/24 costs £12,167, including course materials, assessments and resits. The one-year full-time option at the same institution is £14,300. Some institutions charge per module rather than for a full postgraduate degree. For instance, the MSc Supply Chain Management and Logistics with Heriot-Watt Online costs £1,248 per unit (course), and £9,984 for the full programme.
  • Undergraduate degrees - with a three-year honours degree amounting to £27,750 (see student loans and finance), you'll typically find online degrees to be considerably cheaper. For example, the Open University charges £20,772 for both full and part-time programmes, while it costs £18,500 to study an honours degree with the University of Essex Online.
  • A-Levels - for UK students aged over 18, you'll have to pay to study A-levels. At FE (further education) colleges, you can expect to pay up to £1,000 for two A-levels. This may or may not include exam fees, which can set you back £84 to £190 per exam. Achieving A-levels online is priced at a similar rate. The Open Study College charges £549 per course, with fees at the Online Learning College set at £499 - both include exam fees in the price.
  • Short courses/Microcredentials - many short courses are free but those with some form of accreditation will usually require a fee. FutureLearn operates a monthly subscription model for its university programmes that come with digital certificates. Microcredentials typically range between £500 and £1,500, depending on the course and university credit it offers. For instance, the 12-week Cyber Security Operations microcredential, a collaboration between Cisco and The Open University, costs £650, while the University of Birmingham's eight-week Programme and Project Management microcredential, run by the Institute of Local Government Studies (INLOGOV), charges £1,250. The latter course can lead to advanced entry onto the Online Masters of Public Administration (MPA).

As prices vary between course providers, it's always advisable to do your research to find the best one for your needs.

Online Bachelors and Masters degrees

More and more universities in the UK are increasing their online degree course offering, as they realise that not everyone can devote three years of full-time study towards achieving a Bachelors or a full year to complete a Masters.

So, if you have childcare, work or other commitments, they're no longer a barrier to further study, with qualifications that can either be studied fully online or through a blended approach - a mixture of distance and classroom-based teaching. Read more about blended learning.

Most of the same factors will come into play as when choosing the right degree or Masters course as the qualification, course structure and employability prospects are important considerations, but with distance learning degrees location is typically less of a deciding factor.

The following universities and learning providers host online platforms for Bachelors and/or Masters degrees:

For example, you could choose to study the four-year BA Business and Management with the University of Essex Online. This is delivered by Kaplan Open Learning through their VLE, which provides access to:

  • multimedia lecturecasts - for example, short videos, infographics, animations
  • discussion forums
  • Q&A sessions and live seminars
  • an online library of textbooks and journals
  • help and guidance from the student support team.

Consider working while studying for a part-time Masters degree and explore your postgraduate funding options.

Search all online Masters degrees.

College qualifications

If you're interested in gaining qualifications at FE level, you can now choose from a range of A-levels, BTEC diplomas, HNCs and other courses such as GCSEs.

Here are some of the online platforms that offer these qualifications:

  • Online Learning College - specialises in business and management, childcare and early years, health and social care and teaching assistant courses at Levels 2-4. You can also study GCSEs in subjects such as mathematics or geography.
  • Open Study College - over 700 vocational courses are available in subjects ranging from accounting to teaching and writing and media. The selection spans A-levels and diplomas, including the Access to Higher Education, all the way through to professional accounting qualifications such as the ACCA and CIMA.
  • Oxford Learning College - you can pick from a range of animal care, law, management and sport A-levels or diplomas, equivalent to BTEC and HNC standards (Levels 3 and 4).

Find out about online college courses and the FE sector in general.

Short courses

A 2022 Censuswide survey of UK adults showed how over a quarter (28%) of respondents preferred to learn from an online course rather than in a classroom. The increase in popularity of short courses can be put down to their flexible nature, ease of access and a growing choice, especially noticeable over the past few years.

Whether you have a subject in mind or are just curious about learning something that piques your interest, there's something to suit. Have you ever wanted to learn a new language, get into filmmaking or develop your digital skills? If so, there are websites dedicated to you achieving this outcome.

Some courses can be studied in a matter of hours, while others take a number of weeks or months to complete.

A selection of providers that offer short courses that can be studied 100% online include:

  • edX - Learn - pursue a new interest by exploring animation, nutrition or Shakespeare, or advance your career in areas such as business administration, computer programming or law. These courses are delivered by a number of global universities and well-known brands.
  • FutureLearn - Short online courses - from courses run in partnership with global universities to those designed by charities and other organisations, you can study anything from business and management to psychology and mental health. FutureLearn also provides students with the opportunity to gain specialist skills through its ExpertTracks series, run in collaboration with organisations such as the BBC, Salesforce and Tableau. With well over a hundred options available, you can hone your skills in anything from business and management, IT and computer science, and teaching and healthcare.
  • LinkedIn Learning - choose from over 22,200 courses designed by experts and delivered through a series of bite-sized videos. These are available in subjects ranging from career management and job searching to electrical engineering and artificial intelligence (AI) foundations.
  • Skillshare - for creatives working in fields such as animation, fine art, graphic design, photography, and film and video. Thousands of courses are available from beginner to advanced level with classes delivered through expert videos.
  • Udemy - provides access to over 210,000 online video courses from drawing to data science and web development. So, whether you're an IT professional looking to learn how to code using Python or are an amateur photographer eager to build skills for your favourite hobby, there's something to suit.


If you're already in employment and looking to upgrade your skills, microcredentials are a good option to consider. These short standalone undergraduate-level qualifications, typically offered by universities and other learning providers, can usually be completed within three months.

The range of subjects you can study is growing all the time, but currently include:

  • business and management
  • healthcare and medicine
  • human resource management
  • IT and computer science
  • marketing
  • psychology and mental health
  • teaching.

You can choose to study these courses with the following providers:

Get the lowdown on microcredentials.

Find out more

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