More flexible and often cheaper than studying in person, online and distance learning courses are ideal for those who need to fit their studies around previous commitments

What is online and distance learning?

Also referred to as e-learning, as the name suggests, online learning courses are conducted 100% online. Students participate in a virtual learning environment, where they watch lectures and seminars, access student resources and submit assignments digitally. All contact with tutors and fellow students is conducted online via discussion forums and email.

Distance learning courses don't require you to be physically present at university, instead you study at home at your own pace. While distance learning programmes often incorporate online study components, some resources will be sent to students via post and you may also have the option of attending workshops.

Be aware that the terms 'online' and 'distance learning' are often used interchangeably, but at different institutions they mean different things, so it's best to check with your university what an online or distance learning course involves in terms of contact levels and expectations before committing to a programme.

Online and distance learning courses are particularly suited to students with work or family commitments as you can fit your study hours around your lifestyle. In fact, the flexibility these programmes provide is one of the main advantages of pursuing this mode of study. On the other hand, courses of this nature require a huge amount of dedication and self-discipline.

Can I study an online Masters course?

You can do a Masters degreepostgraduate diploma or certificate online in a range of subjects from English and engineering to policing and education. Entry requirements are usually the same as for on-campus courses - typically a 2:1 Bachelors degree in a relevant subject.

Your online postgraduate course will involve the same level of work as an on-campus programme and the qualification you receive at the end will be the same. You can choose between full-time, flexible or part-time options.

Examples of online Masters courses include:

  • MA Education, University of Exeter
  • MSc Health Psychology, University of Liverpool
  • MSc Nuclear Science and Technology, The University of Manchester
  • PGCert Climate Change Management, University of Edinburgh
  • PGDip Creative Writing, University of York.

Search for online and distance learning courses and find out, which Masters is right for you.

A computer, internet connection, standard office software such as Microsoft Word, a camera and a headset are all you need. The university often provides any required specialist software, but check this with the course leader.

One concern of studying online is the lack of interaction with peers. However, universities are keen to build communities of online students and provide discussion forums. You may also have video tutorials and live seminars with your lecturers.

As there is no central applications system for postgraduate study you'll apply online and send your application directly to your chosen university, just like for on-campus programmes. Institutions set their own application criteria so check what they require. Learn more about applying for a Masters.

Fees vary depending on the course and institution. For example, the MSc Health Psychology degree at the University of Liverpool costs £15,300, while the PGDip Creative Writing at the University of York costs £3,040 and the MA Education at the University of Exeter will set UK and international students back £15,000.

Bear in mind that by studying for an online or distance learning course you'll save money on travel and accommodation. You'll also save money on textbooks, as most materials are available online. Get advice on postgraduate funding.

What are Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs)?

Covering a range of topics, MOOCs are free meaning anyone can register and learn from them. They are offered by well-respected universities and other organisations using their own expert staff, and made available through central MOOC platforms, such as Futurelearn, EdX and Coursera. To take part, register on the platform and then join any of the courses.

To complete the course you'll watch short videos, which give key information and context, read short articles, post comments on course activities, and get involved in discussions with other participants.

Facilitators tutor some MOOCs while others are self-accessed. Many MOOCs also feature activities, which involve learners creating and sharing their own content with other learners, such as videos, audio recording and images.

The length of the MOOC, how many study hours you need to commit and what you receive at the end of the course differ depending on what you study and where. You need to do your research and make sure you can commit the time to get the most out of the course.

Are CPD courses available online?

Continuing professional development (CPD) involves you continually developing your academic and practical skills to make sure you're the best at your job. This could involve perfecting existing skills or learning new ones.

For some professions CPD is a formal requirement of your professional body membership or licence to carry out your job. You're required to do a certain number of hours and everything needs to be documented. In other professions it's used more generally and everyone is expected to keep their knowledge and skills up to date. Either way, it's worth keeping a log of everything you do.

First you need to identify any gaps you want to fill or any skills you need to improve. Then decide how to meet these needs, for example, whether an e-learning course or a workshop would be more suitable.

A number of institutions offer online CPD courses. For example, Bath College, University College London, the University of Derby, University of Leeds, University of Liverpool and the University of Southampton all offer online CPD programmes in subjects from arts and humanities and healthcare to teaching and engineering.

While some courses can be studied for free, others incur a fee. The price of online CPD courses varies widely; from £150 to in excess of £5,000, so you'll need to do your research and be sure that the course will benefit your career before taking the plunge. In some instances, your employer may pay for courses if you can demonstrate the value of up-skilling to the company - but this is a conversation you'll need to have with your line manager.

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