Online learning

Rachel Swain, Editorial manager
January, 2020

If you want to learn new skills or improve existing ones but need to study around work, family or existing commitments then an online course could be for you

The terms 'online course' and 'distance learning' are used interchangeably in some cases but it's worth checking with the university what your course is as it could mean differing levels of contact or expectations.

Postgraduate courses

You could do a Masters degree, postgraduate diploma or certificate online in a range of subjects including English and engineering. Your postgraduate online course will involve the same level of work as an on-campus course and the qualification you receive at the end will be the same level.

A computer, internet connection, standard office software such as Microsoft Word, a camera and a headset are all you need to get started. Any specialist software you need is often provided by the university but you will need to check this with the course leader.

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

Learning will be delivered through video lectures and you will need to complete assignments as you would in an on-campus degree. You will submit these online and any feedback will be delivered in the same way.

One of the major benefits of online study is the flexibility it offers. As there is no timetable you are free to study when and where you want, allowing you to fit it around work and other commitments. While fees vary depending on the course you will save money on travel and accommodation. You will also save money on textbooks as most materials are available online.

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.

You will usually 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. For example, one of the University of Southampton's recent MOOCs asked learners to share images of their local money or items which have been used as money in the past.

'Participants have the chance to share and learn from diverse perspectives and experiences. For prospective university applicants, a completed MOOC is evidence of a curious, enquiring spirit - and of an interest in the world beyond your classroom walls,' explains Kate Borthwick, director, programme development (online education) at the University of Southampton.

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.

'As MOOCs are free, it is easy to sign up for lots - and then not do them. However, if you are focused on something that really interests you, you will learn new things, make new contacts and broaden your knowledge and experience,' says Kate.

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, raising them to a higher level 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.

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