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Choosing what to study

What's distance learning?

Distance learning lets you study remotely without regular face-to-face contact with a teacher in the classroom.

Student on laptop doing distance learning


  1. What does distance learning involve?

  2. What are the pros and cons of distance learning?

  3. How do you apply for a distance learning course?

  4. Which UK universities offer distance learning courses?

  5. What are Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs)?

What does distance learning involve?

At undergraduate level, distance learning usually involves students engaging with learning materials at home or work. You also get tutorial support via a virtual learning environment, phone, email or other electronic means. There may be occasional face-to-face interactions with tutors and attendance at week-long summer schools.

You can study undergraduate, postgraduate and professional-level distance learning courses. Universities and colleges ensure their distance learning programmes and qualifications are of the same quality as campus-based programmes.

There was no way on earth I was going to be able to afford to stop working and do a degree full time. I was going to have to fit study around work, and distance learning is set up to allow you to do that – to be able to pick up learning as and when.

Jake, distance learning student

What are the pros and cons of distance learning?

Studying a degree through distance learning gives you a number of benefits:

  • You can fit your learning around your work and home life
  • You get to decide exactly when and where you study
  • You can gain a degree from anywhere in the world
  • Distance learning courses often cost less than full-time degrees, so you can save money

On the other hand, you won’t get to enjoy the social aspects of being on a campus with fellow students every day. 

How do you apply for a distance learning course?

Most distance learning degrees have specific entry requirements which may include previous educational qualifications and sometimes English language skills.

You apply directly to the course provider. A typical online admission process involves filling in a form and getting a reply from the institution offering you a place, asking for more information or declining your application.

Enrolment usually takes place a few weeks before the course starts. You get the opportunity to select modules you want to study and pay the first instalment of your course fees, after which you get confirmation and can begin your studies.

Student researching distance learning courses

Which UK universities offer distance learning courses?

Distance learning programmes are offered by a number of UK universities, including:

  • The Open University (diploma, undergraduate and postgraduate programmes)
  • Arden University (industry accredited degrees, master's and MBAs)
  • Edinburgh Napier University (MSc degrees)
  • University of Leicester (mainly postgraduate programmes)

Are universities thinking of doing online courses or teaching in September?

With COVID-19 drastically changing everyday life, the world is having to adapt. As a result, universities are finding ways to support their students and plan for the start of a new academic year, with institutions now preparing for courses to be accessed online. 

Some universities are proposing to start courses online for the first term and hopefully move on to conventional lectures in the second term, depending on when campuses are able to reopen. Some universities are planning to push course start dates to January. On the whole, it seems universities are willing to be as flexible as possible and adapt to the current climate.

It should be noted that these are current contingency plans for a possible scenario and are subject to change. 

However, the structure or availability will differ depending on courses or universities, so make sure you check with your chosen university and they'll keep you updated of any changes or developments. Depending on the degree you're studying, this may not be a preferable option for you and you may wish to defer. For now, it’s best to contact your university and discuss your options.

Are university assessments happening online?

Again, this depends on your university and course. Many universities (including Oxford and Cambridge) have announced their summer exams will be replaced with online assessments due to the coronavirus pandemic. Some have also suggested first and second year students being assessed on their previous work, while third year and higher students will take online exams. Most universities have help pages, advice and FAQs on their websites specifically designated to the current issues. Always check with your university about how your course will be affected. 

Are there distance learning courses for international students?

The beauty of online courses/distance learning is that you can do it from anywhere. The University of London, for example, offers online courses to international students. 

Of course, the best thing to do is to contact universities about courses you’re interested in. If you were planning to study in the UK, make sure to contact your chosen university about their arrangements for courses starting this year. As many universities are planning to move courses online for the start of the next academic year, you should be able to proceed with your application, but it's important to check with the university and voice any concerns you may have.

What are Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs)?

MOOCs offer university-level courses without the need to complete an entire programme of studies. They give you a flexible, affordable way to learn new skills and are becoming increasingly popular.

Video-based, they offer interaction either through peer review and group collaboration or automated feedback through objective, online assessments (including quizzes and exams). Videos are normally short and most of the activity takes place in online discussion groups and forums.

Benefits of studying a MOOC include:

  • Accessing quality courses at a lower cost (most courses are free)
  • The flexibility to combine it with other study or work
  • The convenience of studying wherever you are
  • No entry requirements

A key drawback is that MOOCs are self-contained – they don’t feed into a degree or other qualification. Content from a MOOC offered outside your home country may not match cultural and other conditions you’re familiar with.

Can MOOCs fill in the gaps during coronavirus?

There are many positives to studying MOOCs, but it all depends on your goals or reason for wanting to study. MOOCs are suited to supporting higher education and helping with your career rather than being a replacement for a degree. They are convenient, have good quality material, can help with professional or educational development, and look great on your CV.

They’re also ideal if you just want to learn for fun. And with them often allowing you to set your own pace, you can fit the work and assessments around your own schedule.

The following UK universities offer MOOCs through FutureLearn:

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