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Distance learning: A new frontier and what to expect

A guide on distance learning to help you find everything you need to know about online study and how to prepare yourself for virtual lectures, exams and more.

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We live in an increasingly connected and fast-moving world, with social media and the internet massively impacting the pace of how we all interact and work. This is also true within higher education, where online learning has enabled people to access academic programmes and degrees, where it may previously not have been possible. It’s kind of incredible that a student living in Pakistan for example can gain a qualification from a UK university without traveling there at all, don’t you think? This spread of knowledge and access to university is made possible by online courses, reliable technology and dedicated students and lecturers.


However, a common question is whether online learning is of the same quality as in-person teaching and what exactly it involves. We’re going to look at the similarities and differences between distance learning and traditional face-to-face study, all in light of the Covid-19 pandemic which has resulted in increased demand for online learning.


What are online examinations and assessments like?

For most distance learning courses, you will still be expected to submit your work so that it can be graded. That might be online exams or coursework, but either way, there will be the same or similar assessment methods as with traditional teaching.


Even for offline courses, coursework is predominantly submitted online through university submission platforms, so there will be no surprises there. The expectation will generally still be to write essays or reports which must adhere to university academic standards. The major difference is that exams will be conducted online from your own home instead of an exam centre or at the university.


Because it’s more difficult to moderate online exams, they tend to be open book, meaning you have access to your notes. Multiple choice is another common exam style when carried out online. However, universities might choose to use moderators on webcam to oversee exams.

What to expect from online lectures

One major difference between online and in-person learning is the method of teaching. As suggested by the name, distance learning enables students to learn from a destination of their choosing. So, lectures are carried out online via platforms such as Skype, Zoom or the university’s own platform. The institution will most likely provide resources and readings on a virtual learning system (VLE) such as blackboard. You should also be able to access the online library at the university just like on-campus students.


While virtual lectures might not suit everyone, they do allow for more flexibility and as long as you’re dedicated to making time to attend. There should be no difference in the outcome of your studies just because it’s online. It just might be an adjustment at first.


A lot of online courses record the lectures which students can access at a time that most suits them. The advantage of this is that you can go back as many times as you like to recap the material, unlike in a live classroom setting. Yet, some distance learning courses do offer live tutorials where you can interact with the professor for a more authentic experience.


Discover some of the world’s top online courses and universities.


What about support for online learning?

As with in-person courses, universities are aware of the support that students need and how this differs to on-campus courses. For example, if you need help with any technical issues, you can contact someone at the university. Similarly, if you need further academic support, you can contact your lecturer or student support office for advice.

Distance learning checklist

Any student starting university will have to think about what items they’ll need during their course. This is no different for online students:


  • A functioning laptop or computer for lectures and assessments (phones are not suitable).
  • Stationery such as notepad/pen
  • Any offline reading/printed notes
  • A workspace without too many distractions
  • Video conferencing platforms such as Zoom
  • A stable internet connection
  • Webcam


Making friends when studying online

One downside to online learning is that you’re not sitting in the same room as your peers. However, many distance learning courses or courses that start online offer forums where you can chat with your course mates and discuss work and assignments. You can also reach out to them on social media as it’s always a benefit to have friends while you study and someone you can speak to if you’re struggling with the work.

Staying committed when studying online

Just like on campus students, if you’re studying online you will need to commit time and be dedicated to the course in order to qualify. What you put in is what you get out. So, although online distance courses are flexible, you need to make sure that you actually have the time to complete the modules and assessments. It will also be crucial should you wish to transfer to on-campus learning. On average, online students will be expected to study for 12-15 hours per week, but there is greater room for flexibility than if you were a student on campus with set times.


Find distance learning courses and courses that start online today!