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Online Learning - What is it and how does it work?


Online learning is a challenging but extremely rewarding way to achieve an array of qualifications - there are online options for everything from certificates to PhDs. Once surrounded by stigma, online education is now a respected way to achieve a recognized qualification. With courses available in almost every subject, and flexible timetables to suit almost every schedule, students are increasingly turning to online learning as a viable alternative to campus study. It could allow you to study abroad remotely, at a university not in your home country.

Advances in technology now allow students to study entirely online while still socializing with classmates, watching lectures and participating in subject-specific discussions.

While some consider online learning to require a greater degree of self-motivation, institutions nowadays recognize that pastoral support is just as important as tutor feedback, and take great care to ensure that their students receive the same levels of support that they would receive on campus.

The facts and figures about online learning

  • 5.8 million students are now enrolled in online courses
  • 75% of undergraduate students are aged 25 or over
  • 90% of students think that online learning is the same or better than the traditional classroom experience

Statistics taken from

Male student looks at his laptop

Resources for online learning

The format and delivery of resources varies greatly between different online institutions. Many institutions currently utilize a combination of paper textbooks and physical resources; however, these are generally being phased out in favor of eBooks and online methods of delivery.

For those institutions that have made the transition to using 100% online resources, students can expect to study using a combination of cutting-edge resources with no need to travel to attend lectures, exams or in-person discussion sessions.

These online resources often include (but are not limited to):

  • Textbooks
  • Journals
  • Videos
  • Recorded lectures
  • Quizzes
  • Discussion forums
  • Live Q&A sessions
  • Interviews

The institution and course leader will determine the format that each course uses, and will select delivery methods that are best suited to the individual program.

What types of online resource will I encounter?

Here’s a quick overview of the main types of resources you can expect to encounter on an online course, and how to get the most out of them!

  • eBooks, textbooks & journals

These written materials are essential resources on almost every course, online or not. Using your module reading list, or guided by your tutor, a student needs to dedicate the appropriate time to reading and understanding the topics. The main advantage of using this medium (particularly eBooks) is the fact that they are completely portable, allowing you to study on the go.

Pro tip:

When you’re researching a course, remember to check whether your textbooks are included in your tuition fees.

  • Recorded lectures

An essential way of absorbing a large amount of information in a relatively short amount of time, lectures are a staple of online and campus-based learning.

Pro tip:

If you can, make notes throughout your lecture; this will make it easier to review for later examinations, and to prepare for assignments.

  • Interactive sessions

The greatest challenge an online education provider faces is how to replicate the face-to-face interaction and in-person discussions that on-campus institutions can easily provide. In order to overcome this, online providers often use a combination of discussion forums and question-and-answer sessions.

Pro tip:

Before beginning an online discussion or session, make sure you read the rules and requirements; some institutions may require you to create posts that have a minimum word count.

"For institutions using 100% online resources, students can expect to study using a combination of cutting-edge resources with no need to travel to attend lectures, exams or in-person discussion sessions."

How will my resources be delivered?

Online students often think that their resources will be delivered via email, or even by post. However, most institutions are moving away from this unreliable method of delivery.

The course or module’s learning resources will be delivered via the institution’s online learning environment; this will vary greatly depending on the software used, but it will usually consist of a central online platform that students can access from their personal PC, mobile or tablet.

One of the major benefits of utilizing resources that are hosted entirely online is the flexibility this allows. Online students can choose to access their course information and complete their set assessment pieces at any time; this allows them to fit their studies around their work, family and other commitments. This also means that students who wish to continue working while studying do not have to put their career on hold.

Two female students study online together

How is online learning assessed?

Online learning is similar in many ways to on-campus study; students still need to be tested at regular intervals throughout the program to check their understanding of the course material. For those new to online education, this process can be intimidating; however, there’s no reason to worry. Online institutions have developed a number of ways to assess students’ learning that still work 100% online.

Here’s a quick overview of the main types of assessment you’re likely to encounter on an online course:

  • Assignments

These are probably the method of assessment that students will have the most experience with; for each assignment, you’ll receive your topic, deadline and word count and will be required to produce a structured, reasoned argument within those boundaries. 

  • Discussion activities

Face-to-face, personal discussion between friends and colleagues is something that we all do every day, however an online academic discussion requires a different set of skills, and doesn’t always come as naturally to everyone. These activities will differ depending on the institution, but your tutor will generally start each discussion off with a question or topic for debate.  Students then need to research this and post their response to the task demonstrating their own knowledge and understanding which will include entering into debate with the ideas and views posted by fellow students.

  • Journal activities

Again, these are little different and students may not have encountered them before.  A journal entry is an ongoing update  in which there is an opportunity to reflect back on what has been learned during the period under review and its applicability going forward. Unlike other assignments, it is acceptable to use a subjective, personal style of writing in journal entries and refer to oneself in the first person.  This is actually the most suitable approach as the aim is to reflect on your own learning over the course of the module

  • Exams

Although they can be nerve-wracking, exams are a great way to test your learning. Online institutions that use exams to assess learning will often partner with exam centers to allow students to complete their test in a controlled environment. Other institutions may choose to allow students to complete their exams on their own personal computer, in a location of their choosing. Because tutors have no way to oversee a virtual exam or test, they are typically open-book and open-note.

How do online institutions prevent cheating?

Many people are concerned that online students can simply cheat their way to success by purchasing assignments or using revision materials during virtual examinations. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth. In order to gain a recognized qualification from an online course, the assessment method must also be above reproach.

Tutors and institutions work hard to ensure that cheating is almost impossible on an online course; they do this by making use of advanced plagiarism detection software. Every single submission is scrutinized electronically using this software, and then will also be subject to additional checks by the tutor.

"Tutors and institutions work hard to ensure that cheating is almost impossible on an online course."

Female student shakes someone's hand

Recognition of online qualifications

Online learning was once surrounded by stigma, tainted by the illegal market for fake certificates and ‘diploma mills’. Luckily, these opinions are changing and online education is now a respected method of obtaining a recognized and validated degree or qualification.

Despite this, students researching online institutions are still encouraged to research the validity of the institution. Important recognition to look out for includes:

  • Outcomes from monitoring visits by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA)

This is the UK independent body entrusted with monitoring, and advising on, standards and quality in UK higher education. They are “dedicated to checking that the three million students working towards a UK qualification get the higher education experience they are entitled to expect”.​​

  • Results from the National Student Survey (NSS)

The National Student Survey is a high-profile survey carried outby final-year UK undergraduate students. An institution’s results reflect the level of support and quality that an establishment provides. It is an excellent measure of quality and recognition.

  • Statistics on the HEFCE ‘Register of HE providers’ 

“The HEFCE Register is a searchable tool that shows how the Government regulates higher education providers in England”. It provides the provider’s legal name and address, the powers it has and the regulatory standards it is required to meet, and links to further information about the provider.

  • Listing on the website Unistats

This is “the official site that allows you to search for and compare data and information on university and college courses from across the UK. The site draws together comparable information on those areas that students have identified as important in making decisions about what and where to study.” 

Many online institutions will partner with a campus-based university to create and deliver their online programs. This enables an online institution to benefit from the specialized knowledge and technology that an online provider can offer, while the online institution is then able to offer validated degree courses.

"Students considering online study should not be deterred by old-fashioned ideas about ‘real’ degrees only being awarded by campus-based institutions."

Many employers are also beginning to recognize online degrees, and students considering online study should not be deterred by old-fashioned ideas about ‘real’ degrees only being awarded by campus-based institutions. In fact, many employers now recognize that studying online (and part-time) takes a large amount of dedication and commitment and wish to employ people with these exact characteristics. Employers are always looking for candidates willing to ‘go the extra mile’, and applicants with the passion and drive to achieve a qualification while juggling family and work commitments can be exactly what they are looking for.

Think studying for an online degree is something uncommon? Think again; the latest statistics show that around 33% of college students are taking at least one course online and “eventually, one-third of college students expect to study online, one-third expect to study only on campus, and one-third will do both.” This increased participation will naturally lead to increased recognition for online learning.

Two male students help each other study online with a laptop

Support for online learners

An important aspect that determines the quality of a study experience is the level of support that students receive. Many students worry that online institutions will not be able to provide the support that they need. This concern is increasingly being recognized by online education providers, and many are working hard to ensure that students’ needs are met in this important area. The main concern that potential students have regarding support is the lack of face-to-face help that an online course provides; however, by using technology such as video calling in addition to the more traditional phone and email, virtual institutions are increasingly bridging the gap between online and on-campus student support.

Student Support Teams

A dedicated Student Support team often exists in many institutions; the sole function of this team is to provide pastoral care and support. Online (and part-time) students can experience problems and issues that are unique to this mode of study, and it’s important that the team you liaise with are experienced and sympathetic to this. Their advice can cover financial troubles to family commitments, and can range from minor technology niggles all the way up to something as major as a bereavement.

This isn’t the only support you receive on an online course; your fellow students are also a great source of help and advice. Using online discussion forums provided by the institution, WhatsApp and even Facebook groups, students can create an online community that supports each classmate as they overcome obstacles together as a group.

Pro tip:

When you’re researching your course, make sure to check the student satisfaction ratings from the independent National Student Survey (NSS) to ensure you’ll receive the student support you deserve.

In-house & Freelance Tutors

The role that personal and pastoral support plays in an online student’s success cannot be overstated. However, academic support also plays a vital role in creating a supportive learning environment.

Online institutions vary, but many utilize a combination of in-house and freelance tutors to create and deliver their courses. These tutors will be subject experts and will be able to give academic guidance and feedback at any point in the course.

Academic feedback can sometimes be tough to receive, particularly if you’ve put a great deal of effort into a piece, but this can often be the first step towards improvement and greater confidence. Your tutors will always provide constructive commentary, giving tips and advice for the future, and this can then lead to improved confidence in decision-making and broader subject-specific understanding.

Depending on the institution, your tutor should also be available for individual sessions, and you should also be able to contact your tutor directly. Individual sessions with your tutor will enable you to ask questions about topics covered within the course, and also to request further feedback on your progress and areas of development.

Pro tip:

During your course research, make sure you’ll receive the academic support you’ll need; check the office hours and availability of your tutors, the turnaround time for receiving your grades and the qualifications of the course leaders.

Find a program

The content of this guide has been developed in partnership with University of Essex Online.

About University of Essex Online

University of Essex - Online

University of Essex Online is an online education institution offering online and part-time degree courses in subjects including business, management, marketing, law, criminology, psychology, public health, infection control and an MBA. Students are supported by their own dedicated Student Adviser and receive quality teaching from industry leaders and subject experts while studying within a cutting-edge virtual learning environment. 

University of Essex Online received 90% for overall student satisfaction in the 2018 National Student Survey. They have also been awarded a gold rating in the 2018 TEF awards for consistently delivering outstanding teaching, learning and outcomes for their students.

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Last update: 22 Nov 2018

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