Growth of online degree programmes and how they will change learning

Participation in online degree programmes is growing rapidly on an international scale, but the immediate, explosive future of public and academic interest for online learning is most clearly visible in the United States, where courses are firmly established and the bulk of research on the topic is published. This is a market where, according to one report:

  • More than 80% of public universities in the US and half of private universities offer at least one fully online programme
  • 5.5 million students (26% of all university students) took at least one online module in 2012
  • 2.6 million students (13% of all university students) took a fully online course in 2012
    • 2 million students were undergraduates
    • 600 thousand were graduates
  • Roughly one third of online students say that they wouldn’t take an on-campus programme even if it were available to them

While trends in the United States don’t always translate directly, the UK’s top universities are taking steps to emulate (and improve upon) these US-based successes. The University of Birmingham, for instance, has offered Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), designed to offer a taste of higher education to learners from across the UK and the world, since 2013. Similarly, 2015 will see the launch of the University of Birmingham’s postgraduate distance learning courses. Read on to find out how US market statistics show us the global appeal of online education today, and how they hint at a future of global competition.

The reasons for studying online today

The appeal of online learning is well documented; the most obvious factors in this popularity may be location and flexibility. Online courses do not require you to move nearer campus, so you’re free to continue living wherever you like and can fit your education around existing work and family commitments.

Study that is location agnostic is especially important in the online learning market. Returning to the aforementioned US-based 2014 data, we see that only 48% of undergraduates are within 50 miles of their institution. Not only are 31% more than 100 miles away, but the number who study further away is increasing – in 2012, just 25% were more than 100 miles away. This number is even more pronounced among postgraduate students: 48% studying an online course in 2014 were located at least 100 miles away from their institution. It is interesting to consider how this will translate locally – the distances involved hint at the potential for growing participation in UK online courses by European students, for instance.

Location and flexibility have a close relationship with the overall lower cost of online learning. The growth of online learning and the flexibility this enables, ensure that online students don’t have to worry about negotiating a (likely inflated) student rental market, they won’t have to pay to commute to local (or remote) universities and their existing job is more likely to assist with financing an online course.

Otherwise, people gravitate towards online degrees for many of the same reasons that people gravitate to other degrees: the value added to their CV, the improved job prospects and a simple love of studying principal among them. Interestingly, many of the attributes associated with graduates are arguably enhanced by opting to study online. If completing a three-year course displays motivation and organisational soft skills, completing a course without the rigid campus attendance timetable may be even more attractive to future employers. The growth of online education will only increase in years to come.

How online will change the way everyone learns

One of the more interesting forecasts made based on US trends is that “eventually, about one-third of university students will study fully online, one-third will study only on campus, and one-third will do both.” 5.5 million students are already in the latter category – the number that took at least one online course in 2012 outnumber the 2.6 million exclusively studying online.

The group of students studying both online and off are interesting as both a catalyst for wider adoption of full online courses and an indication that an online aspect is inevitable in many degree programmes. Even among the third forecasted to study fully on campus it is surely likely that:

  • They will socialise with students in the mixed approach group
  • They will attend seminars and lectures with students in the mixed approach group
  • They will benefit from resources specifically produced for the benefit of those studying online
  • They may actually be involved in the production of these online study materials

These passive contact points will quickly help normalise online learning as a standard component of higher education, and the effects would be widely beneficial. However, these points assume a situation where study is essentially separate rather than integrated. Ultimately, universities thrive when people from different disciplines and different walks of life learn together – and online specifically facilitates a convergence of different philosophies and backgrounds.

International students are already an important part of campus life, and the prospect of even greater diversity within learning groups will further enhance study. A lack of geographical barriers could lead to a very competitive market: when two degrees available thousands of miles apart are just as attainable as each other, the institutions who offer them will have to evolve their offering if they are to remain competitive. This level of competition has the potential to drive course quality higher – once again, benefiting all who study.

The majority studying online are in employment: specifically, 46% are in full-time employment while 24% are in part-time employment. Among both sets will be those studying to advance their careers and those in an employment holding pattern simultaneously pursuing a career change.

Making career-related education and retraining more accessible doesn’t just benefit individuals; entire industries become more flexible, quicker to react to developing technology and other wider changes. Fresh skills and expertise become less tied to the arrival of each new generation in the workforce; already, the most frequently occurring age ranges in online education are 25–29 (18%), 30–34 (16%), and 35–39 (13%). Having more students in the system with an experience of the working world can only be a good thing too: the demands that professionals place on course leaders and curriculum creators will filter down to younger students.

Conclusion: online is integral to the future of learning

The wider adoption of online learning has the potential to improve opportunities for those who wouldn’t ordinarily have access, to change patterns of study and to enrich the university lives of those who continue to attend on campus. Students of online degrees aren’t tied down to specific locations, enjoy greater flexibility in how and when they learn, benefit from greater affordability, and are presented with a wider variety of degree options.

This isn’t to say online study is a soft option – the need to juggle work and study and to compensate for a lack of face-to-face teaching contact ensures that only hard working, tenacious students will thrive. Online learning isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution, but it’s already a major part of study in the United States and the effectiveness of education is only going to improve once popularity increases worldwide.

Do the new studying possibilities of online degrees appeal to you? Have your say with the interactive poll below and discuss your reasoning in the comments.

We have more articles on the subject of success and the wider education landscape in the coming weeks – to stay up to date, follow the University of Birmingham on Facebook and Twitter, for updates.

The University of Birmingham offers a range of online degrees. If you are interested in returning to study via distance learning, please fill out our request for information form or contact a member of our Admissions Team. 


Clinefelter, David L. and Aslanian, Carol B. (2014) Online College Students 2014: Comprehensive Data on Demands and Preferences. Learning House [Online]. Available from: [Accessed: 16 July 2015]

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it is a fact that the educational LANDSCAPE is REVOLUTIONIZING with online degree education storming and transforming the whole education system to a large extent. online education is now a reality and universities are fast adopting and adding online learning to their conventional teaching-learning modes. online education does not only benefit the university students with reduced costs and convenience but also benefits universities UTILIZING it THROUGH an ACROSS-the-board cost-cutting edge. There is now very much reduced overheads and operational costs as much as reduced need for physical resources. overall for the UNIVERSITIES and their online learners online degrees are a huge benefit. Communities, nations, and employers are finding THEMSELVES with people with more skills, knowledge and value that they can put to immediate use while they simultaneously learn. online learning GLOBALIZES learning accessibility. and it is a perfect option for busy populations. however the greatest challenges online faces for now is gaining praise and recognition by some employers who have for centuries come to believe that degrees are only conventionally obtained within universities' four walls. once the recognition war is FOUGHT and won the revolution is eventually complete

Whilst the benefits of on line learning are highlighted here i do belIeve a combination of both online and face to face teaching (BLENDED leArning) will also appeal as human BEINGS need to make 'personal cOnnections' and nothing can substitute for meEting others face to face

Online Degrees will help to Work and study at the same time.

The article on Growth of Online degree programs and how they will change learning was very informative. It confirmed my thoughts on this subject. From my experience it is a reality that I will have to undertake an online degree in light of my work commitments if I am to remain relevant and in demand in the workplace.

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