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How online degree programs will change learning

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With online education courses giving students the flexibility to study remotely, as well as granting them access to world class teaching from the comfort of their own home, it is no surprise that participation in online degree courses has grown rapidly in recent years.

According to data published by NCES in 2019, 34.7% of all enrolled college students in the US took at least one online course in 2018, a 1.6% rise on the previous year1.

The number of universities offering online degree courses has also continued to rise with approximately 76% of degree-granting institutions offering them in 2016–17, compared to 70% in 20122.

The increasing number of UK universities offering online courses over the past 5 years has also led to a rise in international students choosing to study at a UK university via distance learning.

Since 2011 the numbers of American students studying at UK universities entirely via online degrees has increased by 26%, Canadian numbers have risen by 41% and Australian and South African numbers have soared a staggering 125% and 135% respectively3.

The reasons for studying online today

The appeal of online learning is well documented; the most obvious factors in this popularity being location and flexibility. Online degree 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; according to the 2019 Education Report published by Best Colleges, more than half (59%) of online students surveyed have children4.

Not being restricted by location is especially important in the online education market. According to a recent report published by Learning House, 67% of online students live within 50 miles of their chosen school, 10% between 51 and 100 miles and 15% more than 100 miles away5.

Both location and flexibility also have a close relationship with the overall lower cost of online learning. 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 programs 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.

How online will change the way everyone learns

The growth of students studying either wholly or partially online impacts the future of university study as a whole.

Students who undertake a mix of campus based and online modules are particularly interesting as both a catalyst for the wider adoption of full online courses, as well as providing an indication that an online aspect is inevitable in many degree programs.

Even for students who are 100% campus based, 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 degrees are in employment: specifically, 59% are in full-time employment while 18% are in part-time employment5. 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; many people return to study at a later stage in their career – 19% are aged between 25-29, 12% 30–34 and 10% 35–395. 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.

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.

The University of Birmingham offers a range of UK based 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.


  1. UNKNOWN (2019) IPEDS Data Explorer [Online] Available at:> [Accessed 03.03.20]
  2. Xu, D & Xu, Y (2019) The Promises and Limits of Online Higher Education [Online] Available at: <> [Accessed 03.03.20]
  3. UNKNOWN (2017) Number of international students studying online soars [Online] Available at: <> [Accessed 03.03.20]
  4. VENABLE, M (2019) 2019 Online Education Trends Report [Online] Available at: < [Accessed 03.03.20]
  5. ASLANIAN, C. ET AL (2019) Online college students [Online] Available at: <> [Accessed 03.03.20]

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