Online Learning – How Does It Work and Is It Right for Me?

Go back a few years and you’ll discover online learning just as a nice idea tying to emerge in a world dominated by traditional higher education and brick-and-mortar universities. But not anymore!

Maybe it was the advancement of technology, maybe it was people’s desire to have everything at their fingertips, maybe it was the quality of online learning, which is now arguably on par with that of traditional education — most likely, it was all of them, but the truth is: online learning has become incredibly popular and shows no sign of stopping in 2021.

In this article, we’ll go through the basics of online education, revealing how it works, what the main benefits are, and why it might be a good option for you.

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Online learning vs blended learning

Before diving into how online learning works, it’s important to first make the distinction between online and blended learning. Both of them fall into the category of distance learning or distance education, but you should remember that:

Online learning takes places 100% remotely. It doesn’t involve any face-to-face on-campus experience. You can study from wherever you want, and there’s no need to travel.

Blended learning is a mix of online learning and on-campus experience. Most of the time, you study from home, but you are asked to attend on-campus courses and lectures on a regular basis. This can happen every 2 weeks, once a month, or at different intervals based on what you study.

Online learning – university application process

In general, the university application process for online courses is very similar to the application process for traditional study programmes. This is especially true nowadays when most universities ask students to send their documents digitally, in the form of scans or pictures.

The application process at online universities stands out because the entry requirements are often less rigid. Certain higher education institutions, called open universities, don’t even have any formal application criteria (or they have very few or low criteria), providing anyone with the opportunity of a fresh start.

Many online study programmes also come with the advantage of ongoing enrolments — meaning you can apply at any time throughout the academic year.

Some of the common documents required are:

  • application form
  • proof of paying the application fee (if any)
  • previous degree or diploma
  • proof of English language proficiency: test scores for TOEFL, IELTS, PTE Academic, or C1 Advanced
  • transcript of records
  • passport-sized photo(s)
  • copy of personal ID

Online learning – virtual environments and e-learning platforms

Unlike traditional classes, online learning takes place in a virtual environment. Each university usually has its own dedicated e-learning platform. After being admitted, you receive an email with the login details, and from there on it should be straight forward.

E-learning platforms play many roles and allow students to:

  • access course materials (e.g. PDF books, presentations, video and audio files)
  • submit assignments
  • track their progress
  • check out grades and feedback from professors

Some platforms might even come with forums, where you can interact with your colleagues. If not, there are complementary tools with which most of you are (probably) already familiar:

  • WhatsApp or Telegram group chats
  • video conferencing apps: Zoom, Skype, Teams, FaceTime, Facebook Messenger
  • shared resources via cloud storage: Google Drive, Microsoft OneDrive, Dropbox
  • popular email providers: Gmail, Outlook, ProtonMail, Yahoo
  • file transfer services: WeTransfer

Online learning – how lectures work

Most lectures will be pre-recorded in advance, and this comes with some perks. You can watch them multiple times, and you get to choose when to watch them. Some people even do this on their phone, while commuting to their workplace — so it’s a win-win situation.

If any lecture is streamed live, your professor or tutor will announce it beforehand, thus allowing you enough time to (re)organise your schedule.

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Online learning – how seminars work

Seminars are different from lectures because they require much more input from students. Seminars usually take place in the form of a video call at a time and date set in advance, so you cannot participate afterwards.

The teacher or your classmates might have the option to record the video meeting, which you can watch afterwards. Even so, you’ll miss on key aspects like:

  • sharing your thoughts and ideas
  • asking questions to your professor or tutor
  • debating on your assignments
  • going through group exercises

Online learning – how exams work

Like classes, online exams can be synchronous, meaning you must take them at a specific time and/or on a specific date. Or they can be asynchronous, meaning you can take them anytime during a certain period — this is the most common type of online exams. Keep in mind that some examinations are timed, while others allow you to finish in steps, sometimes even over multiple days.

Online exams can take many forms:

  • multiple-choice tests
  • simulation exercises
  • open book tests
  • fill-in PDF document(s)
  • research papers

To prevent cheating, professors may implement a wide range of measures. They can use software that blocks all computer programmes except for the browser tab with your exam questions, they might ask to keep your webcam and microphone on throughout the examination, they can even ask to take a “small virtual tour” of your room before the exam, to show that there are no resources or other materials you could use to gain an unfair advantage.

The advantages of online learning

  • lower tuition fees and overall expenses
  • convenience: study when you want, where you want
  • the ability to re-watch a lecture or seminar as many times you want
  • helps you develop digital skills
  • online diplomas from certified universities and colleges enjoy the same recognition as traditional diplomas in the eyes of employers
  • reveals and develops personal qualities that can be highlighted on any CV: self-discipline, determination, planning, time management, etc.

Online learning – what you need as a student

To enjoy the benefits of online learning, there are a few essential resources you should have. These include:

  • a quiet and inspiring place where you can focus
  • a stable internet connection
  • a reliable computer (laptop, tablet, desktop)
  • a computer with enough “horsepower” to meet the minimum system requirements if you need to work with advanced software for photo and video editing, 3D rendering, virtual machines, etc.
  • a decent pair of headphones with a built-in microphone (for voice and video calls)
  • a good calendar and to-do app to help you keep track of assignments and exams due dates

Of course, the list could go on and on. Personally, I’d also include post-it notes, my favourite mug, a Bluetooth speaker, and so on. But you already got the point: after having the essentials, anything that can make you more comfortable is a welcome bonus.

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Online learning – is it right for me?

Short answer: yes!

Long answer: yes, as long as you know what it implies. Online learning comes with many benefits. But that doesn’t mean it will be easy-peasy. You still need to put in the work, study, research, be active in your group or individual projects, and so on.

It might be cheaper, and you get to study from home, but it places most of the responsibility on your shoulders. With the right self-discipline and enough ambition, online learning can turn out to be a great experience.

And, who knows? Maybe in a few decades, it will become the most widespread method of learning.

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