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What to expect when studying online

Advances in technology have made tertiary education more accessible than ever. For those who work full-time, live away from a major city, or simply don’t have time to commute to a campus, there are now numerous providers of pure online postgraduate education.

How has online study evolved?

Remote courses have existed for at least 160 years. Early postal services afforded students in the 19th century a means of remote learning through ‘correspondence colleges’. Over the next several decades as technology progressed, courses were taught over radio and television in the US. Campus-wide ethernet known as Programmed Logic for Automatic Teaching (PLATO) was developed by the University of Illinois in the 60s, which modern facilities like email, message boards and forums are based on. In 2002, MIT’s OpenCourseWare project began providing free lectures and course materials to anyone in the world and in 2008 the acronym “Massive Online Open Course” (MOOC) was coined. Nowadays, online university courses and MOOCs are provided by many institutions around Australia and abroad. 

How are online degrees delivered?

Online degrees feature similar assessment and learning materials to regular courses, only with greater flexibility. Participation in group discussion is assessed via the use of discussion boards, wikis and forums. Tutorials are held via video conference calls with tutors. Some institutions even provide short, personalised recordings as feedback on assignments and deliver live webinars. 

Similar to how offline students can observe their professor’s office hours and stop by to ask questions, online tutors and professors dedicate time each week to taking calls. It’s also possible to benefit from your university’s library and access course readings, books or academic journals from your institution’s student portal.

How are online degrees structured?

Online university courses are structured very similarly to their offline counterparts, featuring written assignments, group presentations, seminars, tutorials, lectures, tests, quizzes and exams. Tutorials and seminars occur at set times each week over video conference. Attendance is assessed via contribution to discussion boards and wikis, as well as participation during these conferences. Quality of discussion is more important than quantity, but regular contributions are expected. 

Online exams are open book and have narrow windows of time in which they’re accessible. Short-answer questions that demand unique and thoughtful answers are favoured. Some institutions will require students to pick a physical venue and attend in person, but this isn’t the norm.

Are online degrees well recognised?

Online degrees offer very similar content to their traditional counterparts because they’re often adapted from them. As such, issuing institutions present students with the same qualification they would have gotten offline.

An NYU survey conducted in 2013 found some employers preferred traditional modality, but others were more receptive when they had taken part in online education themselves or had been taught the rigour common to online courses. In any case, prospective employers might only know you studied online if you decide to tell them, since the qualification awarded is the same regardless of study mode delivered by Australian universities.

Is online study for me?

There are several great reasons for starting an online degree. If you live too far from your university of choice, or the one best suited to your discipline, then taking an online course is a great idea. They’re also good for saving time on commuting! This is especially important if you crave time to yourself, have other significant responsibilities or simply learn better on your own.

You should now have a much better understanding of how online degrees work, what they entail and why you’d do them. If you’re busy, ambitious and never thought you’d have time for postgrad, why not give them a look?