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Future of on-line learning and open universities.

Being an e-Student

There was once a time when having a good undergraduate degree, say a 2.1 in one of the humanities or ancient languages, would have opened doors, career opportunities. Graduates could expect to walk into a career in the civil service, diplomatic corps or BBC for example. Not so now though, as more and more people pass through the hallowed grounds of English universities, emerging with their degree certificates, a substantial overdraft and the urgent need to find work. How then to get ahead of the crowd and find that dream job?

Sadly, for most people a post-graduate course in one of the established universities is prohibitively expensive: an MA in history could set you back more than £10,000. Neither are many people in a position to take on a role as an unpaid – or barely paid – intern, especially as one low-paid internship can lead, well, to another low-paid internship. Another option is to enrol on an online course, to join the tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of people, who populate the Virtual Learning Environment or VLE.

Distance learning is not, of course, a new idea. The Open University has existed for longer than most people can remember. What has changed, though, is the sheer number of courses available, thanks to the Internet, together with an understanding, among the more financially astute, of its moneymaking capacity. There are courses in computing, health and safety, management, first aid and security; there are even courses in gunsmithing, ghost hunting, dog grooming and taxidermy.

Enrolling on an online course can, however, seem like something of an act of faith in an age in which we are constantly being encouraged to be ever more cynical, with stories of identity theft and credit card fraud filling the columns of newspapers. It’s worth remembering that setting up a slick, professional-looking website and providing a contact number can be done at very little cost. In spite of this, large amounts of money are often handed over to people who may or may not exist.

When searching for an online course, it is a good idea to look out for reviews on independent websites and to check that the qualifications being offered are accredited by an External Verifier, EV. Close attention should also be paid to the quality of the site itself: an excessive number of typos and grammar mistakes should set alarm bells ringing.

Assuming, however, that the education provider is genuine, how does the provision of learning – what would now be called the learning experience – weigh up against that which can be obtained in a traditional bricks and mortar institution? Are online tutorials and digitised texts any replacement for lectures in real lecture halls, for tutorials with groups of enthusiastic students and for well-stocked libraries with comfortable reading rooms?

When weighed against these criteria, online courses are not going to fare very well. Sitting, perhaps, at a kitchen table, watching an online tutorial lacks any of the fun of a university. What’s more, even where tutors on an online course are genuinely committed to the education of their students, they can, nonetheless, feel somewhat remote. Even after two decades living in the digital world, humans still, by and large, thirst for contact with others.

What online courses lack in personal contact, however, they make up for in terms of flexibility. Being able to have a tutorial at 1.00 a.m., wearing pyjamas, drinking a pot of coffee and eating a packet of biscuits, allows the student to work, look after kids, or just lounge around during the day, depending on his/her personal circumstances. There is also the question of the price difference: one or two thousand pounds compares very favourably with ten or fifteen thousand.

by  Aric Denfield