Distance and blended learning are terms that are perhaps not yet familiar to all when talking about higher education. However, due to COVID-19, many more traditional universities are looking into both distance and learning methods as ways of delivering their degrees for at least part of the next academic year. However, there are already universities that exist who specialise in delivering distance & blended learning degrees; such as Arden University, the Open University, and CU (a branch of Coventry University).
Distance learning degrees involve studying remotely. Students do not need to attend a physical university, or any lectures or seminars – all the learning takes place independently, and usually fully online.
Common features of distance learning degrees:
- Options for part-time study so students can study at a slower pace
- If studied part-time, students cannot apply for a maintenance loan from Student Finance (the loan to help with living costs at university)
- Often have cheaper tuition fees than traditional university courses
- Suited to those who have a lot to juggle in their life on top of university study e.g. a job, or caring for family.
As the name suggests, blended learning is a ‘blend’ of distance, online learning; and in-person, face-to-face learning. What this looks like in terms of contact time versus independent study will vary depending on the university and course.
Common features of blended learning degrees:
- Usually count as full-time degrees, so although students have less contact time in terms of lectures/seminars, a higher amount of independent study is expected. Based on this, students will complete the course in the standard 3 years
- Where blended courses count as full-time, students can access maintenance loans from Student Finance, if eligible
- Often have cheaper tuition fees than traditional university courses, but not usually as cheap as distance learning courses
- Suitable for those who require more flexibility than a traditional university learning experience allows; but who also want a bit more structure than distance learning courses. The opportunity to physically attend university & lectures to engage with academics and meet other students can also be appealing.
Because of the focus on online, independent study; distance & blended learning providers will often have an extensive online portal that students access for their learning and other services that the university provides. These portals can be described as self-contained communities, and often include:
- Comprehensive induction information for when the student joins the university
- Engaging and interactive lecture materials
- Online library (preventing the need to purchase physical books)
- Discussion forums for staff and students
- Study skills resources
- Access to student support services related to welfare & wellbeing
- Careers & employability support.
As COVID-19 changes the way we think about delivering higher education, distance and blended learning study modes (and the institutions who offer them) may be thrust more into the limelight. The accessibility and flexibility also means that students who are put off or unable to attend a traditional university 5 days a week are still able to pursue their ambitions of obtaining a degree, therefore encouraging widening participation within the sector. It will be interesting to see what the future holds in this area…
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