Discover how online learning works if you’re studying a degree remotely, from applying to teaching and exams. Plus, see what support is available from tutors and other students.

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Applying to an online degree

Entry requirements 

Applying to an online or distance learning course works a little differently than if you were applying to a campus-based course.
 
There are still entry requirements you need to meet to get on to a particular course, though these tend to be less rigid. Universities appreciate that applicants take a variety of routes to online learning, and the entry requirements they set will reflect this. A course may have both ‘academic’ and ‘work experience’ requirements, or a university may ask you about your background, education history and qualifications, English language ability etc., to assess your eligibility and study options. 
 
If you’re not sure if you’re eligible for a course, or you have any other admissions-related queries, get in touch directly with the university. For the majority of its undergraduate courses, The Open University has no formal entry requirements, their website has a tool that helps you decide if you might be ready for undergraduate-level study
 

Applying 

Once you’ve found a course you’re happy with, you can usually apply directly through the university or course provider, rather than through UCAS Apply. If you’re still deciding whether online learning is right for you, or what to consider when comparing courses, check out our dedicated guide.  
 
As well as completing an online application, you may have to provide one or more of the following as well (note, for most undergraduate courses at The Open Univeristy, these won't apply): 
  • your personal statement  – this is where you talk about your interest in your chosen subject, as well as how your skills and experience make you a suitable candidate
  • References – these could be academic, like a tutor or head of year, or professional, like a manager or supervisor. Carefully read any requirements for these.
  • academic transcripts or certificates – if you no longer have these, you can get copies from your exam boards (for a fee). If you don’t know which exam boards you were assessed by, speak to your old school or college.
  • English language certificate (international students only) – each course will have their own requirements
Once your application has been reviewed, the university or course provider will decide whether to make you an offer or not. 
 

If you’re considering applying to The Open University you can browse their courses, request a prospectus and register directly with them.

 

Deadlines 

Another key difference is that online degree courses often have more than one start date in an academic year. Typically this is in either September or January, though it can depend on whether you’re studying full-time or part-time. Check this for the course you’re applying to. 

Different start dates will have different application deadlines too. The positive is that if you’ve just missed the deadline for one start date, you don’t necessarily have to wait a whole year to apply.

 

Getting started

Once you’ve received (and accepted) your offer, and sorted out your funding, it’s time to get ready to begin your course. 
 
A few weeks before your course is due to commence, your university will email you all the information and resources you’ll need. 
 
This will typically include:
  • academic email address
  • planners and booking systems to view key dates and deadlines, arrange one-to-one calls with staff, book your place on events (e.g. webinars) etc.
  • virtual learning environments, portals or dashboards to access course materials and teaching (text, video, and audio files), track your progress, submit assessments, view feedback etc.
  • forums or platforms to communicate with tutors and students
  • library, IT, and other study resources like online journals and archives
  • intranet with key student services, notices and FAQ docs to help you feel part of the university community, and supported throughout
Your university may recommend that you download particular apps or software, too. 
 
You may receive additional items by post. 
 

Tips to prepare: Checklist

Prior to your course beginning, there are some things you can do to prepare.
  • Carefully read, and organise everything you receive – you’ll probably receive a lot of documents, files, URLs etc. So you may want to create a brand-new digital folder system which is backed up and secure, that you can access from any device. Popular (free) cloud storage clients include Google Drive and Dropbox. 

    You can also bookmark pages and URLs that you’ll use frequently.
  • Plan your time – you can do this with a physical calendar, or a digital calendar that’s synced with your devices. This may include tutor one-to-ones, assessment deadlines, and blocks of study time, plus any key personal commitments and social events to avoid clashes. 

    You don’t have to do this for the full year, but even having a schedule for the first few weeks can give you a sense of structure while you find your feet.
  • Buy additional items for your course – our fees and funding guide covers some of the popular expenses that online learning students need to think about.
Hopefully these tips will help you hit the ground running with your course. However, like any new experience, studying a degree online takes some time to adjust, and figure out a routine that works for you. 

Teaching and learning

How you’re taught and assessed  will depend on your particular course, though you should have a solid idea from your research prior to applying. 

All degrees are broken down into modules, each of which are worth a certain number of credits. As a rough guide, a three-year Honours degree (full-time) with The Open University is worth 360 credits, with one credit representing around 10 hours of study.

Teaching is delivered through a variety of methods online.

Lectures  

These are typically in video format, and are led by a tutor who’ll talk through topics, concepts, and ideas that tie in with corresponding material . This may be supplemented or weaved in with other content to keep you engaged, such as animations, video or audio clips, and interactive elements like short exercises.

You can often revisit these in your own time. While this allows for some flexibility, you need to be careful not to fall behind, as you’ll have regular assessments

Group seminars and discussions 

There may be more opportunities for more interactive learning, involving your tutor and other students on your course. These may take place at a set time via video-call, or involve online forum work where you contribute to an ongoing discussion. 

They’re an opportunity for you to express your ideas and thoughts, and hear those shared by others.

Material and resources 

This may be a novel, a case study, or some other piece of text, that ties into lectures or discussions, and which you’ll be assessed on. Material may be presented in other formats too, such as a film, a short documentary, or audio from a lecture. These will be available to stream online, download offline, or in a physical textbook. 

There may be core material that’s essential to your course, plus additional material that goes into more depth. While the latter might not be compulsory, the more you can engage with your subject, the more you’ll get out of your degree course.

Also, you may have the option to attend teaching on campus or at an associated study location. Courses that combine online and campus learning are known as ‘blended learning’. Whether this is available will depend on your university and course, though it’s worth checking when doing your research – your ability to attend will depend on your location, and other commitments.

Other events can include networking or careers events, residential schools or field trips. You’ll be invited to attend your graduation ceremony, too.

If you can’t attend these in person, they may be available online.

Search for a university course or subject  to compare how different courses are taught and assessed, plus modules, entry requirements, and more.

Extra support

You’ll have regular one-to-one catch-ups with tutors, this could be via video-call. This is where you get to discuss your own work, and overall progress. It’s also an opportunity for you to ask questions, or seek further support – particularly if you’re struggling, or have personal circumstances that are affecting your performance. For example, you may use this time to talk through a dissertation idea, or to ask for an extension on an assignment.

There may be platforms for you to interact with fellow students, as and when you need. Here, you can discuss course material, ask quick questions, and share helpful resources and tips. 

You can use these to socialise too. One of the advantages of online learning is that it attracts a diverse range of individuals. While it’s not quite the same as being surrounded by students on campus everyday, connecting with those in the same boat as you can be a valuable source of support when studying remotely – especially if your family and friends can’t relate to the same stresses and demands.

Alternatively, there may be dedicated social media groups for students.

Your university may offer technical, financial, or wellbeing support too.

Assessments

Ongoing assessments 

To ensure you’re keeping up with your course and remain on track, assessments will test your understanding of topics, concepts, and ideas as you study them.

These usually take the form of a quiz, a short exam, or a series of essay questions, but they could be more practical too. 

You’ll have a deadline to complete these by (usually a window of a few weeks). You’ll complete these electronically, and receive your mark and feedback the same way. You can then discuss this with your tutor.

Exams and module assessments

At the end of each module and/or your course, you’ll sit exams that will contribute to your overall mark. Other assessments you’ve completed up to this point may contribute, too. 

You should check the exact breakdown of marks for your course before applying, and track your progress throughout – you should be able to do this online.

Exams will occur on a specific set date. This isn’t flexible, so you must make arrangements to attend on this date (e.g. take time off work, arrange childcare).

You can sit your exams at your university’s campus, or an authorised test centre.
In some circumstances, you may be permitted to sit exams at home, such as if you have a disability that prevents you from travelling. 

Learn more about online learning in our dedicated advice hub, including how employers view online degrees