Distance learning In light of the recent COVID-19 pandemic, online education has had a significant surge in popularity. And it's not just online English schools or fitness courses, but also full-fledged higher education programs. Some experts predict that soon all universities will move to our tablets and laptops. Of course, if surgeons and nuclear physicists get their qualifications while sitting at home, a disaster will surely happen. However, there are a number of professions that can now be mastered remotely without any quality loss.

  • Freedom in time and location. Who didn’t dream of completing tasks, getting comfortable in his room or at a cozy cafe? Or maybe you wished that you could listen to lectures at your convenience, not being restricted by the established schedules. Dreams have come true. In fact, you can now graduate from top universities or just learn the new skills without leaving your home while being anywhere in the world, which opens up additional opportunities for those who can’t attend full-time studies for some reason, for example, students with young children or ones living in remote locations.
  • Combining work and studies. Students of online universities can easily combine full-time work with getting their education without a fear of being expelled for missing classes. As a rule, an individual schedule is built by each student, which allows them to learn at their own pace and without interruption from their work or other activities.
  • Saving money. If we talk about higher education, studying bachelor’s or master’s programs online is much cheaper than similar full-time programs. For example, at Harvard, to get a bachelor's degree online, you need 58,880 USD, a master's program — 35,000 USD, while regular programs cost about 198,000 USD and 95,000 USD, respectively. In addition, the student exempts himself from the costs associated with a visa (for foreign universities), the search for housing, and the arrangement of life in another city or country.
  • Availability of digital training materials. The online format assumes that all the necessary manuals, textbooks, and libraries are not just at hand, but literally fit in one’s pocket. Universities offer their students access to all resources, regardless of whether the student is on campus or thousands of miles away. In this case, it is enough to have only a phone or a laptop with Internet access.
  • New forms of interaction. Traditionally, online learning is associated with video conferencing via Skype or Zoom, which today does not surprise anyone. But online education keeps evolving, and depending on the circumstances, new formats of classes and knowledge control are implemented. For example, today the proctoring system is already widely used to pass exams, and students can practice using computer simulators.
  • Professional mentorship. In some areas (for example, when teaching art), the practice of online mentorships is widespread, in which the student has the opportunity to individually consult with a teacher in free form without any specific training program. Such mentoring courses do not end with a diploma, but offer valuable experience and rapid growth of skills through communication with a professional who can be anywhere in the world.
  • Motivation and self-discipline. When studying online, students have to learn most of the material on their own. Sometimes, if the training involves a relatively free schedule and lack of constant control from the outside, this can be a real challenge. In order to successfully finish a course, a student needs high motivation, willpower, and time management skills.
  • Lack of real communication. There is an opinion that distance learning is an excellent option for couch potatoes and introverts, but it is not at all suitable for active and sociable people. Of course, when studying online the amount of personal communication with teachers and classmates is much less. However, whenever possible this disadvantage is compensated by video conferencing, group online projects, and other forms of interaction.
  • Lack of practice. Online education also cannot provide traditional practical classes. And if for philologists or lawyers this will not be a significant loss, then for doctors or, for example, design engineers, this might be a real issue. In some cases, virtual simulators or a series of offline classes at the university can be used, but it is obvious that there are a number of professions that cannot be mastered remotely under any circumstances.
  • Technical equipment. It seems that in the 21st century, everyone has a gadget with unlimited internet access and skill of using a PC somewhat confidently. But alas, in almost every country there are remote areas that are actually cut off from digital space. "This does not concern me," a student living in a major city will think. However, here a factor of technical equipment can play a role. For example, organization of video surveillance for exams might cause a lot of issues. Not to mention the usual network failures that happen regardless of the location.
  • Low quality of education. When combined together, all of these shortcomings may result in education that is of lesser quality. But this is not always because of the online format. Indeed, in any learning process, whether it is remote or full-time, 90% of success depends on the effort of the student. It is only necessary to learn how to use all available opportunities, whether it is online communication with a Harvard teacher or access to the electronic library of a regional university.

Online degree programs rankings

Here are a few lists: the first has programs with the best cost to quality ratio in foreign universities, the second — distance programs of top universities for those who want to get a degree of Harvard without going to Harvard (but note that not all top ranked universities have launched online training programs yet); the third table describes the top MBA programs, which today are the most popular choice among online programs.

The best online universities abroad

UniversityCountryNumber of programsAverage cost (bachelor’s)Average cost (master’s)
1Arizona State UniversityUSA94 / 8875,480 USD28,935 USD
2University of MassachusettsUSA55 / 55 45,600 USD19,650 USD
3Colorado State UniversityUSA12 / 4357,120 USD23,250 USD
4Anglia Ruskin UniversityUK14 / 1318,313 USD13,248 USD
5Central Michigan UniversityUSA15 / 1652,080 USD19,110 USD
6Wismar University of Applied SciencesGermany15 / 1412,164 USD11,551 USD
7Oregon State UniversityUSA31 / 2338,160 USD16,800 USD
8University of DenverUSA6 / 1557,540 USD26,280 USD
9University of ManchesterUK0 / 37-24,677 USD
10Norwich UniversityUSA9 / 1835,900 USD27,710 USD
UniversityCountryNumber of programsAverage cost (bachelor’s)Average cost (master’s)
11University of South CarolinaUSA14 / 4165,175 USD20,700 USD
12Ecole Supérieure Ouverte à Distance (ESOAD)France10 / 75,233 USD5,233 USD
13University of LiverpoolUK0 / 8-23,378 USD
14Boston UniversityUSA1 / 2031,360 USD37,000 USD
15Western Carolina UniversityUSA8 / 1122,682 USD22,700 USD
16Suffolk University UK0 / 4-36,390 USD
17University of IllinoisUSA1 / 4836,810 USD30,848 USD
18University of FloridaUSA25 / 8866,314 USD32,980 USD
19Fraunhofer AcademyGermany0 / 4-12,729 USD
20University of Northampton United Kingdom4 / 1017,871 USD8,416 USD
21Pace UniversityUSA4 / 1366,600 USD31,440 USD
22Edinburgh Napier UniversityUK6 / 1210,777 USD10,131 USD
23Alabama UniversityUSA14 / 5245,000 USD12,600 USD

Online degree programs in top ranking universities

UniversityCountryNumber of programsAverage cost
1Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)USA--
2Stanford UniversityUSA1160 840 USD
3Harvard UniversityUSA1 / 2458,880 USD / 35,000 USD
4University of OxfordUnited Kingdom--
5California Institute of Technology (Caltech)United States--
6Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH Zurich)Switzerland13,357 USD
7University of CambridgeUnited Kingdom--
8University College London (UCL)United Kingdom[findamasters.com/masters-degrees/online-distance-learning/?g2w4x0 29]11,481 USD / 22,846 USD
9Imperial College LondonUnited Kingdom619,157 USD
10University of ChicagoUSA--

Online MBA programs

The methodology for evaluating business programs, according to the QS rating, includes several criteria:
  • Faculty and teaching (academic reputation, teachers to students ratio, completion rate) — 35%;
  • Employability of graduates — 30%;
  • Class profile (experience and qualifications of students, racial, national and gender diversity) — 30%;
  • Class experience (physical meetups, regular synchronous classes, access to a learning app on a mobile and/or tablet, and 24/7 tech support) — 5%.

Specialties for online education abroad

Online education has long ceased to be something new and unusual. You can now get a degree remotely in almost any specialty. Below are the programs which are often implemented online:

  • Engineering. Most online programs are taught at the master's and doctoral levels and are aimed at students already working in the profession who want to get a narrower specialization and apply knowledge in project work.
  • Computer Science. The very concept of remote technology is inextricably linked with computer science. Online learning here is largely based on the independent work of the student and is implemented almost without restrictions. Specializations vary from cybersecurity to video games.
  • Business Administration (MBA). Business programs today are in the highest demand among students. Given the extremely high cost of a full-time MBA (sometimes BBA), more and more students are looking for opportunities to obtain an online degree. Fortunately, these programs are easily transferred to a distance learning format without much issue, which allows young entrepreneurs not to break away from their own business and solve applied business problems in the process of obtaining education.
  • Finance and Accounting. As with the BBA/MBA programs, finance and accounting education is available entirely online. Online training in the specialty provides all the necessary skills for working in both private and public sectors.
  • Psychology. Distance education in this specialty is often supplemented by internships and group projects, which in most cases can be transferred to the digital format.
  • Medicine. Obviously, a doctor cannot get a full qualification without practical training. Therefore, online education in the field of medicine in most cases is limited to nursing. But even here, given the specifics of the profession, training is more mixed than remote: during the program, students undergo several internships, which can last weeks or even months. The place of clinical practice is chosen as close as possible to the student’s place of residence, but you need to be prepared for the fact that the usual online classes for some time will be replaced by full-time work.
  • Healthcare. The increasingly popular specialty of Health Management / Healthcare Administration is the business administration of medical facilities. Organizing online training here is easier than for medical practitioners. Nevertheless, students also have an offline internship at a medical center or laboratory.
  • Social Work. Practical experience in the field of social work is one of the primary requirements for learning online. Therefore, in addition to remote learning, as part of the educational process, students are expected to work in accredited social services.
  • Education / Teaching. You can get a degree in teaching 100% online, in other cases, you must complete the practice under the supervision of professionals. However, even if there is no such requirement in the program, at the end of training, depending on the country and city, teachers usually need to undergo an internship to obtain a license.

The process of admission to online programs

Admission to online programs of foreign universities is almost no different from admission to full-time programs. At the application stage, it is required to provide documents in the form of scans, then send them by mail (if necessary). As a rule, the list includes:

However, not all universities (mainly European) accept documents digitally. In some cases (Belgium, Italy, Spain) apostilization and notarized translation of documents is required, the preparation of which may take about 2 months without taking into account the time for sending them from your country.
Some areas of study require the student to be temporarily present on campus or at the place of employment, which may be difficult for international students. If in addition, upon completion of online courses, a license is required (for example, for physicians and lawyers in the USA), access to such programs may be closed to foreign citizens, especially from those countries for which there are sanctions. It is necessary to check the requirements and restrictions on the websites of universities and ministries of education.

Duration of online programs may vary from 3 to 8 years at the bachelor's level and from 1.5 to 5 years at the master’s level, depending on the specialty, the progress of studies, and the presence of full-time study periods.
Some programs involve financial assistance, but it should be noted that the competition for scholarships and grants is quite serious.

How is online education at the university organized?

The choice of distance learning programs, which are often called online degrees, is quite wide. There are even entire universities specializing in online education.
The main differences between full-time, part-time, and online programs are as follows:
CriterionFull-timePart-timeOnline
Classes during the semesterFull time at the universityNoOnline
HomeworkFull time at the universityNoOnline
Intermediate examsFull time at the universityFull time at the universityOnline / full-time at the university
Final certificationFull-time at the universityFull-time at the universityOnline / full-time at the university
ScheduleStrictStrictFlexible
Combination of work and studyNoYesYes
DormitoryYesNoNo
Tuition feesHighMediumLow

Distance learning technologies: online classes and assessment

In the process of online learning, all interaction between students and teachers is organized using the Internet:
  • Most of the time the student learns from the materials and lectures (text or video) using his personal account, studying specialized literature;
  • A student can ask any questions that arise during the training process directly to professors through correspondence via mail or in specially created chats;
  • Homework is also sent via email or uploaded to a special system;
  • For the preparation of group projects, various virtual boards/spaces, discussions, programs with shared online access are used;
  • Online lectures, seminars, and practical classes are held through Zoom, Google Hangouts, Skype, Microsoft Teams, and other similar video conferencing services.
Conference call in Zoom Like in full-time programs, online ones also have exams and tests, project evaluations, practical and independent work. Midterm assessment is often held in the form of interactive testing, for final examinations personal presence may be required.
Recently, the control of knowledge by means of proctoring is gaining popularity. It is a system that allows you to observe honesty during the exam or a test online. The identity of the test person is verified using a webcam, which then continues to record the entire process. At the same time, a special program on the computer is recording the screen.
The role of a proctor (observer) can be performed by a person (full-time proctoring) or a computer (cyber proctoring). In the latter case, the computer system independently recognizes the suspicious or "undesirable" actions of the person taking the test. A combination of two methods is also possible — mixed proctoring: the program records violations and reports them to the human proctor. The examiner then looks at the notes and makes a decision on whether the exam order has actually been violated. Tasks themselves, as a rule, are checked separately, with the exception of those tests, according to the results of which the score is set automatically.

Proctoring software

Getting a diploma of online programs

Given that online education is still in a period of creating its standards, the effectiveness of the developed courses and methods has not yet been tested by time. The confidence of employers in online degrees can be low, especially if this is the first and only degree obtained by the applicant.

To avoid unnecessary doubts, it is necessary to check in advance whether the institution of higher education is accredited. In this case, a student, as a rule, receives a degree, which is almost no different from a degree issued to full-time students. Often, it indicates the part-time form of study, so that the value of the diploma does not suffer in any way. The employer may not even know at all that the student studied part of the material himself in an online format.

Obviously, with the growing popularity of online education, the number of specialized online universities will increase. For now, prestigious educational institutions are rapidly opening new online programs, and the quality of existing ones is constantly improving. Thus, confidence in the labor market is growing. After all, a diploma is far from the only factor that an employer considers when selecting employees.

Platforms of online courses

Many leading universities launch online platforms with the help of which everyone can get access to video lectures of the best professors and unique advanced training courses. We collected the best university and independent portals and described them in detail in a separate article.