Online learning is on the rise. A recent poll found that 46% of recent graduates took an online credit as part of their degree, while more people than ever are turning to hybrid courses that combine distance learning with traditional classroom methods. Many students are attracted to the flexibility of online learning and combine their studies with work or personal commitments. For others, distance learning is a less expensive alternative to traditional campus-based courses. A three-year undergraduate degree can cost up to $50,000, while postgraduate courses will set a student back around $5,000. And although prices for online learning course vary quite dramatically, comparable degrees cost around 50% less.

Many experts believe online learning is the future of education. As technology becomes more widely available, an increasing number of students will gain access to the kind of knowledge that can vastly improve their career prospects, and maybe even the world. Online learning will enable students in developing countries to study subjects like coding, computing programming, and engineering, thus driving innovation all over the globe.

So given it's rising popularity and revolutionary potential, here's what you need to know about online learning.

The benefits of online learning

Online learning is about accessibility and inclusivity. It removes the physical barriers that prevent many people from fulfilling academic or career ambitions by allowing students to work from pretty much anywhere. Dr Irina Alvestad of the University of New Mexico-Los Alamos says, “Today, more students have multiple commitments, and they navigate to the flexibility of online courses. Students take UNM-LA classes from all over the world. I have had students in Vienna and in the Philippines, and students who are deployed with the military.”

Moreover, online learning can ensure all children receive a first-class education. Roxborough is a small town in New Zealand. At any one time, no more than 175 children are attending the local school. Because of the town's small population, officials struggled to find teachers to fill the entire curriculum, meaning students were missing out on additional subjects that could broaden their horizons and lead to better future job prospects. So the school decided to embrace online learning. The school-board introduced a virtual learning center, which includes online lessons taught via video conferencing. Students meet up with their online tutor for an hour-long lecture, then work independently for another two hours in the learning center, which is equipped with online educational resources like study-guides, student forums, and interactive assignments.

The 'blended learning' approach is becoming popular in many other parts of the world. A recent report by the New Media Consortium found that hybrid courses are now the norm in schools, universities, and colleges. The report also stated that the trend is set to continue due to an ever more interconnected digital world and some major investment from big tech. A study funded by the Bill Gates foundation concluded blended learning in higher education produced higher academic achievement than exclusively face-to-face and online courses. Michael Barbour, director of doctoral studies for the Isabelle Farrington College of Education at Sacred Heart University, believes we are on the verge of an educational revolution. He says, “There’s no question things are changing. One thing we can say is that the schools of tomorrow won’t look anything like the ones kids go to today.”

The realities of distance learning

Online learning creates plenty of opportunities, but there are some potential drawbacks which students considering it need to consider. Firstly, the huge amount of choice is a real benefit for students, but more choice also leads to a greater disparity in the quality of teaching methods, online resources, and student support.  A sure way to check any schools credibility is by their accreditation. For example, a high-quality online nursing degree by a UK provider will always be accredited by the Nursing & Midwifery Council (NMC). Any large governing body within an industry will often have links to approved courses on the website, making them an excellent starting point for any student looking for an accredited online course. Accreditation is also essential for your long-term career options. Most employers will accept an online degree, but accreditation is a sign that your course of study has prepared you for the realities of entering your new profession.

And while online learning offers the kind of flexibility many students are looking for, some can underestimate the impact of working without regular direction from tutors; others may feel isolated by spending long hours studying alone, especially if they are returning from a long break from formal education.

The majority of distance learning courses include some face-to-face time with other students and teachers, but it is still important to make an effort to connect with your fellow students via chat-rooms, forums, and even regular meet-ups. This will allow to bounce ideas off each other or just offer some much needed moral support.

The human side of virtual learning

Building a real-life network with fellow students and tutors is an essential part of any online course or degree. In fact, it's often the difference between success and failure. Sebastian Thrun is a former professor of artificial intelligence at Stanford University and a pioneer of distance learning. His company Udacity provides online courses to help students gain skills for future industries, such as AI, coding, and nanotechnology. But despite the value of such courses, Thrun points out that only 34% of those who begin the courses see them through to the end. And that's actually quite high when compared to other courses; many have drop-out rates as high as 95% When asked why so many people drop out of virtual learning programmes, Sebastian said,“Solitary learning is hard. Many people run into an insurmountable technical challenge they cannot get past. Without the kind of personal attention that comes from more traditional forms of training, they become demoralised and give up.”

Thrun believes Udacity's lower level of drop-out is directly linked to the social elements of the course. As well as more regular face-to-face contact with tutors, the Udacity courses often arrange social meet-ups and team building exercises, creating a real sense of community among the students. There's also more human recognition, and usually from senior Udacity staff.  When a student passes an assignment, they receive congratulations and a thank-you from a 'real-life' human via Skype. Small things like this might not seem that important, but we generally feel a greater sense of achievement and self-worth when other people, rather than computers, validate our efforts.

The future of learning?

For many universities, providing online courses and hybrid learning will play an essential role in their long-term survival. Many students are put off by expensive course fees associated with full-time, campus-based courses. For others, studying full-time clashes with other important responsibilities, such as a current career or raising a young family. Subsequently, universities that offer online learning resources are encouraging more students to enroll in their institutions, including those who live in provincial areas or, in some cases, in a completely different country. Keeping up with consumer demand and changing technologies is essential for any large organization, and universities are no exception. In other words, online learning is not just here to stay; it is set to become an integral part of the future.

Moreover, schools and higher education institutions are already integrating online teaching methods into the classroom, including next-generation technologies like augmented reality, AI, and virtual reality. According to US tech company Nearpod, more than six million students have already experienced its VR-based lessons, which includes virtual field trips around famous historical sites like the Roman Coliseum. Meanwhile, Copenhagen-based company Labster is currently developing a series of VR products with Google that will allow science students to run virtual experiments. One project includes a VR game where a forensic science student can investigate a virtual crime scene and analyze the evidence they find.

Such developments inevitably lead to wilder forms of speculation, but it's important to note schools and big tech are focusing on integration rather than wholesale replacement. In other words, 'real-life' teachers will still play a vital role in educating the next generation of students. In fact, they are absolutely essential. Guido Kovalskys is the chief executive and co-founder of Nearpod. He says, "VR is an engaging tool, but within a 35-minute lesson plan, it might only be two or three minutes. Learning is a social experience. It is not only about learning content but learning to deal with others. Teachers play a really influential role."

There will always be a place for traditional, classroom-based teaching method, but even these are becoming increasingly more integrated with online learning. And while it's almost impossible to predict what directions technology will take us in, online learning is set to become a major part of learning institutions all around the world.