Virtual university: why online studying is the future

Students chatting

What to expect from a more digital uni experience

For most of us, online learning came suddenly into our lives. But now it’s arrived, it’s here to stay. 

Although Covid sped up the move towards digital, many universities were already working towards a more blended style of teaching, where face-to-face workshops and online lectures work together.

This best-of-both-worlds approach allows students to listen to lectures from home, in their own time, and on repeat if needed. 

But they also get the benefit of coming together in person for lab work, field trips, or creative practice, on a regular and structured basis.

The University of Chester is one of a number of institutions to commit to this style of learning and it has introduced the Chester Blend across all its courses. 

Currently, due to Covid restrictions, this provides a mix of approximately 75% online and 25% in-person teaching with some variations depending on the course.  

The timetable is adjusted where possible to accommodate more of the sessions students prefer.

“The idea of blending the two modes is about taking the best of both and combining them to create a rich, flexible experience that surpasses what either can offer,” says Professor Eunice Simmons, vice-chancellor at the University of Chester.

Flexible learning

One of the obvious advantages to online study is its flexibility. You can attend your seminars from anywhere – the sofa, the kitchen or, when restrictions are lifted, the car or perhaps even the beach. 

“The university might ask you to complete a certain number of tasks for a module in a week such as watching a lecture, checking your learning through a quiz or test, or completing some reading,” says Professor Simmons. 

“You will also have some online live sessions to attend, but otherwise you are in control of when you complete the other tasks.”

This added flexibility opens up many courses to a wider range of people than a traditional face-to-face degree. 

With online learning, students can fit in their learning around family or work commitments. 

“This will create a more level playing field for students who are worried they cannot afford to attend due to financial challenges or life circumstances,” says Professor Simmons.

“And for those who are not in employment, this new flexibility will allow them to plan their free time more effectively, so they can really make the most out of their time at uni.”

What should you look for?

If you are interested in blended learning, it’s important to research how many, and what type of online resources will be made available to students. 

Videos, blog posts, electronic books and journals should all be accessible. Some institutions also now have fairly substantial online libraries. For instance, at Chester there are more than 750,000 e-titles to read.

Students should also be helped to study virtually so when you’re researching courses, be sure to ask how your digital skills will be developed and what training and software you will be given.

“We have a real focus on digital skills for your subject and for the workplace at Chester – and we help you prove you have these for job interviews,” says Professor Simmons. 

“Students need to check that the university they are considering does online learning well. They should check for evidence of this, often this could be from other students. If possible, they should access taster sessions.”

The University of Chester has developed the Kitchen Sessions so that prospective students can experience what an online lecture might look and sound like – or a bitesize version at least. Most universities will also have student ambassadors who can speak to you about their own experiences.

Another aspect of online learning is how interactive it is, so it’s worth finding out how students are encouraged to participate. 

Most online seminars will have participants using a hand icon when they want to speak, with a text-based chat running alongside where they can share files, links, and use gifs and emojis to react to others. Screen sharing and breakout workshop groups can also be part of the process.

Employability skills

Most universities are only just catching up with business in terms of online activity and digital skills, so graduates with tangible online skills are likely to have added appeal to potential employers.

“Learning online also brings with it the opportunity to become skilful and confident in a digital environment,” adds Professor Simmons.

“Skills in this connected economy include locating information, creating and sharing digital resources and networking, communicating and collaborating online in a safe and secure way.”

So, taking a blended approach could benefit you not only during your degree but also once you’re out into the workplace. Online studying – and working – is definitely here to stay.

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