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Understanding Online Distance Learning in the UK

  • 17 December 2020
  • By Aimee Kleinman & Tim Landucci

This blog was kindly contributed by Aimee Kleinman and Tim Landucci, Education Marketing Consultants at SMRS. SMRS is a marketing agency that works with universities on strategic marketing and consultancy. Previously Aimee worked in strategic marketing roles at UCL, King’s College London and Middlesex universities. Tim previously worked in similar roles at the University of Cambridge and London Business School. Aimee and Tim are happy to discuss the research and you can contact them at [email protected] . You can find SMRS on Twitter @smrsltd.  

It won’t come as a surprise to hear that online learning has grown enormously over the last decade and has catapulted to new heights this year in the wake of Covid-19. But where will it go from here? We set out to learn more about the online market and what its full potential may be. And we made some unexpected discoveries along the way.

Globally, online education is forecast to reach a total market size of £238 billion in 2025, increasing from £140 billion in 2019 with the majority of this growth driven by North America. Now there is every likelihood this is a conservative estimate as the online learning giants, who paved the way with free MOOCs, have reported astronomical increases in enrolments this year. The market has now been primed towards learning online, with so many more courses available and a greater number of people open to studying in this way than ever before.

Until now, the value of the UK online learning market was not clear. With limited data and little published research available, assessing value and potential was challenging. So, we have taken matters into our own hands and conducted primary research with a panel of more than 3,500 people to create an extensive report covering every aspect of Online Distance Learning. Our panel included current online students, potential online students and online graduates.

Our research focuses particularly on the behaviours, experiences, and journey of online learners. Shining a light on opportunities and areas for development. Our report has identified significant insight and here are three of the standout areas for higher education providers to consider.

  1. Place matters

When it comes to online learning, counterintuitively, it seems that place really does matter. Around half of online learners value the physical location of providers – taking reassurance in the fact they can visit a campus if needed, to meet tutors and use resources and facilities. The physical ‘place’ adds a realness to what can sometimes feel like or be perceived to be an intangible learning experience.

2. Consideration and decision-making are different

Online learners typically have a much smaller short-list of institutions under consideration. Around 50 per cent or more of online learners across all course types are considering two or fewer options in their search. In addition, the time taken from deciding to study, to starting a course, is usually around three months. Clearly, online learners are making much faster study decisions than traditional students, and providers are adapting to this with more agile application processes.

3. Messaging needs to address barriers to entry

Price and value for money are two key barriers for many online learners. With varied pricing models and many different types of online courses available, online learners are understandably unsure of the choices to make. Our research highlights the importance of messaging that reflects this and content that demonstrates the quality of the platform, the course content and the impact online learning has had for other students. This will be key to converting interest through the applicant journey.

These are just a few of our findings. Our full report uncovers valuable insight from factors influencing pricing, to the importance of post-course engagement. All of this will help you understand what’s important to students learning online and where opportunities exist.

If you’d like to receive the white paper you can register here.

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