Open up!

Dipping into online learning as an adult

Having had a long and very happy association with distance learning, Professor Helen Bilton of the University of Reading suggests it opens up new worlds for adults as well as for children.

The ‘OU’

One of the great pioneers of distance learning, The Open University began life in 1969 and started a learning revolution. It transformed access to higher education for a vast number of people now able to learn virtually anything at a pace that suited them, by studying at home. While working for the OU some time ago as a tutor on a fantastic course called the Specialist Teacher Assistant Course, a one -year programme to train up teaching assistants, I saw people who had no post-secondary education, absolutely blossom,  first becomingvery successful support staff and then going onto further study.


My experience with the Open University has made me an absolute advocate for online learning, micro credentials, and distance learning, which give educational opportunities to more people in more places than ever before. And now of course, its time has absolutely come!  I do appreciate that this is predicated on having enough money, the right kit and support from family. Having said that, there are many free courses which are excellent (and there are some which are not). So, if you want to do some online learning or signpost your children to online learning, be picky!

What to look for in an online course

As the Academic Partner for online courses at the University of Reading and the course educator of two courses for school support staff , I have got to know the good, the bad and the ugly of online learning. So here are my thoughts.

1. Learn something for its own sake

Learning can be for its own sake and could be the spark that gets someone really interested in learning and ignites an interest in a subject. Trust in Our Food System: Understanding Food Supply Systems covers things like bag wrapped salads. Have you ever wondered how they get to us as they do?  A course like this could start a whole chain reaction of interest in nutrition or science or agriculture or could simply answer the simple question how do those leaves get to my plate?

2. Just because its free doesn’t mean it isn’t worthwhile

Don’t assume free is low level. This is most definitely not the case. Courses linked to Universities are normally based on wonderful research. For example, the course Rome (  is based on the research of Professor Matthew Nicholls who created a 3D digital model of Rome. You can walk round Rome as was from the comfort of your armchair and as one learner commented who is disabled, this gave them an opportunity never before available.

3. Discussion boards

Have a look to see if there are discussion boards or the opportunity to talk to other learners on the same online courses.  We have found this to be invaluable and means learners can share ideas, ask each other questions and most importantly realise they can learn from each other. And they do. The feedback about discussion boards is always positive.

4. Mentor supported?

See if the courses are mentor supported. If you have knowledgeable mentors and the educators who built the course responding to your posts and questions you are able to learn even more and in some ways tailor your learning to suit you.

5. Standalone courses can be great

You can learn something as a standalone; it does not have to be part of a qualification or towards academic credits. We have started a series of A level booster courses, dealing with those tricky parts of some A levels.  These courses are short and very specific but can mean the difference between a student saying, ‘I like this subject’ and  ‘I don’t like this subject’. See, for example,

6. Continuing Professional Development

People can and  do learn on the job, but their insight often benefits from a little more knowledge of the underlying theory – for example behind the work of teachers and teaching. We have found this to be the case with people who have somehow fallen into the role of Teaching Assistants. Courses to develop their knowledge and understanding of how to help children learn are invaluable and the learning can be passed on to the teachers. Two such courses are Supporting Successful Learning in Primary and Secondary Schools.

7. Important areas of special  current interest

In the present situation a two -week course has been written in response to the needs of the young people during the Covid-19 crisis:


This type of course has been designed to dip into and dip out of, with no need to take the course in a linear fashion through the steps. These courses are designed hoping that learners may if nothing else take one thing away which will help them in their lives.

8.  Do your research

So do a bit of research before you launch yourself into the world of online learning. Platforms are different and some are better than others. And do a bit of thinking as to what you are trying to gain from a particular course and ask yourself what would success look like once you have finished the course? This will be time well spent. Online learning is here to stay and you do not want to be put off simply because the course and platform are not well designed. Choose carefully, and courses can be life changing!


Professor Helen Bilton is the Academic Partner for online courses at the University of Reading and the course educator of two courses for school support staff. She is an Early Years specialist and an expert in the area of outdoor play.





Feature Image: by Hans Braxmeier from Pixabay

Support Images: Supermarket Steve Buissinne from Pixabay

Additional images kindly provided by Helen