Around one in six adults in Britain have done, or are intending to take, an online course as the programmes become more popular with the public and employers.

Many are signing up for ‘moocs’ – massive open online courses – in a bid to further their careers, while for others it is a way of pursuing a personal interest, according to research. The study, by Futurelearn, the Open University and Parthenon-EY, also reveals that employers are increasingly using the courses to differentiate between job applicants.

And it shows that graduates would like to have studied for at least part of their degree through online modules.

Overall, 15 per cent of those surveyed for the research said they have either taken a short online course, or intend to do so.

This suggests that doing such a course is becoming a mainstream activity for UK consumers, the study concluded.

It adds: “For the majority, short online courses are a means to differentiate themselves in an increasingly competitive job market.

It is becoming a mainstream activity

“For a significant minority, they are done out of pure interest in learning more about the world which surrounds them.”

Some 332 the 485 potential learners questioned already had a degree, of which around half (47 per cent) said they would have preferred to take at least part of their degree as a series of online modules.

The study, which also surveyed 510 employers, found that around a third said it is more difficult to differentiate between candidates than it was three years ago.

And nearly half (46 per cent) said short courses are a differentiating factor between applicants.

The report concludes: “As short online courses become commonplace, learning will become easier to fit alongside everyday life, thus opening up learning to those who had previously struggled to overcome the barriers, and providing a tangible means by which learning can be scaled to reach everyone who needs it.”

Kathryn Skelton, head of strategy at FutureLearn, said: “The popularity of short courses among consumers shows us that the education landscape is changing.

“As digital natives make up more and more of the population, it is becoming the norm to be able to access content from any device and any location – so why shouldn’t this apply to higher education too?”

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