Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 11 December 2019

Never too late to learn: how adults are using online courses to bolster their knowledge

With the start of the new academic year imminent, we look at how adults can improve their skills, knowledge and qualifications via online learning.
Aurelia Caccamo, who works at the J W Marriott Marquis Hotel, has taken a e-learning course. Reem Mohammed / The National
Aurelia Caccamo, who works at the J W Marriott Marquis Hotel, has taken a e-learning course. Reem Mohammed / The National

E-learning may be a relatively new phenomenon, but non-classroom-based education has been a means for personal and professional development since Isaac Pitman mailed out his first shorthand correspondence course in the mid-1840s.

The advent of the new school year puts education front of mind, but it’s not just for children. There’s a wealth of available online courses from renowned universities, trade bodies, corporates and the newer breed of virtual education facilities.

Arthur Levine of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation in the United States highlighted the move from “brick” to “click” universities as an emerging trend in 2000, and the subsequent explosion in online learning is now just a click away for anyone with an internet connection.

Institutions such as the United ­Kingdom’s Open University and US-based Walden University have successfully transitioned to the online model. They’re just two distance-­learning-based examples offering an almost unlimited range of short, extended and long-term e-learning courses and qualifications.

Digitally delivered courses, known as massive open online courses (MOOCs), offer an affordable alternative to traditional university options. The web is also a repository for free courses, which are ideal tasters for mature students looking to get back into the study ­mindset.

If finally getting that Spanish language diploma, pursuing an undergraduate qualification or signing up for a master’s isn’t your thing, then the online education world is also filled with skills-orientated or fun-based learning opportunities from basic gardening courses to build-your-own-­treehouse modules.

The appeal of being able to work from home, in your own time and at your own pace, is a definite advantage, but it can be a lonely experience and requires a lot of self-discipline, especially if you’re working towards a qualification or further-education credits.

Many academic courses come with the added support of synchronous learning opportunities, including online lectures, one-to-one tutorials, access to student forums/discussion groups and regular tutor feedback; vital to keep remote students on track, but which require calendar scheduling and online attendance.

A more flexible alternative is asynchronous learning, whereby students work on their own to time-based deadlines, interacting with their tutor or school via email or online bulletin boards. Some online courses are even less time restrictive, with students submitting assignments as per their own schedule, with an extended course validity period.

It’s also important to do your due diligence when selecting an online educational provider. If reputation and accreditation are a prime consideration, then an established bricks-and-mortar school with an online curriculum option is the way to go. There are plenty of sham organisations, so it’s worth taking the time to do a little extra detective work, including contacting the school directly, before parting with any hard-earned cash.

Dubai-­based public-­relations practitioner ­Nurina Anuar signed up for a five-month online course in cultural diplomacy and international relations with the Institute for Cultural ­Diplomacy in Berlin, Germany.

As an expat working in the UAE, she wanted to learn more about the topic, but with a lack of locally available courses, online was a logical solution.

“It was tough to balance work, life and my studies, and there were a lot of challenges, especially trying to find the time to concentrate on the online video lectures and finish all the course reading material,” she says.

International online master’s programmes often include an annual on-site study weekend or workshop, but short courses such as Anuar’s are usually 100 per cent online.

“I took this course out of personal interest, and really enjoyed the learning experience and acquiring new knowledge. The topic struck a chord with me – I have been moving between different countries for many years, and I can see how important it is to respect and understand other cultures,” she says.

Anuar obtained a certificate in cultural diplomacy and international relations, and is now considering applying for an online journalism diploma from the UK. “My advice is to make sure you do your online research and don’t just limit yourself to big universities. There are many institutions that offer great courses with much more affordable fees,” she says.

Professional development was the motivation for Aurelia Caccamo, director of food safety and environmental services at the J W Marriott Marquis Hotel Dubai, who spent three years pursuing a master’s in hazard analysis and critical control points – food safety management systems, with Salford ­University in Manchester, England.

“I started working in food safety after having been a chef for many years, and felt that I need a proper qualification and not just learn on the job,” she says. “My job is very specific, and the only course available in the UAE was for government-employed inspectors, so that wasn’t an option, or else short, five-day courses. Another issue I faced was that some online courses are not Ministry of Education-approved, plus I wanted a qualification that would be recognised back in Europe,” she adds.

As a career hotelier accustomed to 12-hour working days, Caccamo found that the online study model was a perfect fit. “I loved it – I could learn whenever I had time,” she says. “The university had chat rooms and set times for tutoring, and the set-up was much better than I expected – it was so ­interactive and our professors were quick with their email responses.

“We could post questions and interact with others online, and our coursework was also uploaded, so we could learn from each other. I even got to meet some other Dubai- and Oman-based students from the course.” Salford faculty members also periodically visited Dubai, and she had the choice of sitting her exams in Dubai or Oman.

The online learning curve delivered some surprising benefits. “I also ‘learnt to learn’,” she explains. “It’s very different to be self-driven, and my time management was tested big time, especially when writing my dissertation. I learnt that I could push myself to do things I never thought ­possible.

“Reading academic books and papers in English was quite a challenge because it’s not my first language, but I surprised myself with how much I enjoyed this aspect, and it has definitely given me a professional edge.”

Online learning ideas

From free four-week tasters at Ivy League colleges to a full four-year master’s at landmark e-learning institutions, there’s an online education option for everyone.

Cornell University

Delivered via Cornell’s web-based learning system, Blackboard, choose from a summer and winter calendar of credit-based short courses, including anthropology, history of art, nutritional science and psychology.


Open University

From higher-education certificates to postgraduate qualifications, the Open University has been a leading name in distance learning since 1969. CSI addicts should sign up for a degree in criminology and psychology, while the master’s in translation is a must for keen linguists (including Chinese and Arabic options).


Harvard University

Awaken your intellectual curiosity with an extensive collection of free and paid credit-weighted online courses. Gain a deeper understanding of humanitarian response to conflict and disaster, sign up for a fascinating look at American government, dive into the world of science and cooking or learn the fundamentals of website development.


University of Cambridge

Take a virtual walk through the hallowed halls and quads with an annual calendar of short intensive courses that run the gamut of knowledge and self-discovery, from Roman and Greek mythology, executive coaching and DNA analysis to design thinking and an introduction to life writing.


University of Melbourne

Melbourne is the first Australian university to join Coursera, an educational technology company that partners with leading global universities to offer free online access to world-class higher education. The current short-course list includes the role of global capital markets, animal behaviour and exercise physiology, in addition to a full menu of paid graduate certificate to master’s programmes.



Updated: August 17, 2016 04:00 AM