January is traditionally a time of change, a time when we take stock and assess future ambitions. For many students at colleges and sixth forms across Britain, it's also time to make an important decision about their future - where and what to study for a degree. Fewer things could be more important.
To these young men and women taking their first steps towards achieving their higher education ambitions I offer one important piece of advice; do your research and you'll find the right path for you.
Simple advice - big implications
It sounds rather simplistic but the fact is that come September, many young people will find themselves travelling along a learning journey that really isn't right for them. The reasons for this will vary from person to person but ultimately they can all be avoided by taking time to consider and research all options without prejudice. An open mind is key.
This is particularly true for anyone who currently believes that a traditional campus experience is the only option.
Whether through engrained misconceptions or unfamiliarity with modern learning models and a fear of the unknown, the outcome is the same - many students who would benefit from accessing a learning environment which is more affordable, flexible and suitable to their learning needs, are missing out.
Let's put some misconceptions to bed
So, what are the kinds of misconceptions I am referring to? For me, a significant one remains the temptation to question online learning provision in terms of student experience; the belief that because a student isn't physically 'going away' to university, their lives will somehow be lonely and lacking in comparison to their campus counterparts. It simply isn't true.
Students studying for a degree online don't confine themselves to their bedrooms or never leave their homes. They go out with friends (friends who are often also work colleagues given that the flexibility of online learning is so conducive to 'earning while learning'); they make new contacts; they interact.
In fact the mark of any good and reputable online university is that they understand the importance of interaction, socially and academically. They know that peer-to-peer idea development and discussion is imperative to learning and vital to the whole student experience and therefore ensure that opportunities are available to accommodate this in the form of webinars, student chat rooms, email and in some cases partnerships with campuses to offer some form of physical facilities (social and academic).
In many ways, the nature of courses being online actually broadens student horizons in terms who they be-friend and interact with.
One of our recent graduates - an MBA student living in Surrey - recently remarked that a key thing that got him through his course was being able to "knock about ideas" with another fellow student. That student also happened to be the CEO of an international business based in America. Online interaction is a powerful thing.
Different doesn't mean better or worse
There are, of course, important differences in the opportunities each and every type of learning brings to a student experience. To suggest there aren't simply isn't accurate and ultimately misses the point that different study options complement each other rather than compete. It's not about being better or worse. It's about there being more than one way - just as there is more than one type of student.
For instance, students going away to university can expect a fixed schedule of lectures, seminars and tutorials. For many young people, this is exactly what they need and want. Those attending an online university will find the same level of provision but in a flexible format, with students building their timetable around their lives, for example attending an online seminar after work or skyping with a tutor over breakfast. It's a model that particularly suits those looking to work while learning - in fact over 90% of Arden University students have a job while studying for their qualification. It won't suit all. But that's the point.
Another question I also face with frequency, a question I'm sure anyone involved with online learning is also familiar with, is about teaching materials - can they really be the same as those offered in a traditional university setting?
They can and they are. In fact, by nature of them being online, they can often be more comprehensive and updated more frequently, a fact particularly relevant for business courses. Study materials are created by tutors and professionals in the field and are rigorously (and independently) assessed by an external agency to the exactly the same level as any other higher education institution. Most online universities also have extensive online libraries.
It's the same with exams - if you're looking for a good online teaching provider, make sure they have coursework and exams marked fairly, in line with internal and external policy guidelines and checked by external assessors.
Time to change
Finally, we have what I refer to as the 'Stella Artois' conundrum. Tuition fee increases have been the cause of much unrest and dissatisfaction among the student community. Yet when presented with the option of studying online for a like-for-like degree at up to a third of the cost, suspicion - based on the famous 'reassuringly expensive' argument - creeps in. It is a thought process that has no place in higher education.
Studying online for a degree or masters does cost significantly less than 'going away to university' but that is a reflection of differences in model and physical overheads, not quality, as I hope I have gone some way to reassure in the points made earlier.
There is no right or wrong answer when it comes to learning; it's all about the individual. For some, going away to university is what's right, for others the vocational appeal of an apprenticeship or the flexibility of online study will ultimately yield better results. But without fully knowing about each option, it's impossible to take informed first steps down any particular route.
One thing that is for certain, whatever route taken should be considered with as much vigour as any other large financial investment - it will, after all, have a life-long impact.
So to all students out there considering their future, don't rush. Research all the options, without prejudice, and you will undoubtedly succeed in finding a path which suits your specific learning style and study ambitions.Suggest a correction