Distance Learning: Open season on study: Many universities are now helping people earn qualifications at home and at work. Liz Heron reports

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The Independent Online
THE OPEN University is taking a leading role in helping mainstream universities to introduce distance-learning methods and materials, and more flexible course structures which will open up higher education to a wider range of people.

Closer links between the OU and other universities are making it possible for people to work towards qualification through a combination of home study and full or part-time study at a university, and to take their studies with them wherever they move in Europe. The greater flexibility will make it easier to combine work and study.

Formal agreements now in place between the OU, all the new universities and half the old universities - guaranteeing that study with the OU carries equal weight to campus-based study - opens the door for OU students to enter full-time degrees in mid-course. An OU survey two years ago showed that one in three OU students who dropped out went on to join another institution.

The OU has brought its own degrees into line with the standardised system of accrediting study that makes transfer possible, and most universities not yet in the system are in the process of adapting their degrees.

John Daniels, vice-chancellor of the Open University, said: 'The distinction between distance education and classroom education, that was once very strong, is breaking down, and the Open University has a great deal to offer traditional universities.'

Opening up university education to people who do not have A-levels or who are already launched on a career is now a top priority for most universities, and the OU, which has no entry requirements, has been doing this for 21 years. It is now drawing on this experience to develop Access courses which prepare mature students for entry to mainstream university.

OU Access course materials for students wishing to enter the Humanities and Social Sciences are being prepared, and similar courses are likely to follow for those wanting to enrol for science, maths and technology degrees. The courses will be available on a correspondent basis through the National Extension College and are likely to be used in whole or part by further education colleges around Britain, which currently devise their own Access courses with much duplication of effort. The first course, Living in a Changing Society, will be available from September.

The OU is also helping universities to cope with student numbers that are rising faster than the level of their resources by developing cheaper teaching methods and materials. Courses based on workbooks and audio- visual materials - and more recently on computers - and backed up by tutors, have been tested by the OU.

As mainstream universities move closer to the OU and as the standardised accreditation system (known as CAT) becomes established, it will become increasingly possible for full-time students to include a few Open University courses in their degree programme, and for OU students to take complementary courses at their local university. The University College of Cardiff and Leeds Metropolitan University already offer courses to OU students, which are credited towards the OU degree.

Dr Daniels is very keen to develop such links further. 'Our students complain bitterly that their choices are fairly limited, and I would like to see other universities develop courses for their own students which we could then offer through the whole OU system,' he said.

To illustrate what the OU might be able to offer full-time students in Britain, he cited research showing that one-third of students throughout universities in western Canada take distance courses offered by the Canadian equivalent to the OU.

Distance universities can also enrich their curricula by linking with each other. The Open University has joined forces with its counterparts in France, Germany, Holland and Denmark to produce two core Humanities courses, which draw on the diverse intellectual traditions of the four countries. The first, What Is Europe?, which becomes available in Britain this year, will include a French perspective on European democracy and a German view of European culture.

Materials-based courses which can be used for distance teaching or independent study on campus are being developed for the new universities by the Open Learning Foundation, formerly the Open Polytechnic. David Harvie, chief executive of the Foundation, said: 'The upfront costs of developing open learning materials are less, and it makes sense to develop some of these materials centrally. We are writing courses covering management, business studies, health, nursing, social work, engineering, basic maths and languages. Our member universities are looking for open learning materials to use in work with their local communities as part of franchise arrangements with further education colleges and for distance-taught courses for students overseas.'

A number of new universities are also pioneering, with companies, distance-learning courses in the workplace. The universities accredit in-house training towards an academic qualification.

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