'If you've got any questions, just e-mail me'

Distance learning has always required self-discipline, but now the superhighway has at least removed the isolation
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The Independent Online

"One student said that he had more contact on our distance-learning course than he had ever had when he did his first degree at university."

"One student said that he had more contact on our distance-learning course than he had ever had when he did his first degree at university."

An over-enthusiastic claim from the founder of the world's first internet law course, Mike Semple Piggot? Possibly. But the growing impact of electronic communication on distance learning means that, for increasing numbers of students, it does contain more than a kernel of truth.

Since the first correspondence courses were set up more than a hundred years ago, distance learning has offered huge benefits to people who can't afford the time or money to study full time. But until recently there has been one major drawback: isolation, both from tutors and other students. Now e-mail is bringing increasing numbers of students out of that vacuum.

Professor Jim Wilson of Northern College, the biggest distance provider of teacher education in Scotland, says: "With e-mail, you get a virtual classroom - people can ask and answer questions, so you begin to create the interactions you get in a classroom." At the same time, internet access to libraries has revolutionised research.

But if you prefer to study from good old-fashioned textbooks, take heart. While at one end of the spectrum, the world's first internet law school, Semple Piggot Rochez, has just produced its first graduates, at the other there are perfectly respectable courses which remain overwhelmingly - if not totally - paper-based. Most courses continue to offer a reassuring mix of print and electronic material.

David Morley, head of the Open and Distance Learning Quality Council (ODL), says: "The predictions that new technology was going to change the nature of learning haven't yet been fulfilled. There has been a relative lack of major impact so far - here, as well as in the US - although it's true that e-mail support has grown. The average student who wants to do an A-level by distance will do it by correspondence now, just as they did 20 years ago."

There is good reason for this continued reliance on print: the whole point of distance learning is that it is accessible to a far wider range of students than campus-based courses. Clearly, the need to own a computer limits this accessibility. As a result, many providers, like Peter Morgan, the programme manager for the distance learning programme at Durham University's Business School, are keen to maintain a solid foundation of print-based materials for the new Masters in management. He says: "Many people prefer to study from a book because the eye can take in more, you can scribble notes on the page and so on. So we plan to continue to offer printed material. But because many of our students are mobile and don't want to carry a load of books around, we will also offer a CD-ROM which reinforces the print."

For all the universities offering distance courses, the challenge has always been to ensure that a degree studied at a distance is not regarded as a poor relation to a degree studied full time. Susan Gidman of London University's external programme insists: "As far as we are concerned, we only have one degree. We have two types of students - those who come to London to study and those who study at a distance. But they must all attain the same academic standard."

In practice, this means putting huge efforts into the formulation of learning materials. Trevor Buck, senior lecturer in law at Leicester University, says: "When we converted the campus-based degree in social-welfare law to distance learning, we put all our efforts into the materials. Writing a tutorial sheet for distance students can be much more demanding than formulating one for students who can knock on your door at any time."

Mr Buck points out that one of the dangers of new technology is that less scrupulous providers can simply put a few poorly thought-out documents on the Web and leave students to get on with it. This, added to the ever-expanding range of courses on offer, can make it hard for students to choose the best course.

The Department for Education's Learn Direct helpline is a good starting point. The ODL - the national body responsible for accrediting distance-learning - also publishes a list of approved courses. Its chief executive, David Morley, has sound advice: "Quality distance learning is always supported in some way with tutor contact, either by phone, post or e-mail. That's not to say you can't get quite good courses that are stand-alone, but a lot of care has to go into producing the materials.

"People should always look for some kind of guarantee that the course is good quality, such as an ODL accreditation. They should also do a bit of homework first to establish the qualification they really want to aim for and what they want to get out of the course. With 45,000 different qualifications in this country, it can be confusing. A good provider will talk it through with the applicant. A bad provider won't bother."

Some courses - like the new Masters degree in social-welfare law at Leicester University - allow the student to test the water by taking one module at a time. Trevor Buck explains: "It gives students - many of whom haven't been in higher education for 20 or 30 years - the opportunity to see whether learning on their own initiative is right for them, and whether they've got the stamina to keep going." Leicester students also attend face-to-face induction days and a residential weekend a few weeks before submitting coursework.

Clearly, the best courses employ all the forms of communication that are now available so that students can use what suits them best.

The government-run free information line, Learn Direct, is on 0800 100 900. The ODL Quality Council is at Westminster Central Hall, Storey's Gate, London SW1H 9NH