Thanks to the web, a new generation of adults is getting a second shot at education

This month, the University of London's external programme celebrates its 150th anniversary – just as the distance-learning industry faces a turning point.

Material once delivered by horse and cart is now available free of charge on the internet. The decision by two British universities to join their American counterparts in making lectures freely available to portable devices opens up the world of higher education to anybody. Two clicks and you're into iTunes U, the library of course material held in the same virtual space as Apple's music downloads. There are summaries of philosophy, treatises on computer security – and if you want to know how Scotland became one of the most dynamic centres of Enlightenment thinking, you can find out, free of charge.

University College London and the Open University are leading the way in this initiative, and more institutions are preparing to follow. It may look like commercial suicide for universities that are under pressure to find new sources of income to give away the work of leading academics. But they see it as a way to attract a new students, busy people who wish to learn in their own time, while they commute or work out.

"Offering material free of charge is consistent with our mission. We hope people will get interested and want to take it further by enrolling on our courses," says a spokesman for the OU, which has 225,675 students worldwide.

Distance learning is booming. Hundreds of adult education classes are closing as money is channelled towards basic skills and GCSE qualifications. Colleges and companies have been quick to provide online options. It's now possible to learn massage, aromatherapy or even Montessori education through virtual lessons, backed up later with practical experience.

E-learning offers people a second chance, says Helen Chapman, 41, a mother of three from Honiton, Devon, who left school without qualifications. "My head teacher told me I'd never amount to anything and stopped me taking CSEs even though I passed the mocks."

In her early thirties and married with three children, one severely disabled, she decided to enrol for a degree in childhood and youth studies through the OU. She graduated last year. Now working as a classroom assistant at a primary school, she is back at college part-time to get the necessary GCSEs in maths and English to train as a teacher. "It took me six years, but it was worth it," she says.

The OU says more younger people are enrolling for its undergraduate degrees, at a cost of £3,500, to escape the debt burden of campus-based courses. The median age of its students has fallen to 32.

But the OU, which enrolled its first students in 1971, is a novice compared to the University of London, which set up its external programme in 1858 for students who could not travel to the capital. Called the "People's University" by Dickens, it was the first in the UK to admit students on lower incomes. In 1878, it was the first to admit women to its degrees. Now, its 40,000 students in 180 countries sit exams marked by the same lecturers who teach home students.

Home learners no longer work in isolation, says Paul Leng, Professor of e-learning at Liverpool University. Students, in tutor groups of about 15, take part in online seminars discussing assignments posted on the net. Masters degrees – costing between £13,000 and £17,000 – are devised and accredited by the university and delivered by Laureate International Universities, an American company based in Holland. "Our e-students probably have more contact with tutors and each other than campus-based ones," Leng says.

Never has there been so much opportunity for people to learn at their own pace, but success in the end comes down to commitment. About 30 per cent of the Bachelor of Laws students on the University of London external system fail to get past the first year.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
video
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Southern charm: Nicolas Cage and Tye Sheridan in ‘Joe’
filmReview: Actor delivers astonishing performance in low budget drama
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Up my street: The residents of the elegant Moray Place in Edinburgh's Georgian New Town
tvBBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past
Extras
indybest
News
Albus Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry has been the teaching profession's favourite teacher
education
Sport
Luis Suarez looks towards the crowd during the 2-1 victory over England
sport
Life and Style
Cheesecake frozen yoghurt by Constance and Mathilde Lorenzi
food + drinkThink outside the cool box for this summer’s frozen treats
News
John Barrowman kisses his male “bride” at a mock Gretna Green during the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony
peopleBarrowman's opening ceremony message to Commonwealth countries where he would be sent to prison for being gay
Sport
Sir Bradley Wiggins removes his silver medal after the podium ceremony for the men’s 4,000m team pursuit in Glasgow yesterday
Commonwealth games Disappointment for Sir Bradley in team pursuit final as England are forced to settle for silver
Sport
Alistair Brownlee (right) celebrates with his gold medal after winning the men’s triathlon alongside brother Jonny (left), who got silver
England's Jodie Stimpson won the women’s triathlon in the morning
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Modern Foreign Languages Teacher

£21000 - £31000 per annum: Randstad Education Leeds: Do you think you are read...

Cover Supervisor

£60 - £90 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: The JobSeveral cover supervisors ...

SEN Teaching Assistant

£55 - £80 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: We are seeking special needs...

Modern Foreign Languages Teacher

£100 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Sheffield: MFL teacher Required in Don...

Day In a Page

Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform