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.