The joy of studying without moving

Distance learning provides an opportunity to 'future proof' your career.

What should a business do in a recession: make people redundant or invest money in training staff? According to training provider MOL, British businesses are choosing the latter option, while students are attracted by newer, more flexible ways of learning.

There is a steady rise in the number of people taking the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) certificate courses, says MOL. They now have 1,400 students, up 15 per cent from last year. "We're delighted with that," says Jo Graham, marketing promotions manager, "and most students are being paid to do the course by their employer, which is encouraging."

As a result, training is one of the few sectors to be benefiting from the recession. A recent CIPD survey found that 76 per cent of organisations still see training as an important part of business improvement, even though almost half say their economic situation has worsened. Guy Norris, of the CIPD, says that organisations are not releasing the sort of funding they would have a year ago. This means plenty of new students are funding themselves, keen to "future proof" their career or to make themselves more attractive when they change jobs.

MOL runs training in several areas including human resources, management and finance, construction, and estate agency. It recently joined forces with CIPD Enterprises, the learning arm of the CIPD, to launch CIPD Flexible Learning. Students attend workshops (normally about one day a month) at one of 20 UK bases. There's also a virtual learning environment, where students can stay in touch with each other and their tutor, and submit assignments.

While there are set workshop dates, the course is designed to fit around a student's life without the need to attend a college, says Graham. Most of the courses are based on assignments and don't have exams.

Steve Clarke, director of MOL, says that because of the learning environment, when a student comes to a workshop every minute of their time is well used. "Students have told us they come to a workshop, then go back to the office the next day and apply what they've learnt," he says, "Employers want to see this, too, especially when times are difficult."

People still like to have written materials, and they want short bursts of learning, but what's really important is support. "If someone is sitting at home on a Saturday afternoon doing an assignment they want to be able to contact their tutor," says Clarke.

It's a similar situation in education, at least among those who want to become Montessori teachers. According to Montessori Centre International (MCI), more people are signing up for distance learning to learn how to teach, despite the recession.

The distance learning Early Childhood Certificate, for those who want to work as a teaching assistant, involves written assignments, a two-week apparatus workshop, practical and written exams and teaching practice.

Traditionally, students were largely responsible for their own programme of study, completing 14 assignments, in about 420 hours of home study, over two years. Some students, however, found this difficult and wanted more tutor input, in particular they wanted to be reminded what they were supposed to be doing and when. Which is why, in January, MCI started offering distance learning in a new format, says Susan Balcombe, head of distance learning. Now, before each assignment is due, the tutor emails with extra guidelines, tips and suggestions. So far the response has been positive and those who enrolled in January are all up to date with their assignments, says Balcombe.

Irina Grimm finished her Early Childhood course in April and is now working at a Montessori nursery in Berlin. She chose distance learning because it was flexible enough to fit around her four-day job in a Montessori nursery in Edinburgh. She devoted one day a week to study, plus weekends and some nights.

Grimm liked the fact that one day she was working on theory and the next "I would see the things I was writing about happening in 'real-life' in the nursery." She also liked being able to do the assignments in the order she wanted, after consulting her tutor, but says some students did struggle and so will find the new format easier.

For those who aren't used to independent study, or who don't have the discipline to do everything on time, courses like those offered by MOL or Montessori might be ideal – and you'll end up with a qualification at the end of it.

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