Cyberspace calls

Online study is changing the way people learn, how tutors teach and even the make-up of the student population. Caitlin Davies reports

You've got two small children, a part-time job, and you want to study computing: how will you do it? The same way as an engineering student in Russia or an MBA student in Zambia: through distance learning. And if you have internet access then you could go the e-learning route and take your course online.

An increasing number of UK universities are offering distance learning as a way to make studying more flexible and efficient, and to reduce the problems of geography and communication. For the student it means a cheaper degree without living expenses, and especially appeals to those with jobs, caring commitments or disabilities, and those living far away from the university of their choice.

Distance learning has been around for a long time - in the case of the University of London's external programme, it dates back to 1858. But nowadays it often involves the use of interactive CD-ROM environments, computer-mediated conferencing and web-based study support materials. E-learning is changing the way people study, the way tutors teach, and the make-up of today's student population.

At the Open University, most courses now offer online services or use multimedia products, with one in 10 assignments submitted electronically. One of the biggest attractions is flexibility. At the LSE's external study programme students have between three and eight years to complete 12 units for a degree, and can decide when and how to study.

"Imagine a building with noticeboards, students, books, teachers and so on," says Kyriaki Anagnostopoulou, e-learning adviser at Middlesex University, "Now imagine the equivalent online where students have access, via the web, to teachers, other students, resources, just about everything." The virtual environment is now used by 20,000 students and Anagnostopoulou sees it as a way to enhance, rather than change, the way people learn.

Competition to get people online globally is getting fierce. Interactive University, Scotland's global education distributor, has just announced its entry into the African market with a local marketing partner in Zambia through which students can take Stirling University's MBA. Meanwhile 20 UK universities are offering online degrees via the government-backed body, UK e-Universities, whose mission is to deliver the best of UK university education online across the world.

But what of the problems involved in distance and e-learning? What of technical glitches and power cuts? And do you really want to study in your own home, without any other students to talk to?

To fans of distance learning these hurdles can be easily overcome. Technical problems are reportedly rare, and rather than leading to isolation, e-learning can actually improve communication. One Middlesex lecturer decided he would no longer respond to e-mails and students had to post questions onto discussion boards. The result was that students thought more carefully about what they wanted to ask and were more focused. But the biggest benefit was the response from other students, with peer support suddenly becoming much stronger.

Human support is still essential if you're after a quality learning experience, but distance learning universities normally offer face-to-face contact at study and support centres.

Professor Brian Smart is deputy principal of academic development at Heriot-Watt University, home to the world's biggest MBA distance learning programme. He emphasises the need for supported e-learning whereby the university forms partnerships with overseas universities which provide tutorial and technical support.

"We create support centres with trained tutors, because we believe that's what's required," says Smart. "It's not just a matter of putting stuff on a server, connectivity has to be established." Heriot-Watt has a distance degree in petroleum engineering, popular in Russia, and next year will launch one in brewing and distilling.

But despite students' familiarity with technical study aids, many still feel most comfortable with pen and paper. Smart says the first thing a student does when they access material on the web is to make a hard copy because "the power never runs out on paper."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
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

Tradewind Recruitment: Science Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: I am currently working in partnersh...

Tradewind Recruitment: Humanities Teacher

£130 - £150 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Humanities Teacher Jan 2015 - July...

Tradewind Recruitment: Maths Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: Our exclusive client in St Albans Hertfords...

Tradewind Recruitment: KS2 Primary Teachers

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: Key Stage 2 Teachers needed in Hertfordshir...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
Why the league system no longer measures up

League system no longer measures up

Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste