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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."