The term "distance learning" has the kind of modern ring to it that might make it seem an invention of our technological age, inseparable from the telephone, the fax and the computer. But distance learning is merely a new name for a mode of study that has a long and venerable history.
Some might argue that its true origins date back as far as St Paul's pedagogical epistles to his followers. But in terms of a course of study that students can pursue in their own time from anywhere in the world, with certification at the end, the University of London prides itself on being one of the first institutions – if not the first – to offer this type of learning. Its External Programme was formally established in 1858, and it has flourished ever since.
University College London was founded in the late 1820s by the reformer Jeremy Bentham to extend university education beyond Oxford and Cambridge (but still for men only). When King's College later came into existence, causing a rivalry between the two, the government intervened and, in 1836, created the University of London, to which both colleges were affiliated.
The Bentham ethos of "widening participation" (as we now call it) found a natural extension in the University's External Programme, which awarded a London University degree to any student who passed the university's examinations. In theory, external students could opt for any degree course, although the majority in those days chose law and divinity.
Nearly 150 years on, London University has 27,000 external students in 185 countries (many in the Far East) taking 96 programmes. Law is still the most popular distance-learning degree (9,000 students), but IT has a strong following (particularly in the Caribbean), with 3,000 students taking the BSc course in computing and information systems.
Undergraduates on these programmes are not directly supported by London University tutors, although many may get tuition from local institutions. But as the university works towards the development of e-learning, there could be more support through online discussions, computer conferencing and online tutorials.
Offering the right tutoring support is crucial to the success of distance learning, says Lucy Lloyd, the marketing manager for the Department of Continuing Education at Lancaster University. Lancaster started to explore distance-learning courses in the early Nineties. They now account for 10 per cent of the university's courses. There is still plenty of demand for the audio-tape-and-books approach, but innovative, online courses – such as the creative writing course, complete with online "coffee bars" where students can "meet" and talk – are popular and tend to be oversubscribed.
"If a student on one of these courses hasn't made their presence felt on the internet, then a member of staff will give them a ring," Ms Lloyd says. "You have to get the support right so that people don't switch off."
IT courses lend themselves particularly well to online delivery – not least because they can then easily be updated when the technology changes. The National IT Learning Centre, based in Newark-on-Trent, Nottinghamshire, offers four main courses, all online and of two years' duration, costing between £1,800 and £3,900. The lowest-level course is a starting point for those wishing to improve their computer skills, and the other three are aimed at those wishing to extend or even change careers. At the top end, the technical and systems engineer course equips people to work as network managers or systems administrators. Students are mostly supported by e-mail and telephone, but the TSE course includes four-day "workshops" to provide some hands-on help.
The growth of distance learning means there now a great many more courses to choose from (offering different qualifications, and with differing degrees of support), and people may have very different reasons for signing on. Gareth Dent, head of advice services for Learndirect, the government body for promoting life-long learning, recommends that before making a decision, people ask why they want to learn to ensure they end up with the right course and most appropriate qualification.
Learndirect advice line: 0800 100 900Reuse content