Nick Gianissis, 42, was working as an air cabin crew member when he decided to retrain as a teacher. By enrolling in a distance learning course with The Open University (OU), he was able to earn his first degree while flying around the world, graduating with an MSc in social sciences last October.
"I'd carry my stuff with me – books, DVDs, CD-Roms – and try and set myself goals like getting through a chapter a flight," says Gianissis. "I'd often find myself in different countries and time zones with free time, but it would come at funny times of the day or night. Sometimes I was too tired or jetlagged to work, but this course was flexible."
This flexibility is what makes distance learning distinctive. In traditional learning environments, you are required to fit your life around your course of study; with distance learning, your training fits around your life. For those looking to change jobs or improve their skills while balancing other commitments, this saves two important things – time and money.
"Flexibility was really important," says Gianissis. "I had a study calendar with targets, but it's up to you how to meet them, which meant I could carry on working. That was a big deciding factor – I couldn't have afforded to become a full-time student. I needed to keep earning."
Distance learning courses have boomed over the past 10 years with advances in technology, and many have received an even bigger boost from people seeking to retrain in the economic downturn. Mainstream universities such as Leicester now offer well-developed distance learning programmes alongside their work on campus, and a wealth of new private providers such as BPP – which specialises in law and business – have grown massively since the last government gave private providers degree-awarding powers. According to a survey by the private distance learning provider Home Learning College, out of the 37 per cent of British adults who have undertaken some form of study since the age of 25, a quarter studied by distance learning.
A huge range of remote learning courses is now available, varying massively in content, length and price. You can expect to pay anything from £400 for a basic module to £16,000 for a full MA (although many institutions will allow you to stop halfway to an MA and still receive a diploma or other recognisable qualification). Almost all providers will offer students a combination of study materials – both online and off – and some form of tutor support. Most also offer training on how to study, helping students overcome the difficult challenges of staying motivated and organised.
As one of the biggest distance learning providers, The Open University offers 160 postgraduate distance learning courses to people regardless of their academic background, with the most popular programmes running in business, IT and education. Many of these courses still involve face-to-face meetings (although this isn't always available in sparsely populated areas), and the OU insists that all students get solid support. "The central feature that drives student satisfaction is that we respond to students personally," says OU director of students, Will Swann. "Each student has a named personal tutor who's accountable to them, so it's hard to fall between the cracks."
Home Learning College might not offer the face-to-face tutorials of the OU, but academic director, Dave Snow, says that the 35,000 students on their books are more than satisfied with their online communities. Each week there are "virtual introductions" for newcomers who can begin their study at any time, and chat rooms, seminars and video interactions are regularly used. Snow is keen to emphasise many of the most popular subjects they offer – including bookkeeping, accountancy and IT training – are accredited by reputable professional bodies. "Always look at the programmes that give you the most valid and widely recognisable qualification, then choose your course," he says. "Doing it the other way round is a mistake."
For those with particular circumstances or interests, it may be worth hunting out smaller specialist courses. The educational charity Montessori offers two intakes a year for its diploma in nursery teaching. Half of the students on their day programme are new mothers, and the course is designed to fit around their childcare commitments while developing practical teaching skills.
As for Gianissis, he wants to finish the next stage of his teacher training in the classroom. Although he says the benefits of distance learning are fantastic, he believes there will always be some things it can't offer. "I really want the experience of being a full-time student. You qualify faster and you're not cut off. Distance learning schools are doing a really good job, but your interaction is always going to be limited. I'm looking forward to meeting other students."