One of the chief attractions of distance learning is that you can do it at home, in your own time, away from the hurly burly and competition of a college course. But some people turn out to be better distance learners than others.
Gareth Dent, the head of advice services at Learndirect, the Government's lifelong learning flagship, likens a person's chances of success at distance learning to their attitude to DIY.
"If you are the sort of person who has started to decorate every room in your house and left it three-quarters finished, then you are probably going to have the same sort of difficulty with a distance-learning project," he says.
"Before signing up for distance learning, you need to ask yourself if you are somebody who can work under your own steam, and who enjoys learning by exploring ideas on your own. If this learning style does not suit you, then you are unlikely to succeed. It may be that you actually need the structure of attending a college course to help you move forward."
Kevin Bridge, training manager at the the National IT Learning Centre in Newark, Nottingham, which runs a range of two-year computer courses, agrees that distance learners are not always aware of how much self-discipline is required.
"What we tend to find is that, initially, students don't fully understand what distance learning entails. They look on it just as studying at home, rather than in a large college group, where they will be compared with their peers."
"Distance learners have to be very well-motivated and well-disciplined," says Professor Cedric Bell, chief executive of Holborn College, west London, which manages 3,000 distance-learner students taking Bachelor-of-Law degrees around the world. "Students who attend a college are, in a sense, feeding at a table of tutors – whereas distance learners have to get themselves to the table, by their own commitment."
Choosing the right sort of course is crucial for the would-be distance learner. Learndirect's free advice line can be helpful here, and it fields some 5,000 calls every day. Gareth Dent recommends that people work out exactly what free time they have for a course, taking off the hours needed to sleep, shop, cook, etc.
"One of the reasons people go wrong is that they assume they have more free time than they actually do," he says.
Darren Beverley, who works for an engineering company, recently completed a short course in web design offered by the small family firm, IT Distance Learning. "The course was about 150 hours, and I did it in three to four months, working in my lunch times and in the evenings. Some distance-learning IT courses I've done throw you in the deep end and rush you through, but this one took you step by step, and was easy to follow. Bits of it I found quite difficult, but the course tutors were always quick to reply by e-mail."
Distance-learning courses vary widely in how much support they offer their students. Often, the student will need to be able to subsist entirely on e-mail (and/or telephone) communication. But some providers recognise the benefits of a degree of face-to-face contact, and will try to provide this. Students on Learndirect courses, for example (mainly IT, management, and basic skills), have the option of dropping into local centres for extra help.
The National IT Learning Centre organises internet chat groups for its students, as well as a study buddy programme, in order to ease student isolation. Holborn College runs twice-yearly study weeks in the UK (and in Hong Kong, where it has 700 students), as a supplement to its LLB course, to give students and tutors a chance to get together.
The distance-learning road may be a hard one, but if you can stick it out, the evidence suggests that potential employers are likely to be very impressed. "We have students who get jobs even before finishing their course, on the strength of what they've done so far," says Kevin Bridge.
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