Part-time study in cyberspace

Distance learning can be lonely, but now interactive teaching can be done by e-mail and students can take part in online tutorials. Nicholas Pyke reports
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The Independent Online

You can do it in the office, at home or at the internet café. Welcome to online graduation, the logical conclusion of the online degree. For the past two summers, students completing the Open University's Master's course in Education have been invited to receive their degrees by switching on their computers. They can watch the vice-chancellor take his place before the ceremonial webcam at the university's Milton Keynes HQ and listen to his short address. Or open a few more beers. The students' names flicker on to the screen accompanied by a film clip featuring their achievements, before their status as OU degree-holders is finally confirmed.

Graduation by computer will become the norm, says the OU, particularly for its more distant participants. And from next year it will make the electronic ceremony available for all its BA and MA students.

The Open University is the pioneer of the long-distance degree, and is still the UK market leader, offering more than 360 courses to 200,000 students a year. Since 1969, when it first received its royal charter, it has taught more than two million people. The teaching is delivered through course literature and tutorials conducted by the OU's regionally based academics. The tutors set assignments and are available for face-to-face consultations once a month. There may be a summer school where the students can meet. The courses are based on modules – each worth 30 or 60 "points" – and a full 360-point degree typically takes six years, at a cost of £4,300.

The UK market for distance learning in higher education appears to be fairly static. Around 10,000 UK students qualify every year. But that is changing. The OU has already decided to offer named, specialist degrees rather than the plain old BAs and MAs of the past. From its inception, its flexible, modular system meant you could study any combination of subjects, however wacky, and still end up with a generic OU degree. You still can. But now, for the first time, the university is also offering courses in specific subjects such as psychology, art history, and oceanography where the course content is laid down centrally.

It is also exploiting new technology, with increasing amounts of its course material delivered and taught online. E-mail is a huge bonus for long-distance learning, which is frequently a lonely affair dogged by a high drop-out rate. Six years of study takes considerable stamina and most people on a part-time course already have commitments elsewhere. So even at a practised institution like the OU, around 30 per cent of the students fail to complete.

Online learning is already central to a wide range of courses at the OU and elsewhere. Even London University's Birkbeck College, the grande dame of the part-time degree, is incorporating the techniques pioneered by distance learning. An MSc in crystallography is available online, for example, as are screenwriting courses and postgraduate degrees in psychology. The MSc in geography information science (GIS) is taught entirely over the web. Birkbeck's psychology department attempts to counter some of the isolation involved in distance learning by basing its courses around a series of online group tutorials. Most of the teaching is done by e-mail.

At Heriot-Watt University, these techniques are so successful that they are used by the 6,500 full-time students on its Edinburgh campus. Professor Roy Leitch, the deputy principal, said the computer materials developed for distance learning were efficient and seemed to motivate the students. "Increasingly we're delivering our lessons on the campus the same way, with fewer lectures, more tutorials and online packages that deliver the course in a way that's economical and engaging," he said.

But if the UK market for distance learning remains static, the appetite abroad is huge. Such is the potential that Heriot-Watt now has almost twice the number of part-time foreign students – 12,000 – as home-grown full-timers. They can take BAs in management, business, finance and marketing. It also offers distance-learning MScs in brewing and distilling, petroleum engineering and Arabic translation and interpretation. The courses are particularly popular in South-east Asia.

"The largest market, to be commercial about it, is in the developing world," says Professor Leitch. And, as he admits, it is highly profitable.