One option for distance learning is through specialist institutions such as the Cambridge International College, offering professional qualifications across the world through hands-off distance learning. John Howard, 29, left school at 17 and has been living in Tokyo for the past 12 years where he now works as an English teacher.
"Moving abroad and finding work without even a high school education has been really hard," he admits. "And Japanese culture is very hot on education. None of my students knows that I didn't finish high school. They wouldn't accept me as a teacher if they knew."
In Japan there was little Howard could do about it, until he heard about Cambridge International College's distance learning programme. Last year he did a diploma in business management and administration, and now he has started a two-year BA in business management. "It did require self-discipline," he says. "But I really needed this. Now I want to move into human resources."
While for some distance learning is a chance to get on in their career, for many others it is an opportunity to escape it. Like Howard, Paula Wilmot, 39, felt she had missed out by letting her education slip. But it was only when she did an English literature A-level part-time that she realised what she was missing. "I thought this was something I'd never do, but I did, I got an A, and I realised how much easier it is later in life," she says. "I just thought, I really enjoy this." She joined the Open University to do an arts foundation course before studying for a humanities BA with them.
Open University courses give more support than those offered by the Cambridge International College, but even with monthly assignments graded by a tutor Wilmot took 12 years to finish the degree. As an RAF squadron leader she had to take study breaks to give her all in media operations in Kosovo and Iraq. In spite of the inconvenience, Wilmot has enjoyed it. "It's been an amazing thing to do," she says. "It's opened my eyes to something that seemed impossible at school. Reading Hamlet, visiting the Globe Theatre, exchanging ideas with other students. It was incredible."
The Open University is the oldest distance learning institution in the UK, but universities now being market sensitive institutions, more of them are catering for the demand for distance learning. And you do not have to make the choice between furthering your career and having fun.
Fiona MacInnes, for one, thinks she may have found both. MacInnes, 40, is doing a part-time PGCE with Aberdeen University to become a Gaelic teacher. "I always wanted to go into teaching, a good teacher can make such a difference to a child's life," she says. "And Gaelic is close to my heart. I want to breathe a bit of life into the subject."
But she could not afford nor wanted to leave her Isle of Lewis home to study on the mainland. She enrolled with Aberdeen University, and now has a chat room and video conferencing to stay in touch with her tutorial group, as well as e-mail contact with her tutor in Aberdeen and telephone contact with a local tutor.
Like many distance learners she has found it hard to begin with, being responsible for organising her own study, but she realised what it was all about when she spent a week on a placement at a local school as part of her course. "It's still all quite new, but I think it'll all fall into place," she says. "I remember I came away from the school at the end of the week and just said, 'Yeah, this is what I want.'"Reuse content