Distance learning has travelled a long way since the first dreary, late night Open University broadcasts watched mainly by insomniacs in the early Seventies. Those were the days when postmen struggled down the streets, their bicycles wobbling under the weight of huge packets of study sheets and textbooks.
Now students don’t have to stay up late or rise at dawn to listen to broadcasts – they can access online lectures and course material 24/7 via the internet.
There are people in war zones dodging bombs as they study for MBA degrees, factory workers in Taiwan learning accountancy through British colleges and prisoners taking bookkeeping courses.
Distance learning in the UK is often equated with the Open University, brainchild of Harold Wilson, the former Labour prime minister who wanted to bring elitist higher education to working people. When the first students enrolled in January 1971 the OU struggled, sneered at by the lofty redbrick universities that had once suffered the same treatment from the hands of the ancient stone institutions.
But by the early 1980s, distance learning had come into its own, so much so that the OU hit the tabloid headlines over allegations of sex romps at its residential weekends. The university denied the story, but not everyone believed them – enrolments increased significantly the following year.
In fact, the first university to offer its degrees worldwide was the University of London after Queen Victoria signed a charter to permit it to do so in 1858. During the First World War, the University of London External System sent materials out via the Ministry of Defence to soldiers in the trenches and those being held in prisoner of war camps.
Nowadays, distance learning is not confined to higher education. It is possible to take a vast range of school exams, professional qualifications and workplace training sessions without setting foot in an education establishment.
The internet has had a huge impact on the way courses are delivered and in some ways has blurred the division between campus and distance learning. Students at university are likely to be using much the same online materials as those logged in to the virtual portal thousands of miles away.
Big education companies, such as Kaplan and BPP, even provide on-line, interactive seminars, recorded for those who miss them.
Most online courses have forums for students to talk to each other, but Jisc, the charity that champions the use of digital technologies in education and research, says that students often prefer to get together on social network sites, such as Facebook.
They may feel more at home on sites they already use or perhaps they worry about admitting their concerns where a tutor can read them, says David Kernohan, Jisc’s programme manager for eLearning Innovation.
Most universities and some colleges in the UK are now offering online academic and professional qualifications joined by a growing number of private education companies. So how do you choose between them, especially if you are on the other side of the globe? And what should students expect in terms of access to technology and tutors?
Kernohan suggests that beyond the reputation of the institution and its track record for providing successful courses that are respected by employers in the sector, students should consider the breadth of compatibility of the technology used, and even try it out before they commit.
“Students may own and use a variety of internet-capable devices and some earlier distance learning platforms were notoriously single platform. An advantage of distance learning is that it can happen anywhere, so students should check that they will be able to access the course on all their devices,” he says.But don’t get carried away by claims of virtual classrooms and academic avatars. “Content and teaching methods should drive the technology, not the other way round,” he says. “Where possible, this should include evidence that members of the course are discussing their assignments with each other and people from a wider circle; that they appear excited and motivated.”
Distance learning students have more flexibility over when and where they study, but they still have to meet assignment deadlines.
More than nine in 10 students on the University of Liverpool Management School’s online programmes are in full-time employment, says Dr Claire Moxham, the university’s director of studies. There are no fixed lecture times – all class discussions and group projects take place online around the clock, she says.
“Students need to ensure they have to time to commit to the programme. For our Masters programmes, we suggest around 20 hours a week for an eight-week module. This is a significant time commitment,” she says. On the plus side, students can have up to six years to complete the Masters courses.
Universities with a large number of distance learners often provide on the ground support for them nearer home. Some students are working in very challenging conditions, says Bill O’Hara, who supports University of Leicester Management School students in Africa.
“Some of our students face limited access to the internet, power cuts that go on sometimes for days, floods, droughts and many are working in unsafe and even conflict zones,” he says.
Students quite often move countries through their jobs and can keep studying through distance courses, says O’Hara. He cites recent University of Leicester student Maurice Tukamuhebwa who started an MBA course while in the Democratic Republic of Congo, then moved back home to Uganda before being dispatched to South Sudan. “From Sudan he went back to Uganda and was then reassigned to Afghanistan. He arranged to have his leave granted in blocks before assignments were due and used our study centre and free internet access whenever he could,” says O’Hara.
After graduating as an “A” student, Tukamuhebwa achieved promotion and is now the director of a logistics company in Uganda, his homeland.
Advances in technology have also helped thousands of workers to advance their careers through professional qualifications. The number of distance learners taking the accountancy exams has risen sharply over the past three years and now account for a fifth of candidates, says Rob Alder, business development manager at the Association of Accounting Technicians (AAT).
Accountancy is a popular subject at the Open Study College (OSC), which provides online courses for academic qualifications, such as A-levels and IGCSE, and a range of vocational and professional qualifications, from bookkeeping and IT to animal care and fitness training.
Don’t think you can go it alone, says Stewart Jeenes, 29, an OSC student from Bristol who moved from being a bank administrator to accountancy while gaining AAT qualifications. “However good the materials and online tutorials, you can get stuck. Being able to email or phone my own tutor helped me a lot and I’d advise people to check that they will get support before they enrol.”
Next month, the University of London External System – which was renamed as International Programmes in 2010– celebrates its 156th anniversary and the UK is still leading the way in distance learning courses. The OU was the first university worldwide to achieve 20 million downloads of its learning materials on the new iTunes university.
Case study: ‘I would recommend distance learning’
Supportive employers made all the difference to Kim Lilly, 55, juggling a full-time job and family while she studied bookkeeping “They agreed that I could work for the exams at home on Friday mornings. That uninterrupted four or five hours a week was all I needed,” says Lilly, who looks after her grandsons, aged eight and 11.
She was working as an administrator at the Luton Law Centre when she enrolled with the Open Study College in October 2012 to prepare for the International Association of Bookkeepers Level 1 award.
“The centre wanted me to take on the bookkeeping side and I needed to learn how to do it,” Lilly says. “I wanted an accredited course with qualifications and the nearest college was in Watford, too far away, so I decided on distance learning,” she says.
Passing the exam with distinction in four months, she went on to gain level two in six months, again with distinction. Now Lilly is working towards the third level.
“I would recommend distance learning as long as you get support,” she says. “As soon as I signed up – it cost about £300 – I got a pack in the post, a student number and a named tutor. She contacted me very quickly by email and we drew up a time plan for each unit.
“Each time I emailed her, she always replied on the same day. That made it easier to fit studying in with everything else. It has helped me do more in my job and given me qualifications for the future.”
Case study: ‘I put myself in a very niche position’
Malek Zouki, 33, from Lebanon, says his distance learning degree from the University of Liverpool helped his career “big time”.
“I was working in the purchasing department of a fast-moving consumer goods company in Doha, Qatar and after two years I realised that if I wanted to lift my career, I had to get some more academic qualifications,” he says.
“Most of my suppliers were outside of Doha and across the world, so I wanted to know more about global supply chain management. I couldn’t find anything like that at universities in the Middle East. I saw an advertisement for distance learning at Liverpool and rang them up. She told me they actually do a Masters course in operations and supply chain management. I was amazed. It was the first I had heard of an academic qualification in supply chain,” said Zouki.
He enrolled in 2010 and graduated in July 2012. “I had put myself in a very niche position, having a Masters degree and experience in the field. It helped my career big time, because I got a job with an multinational company in Dubai as the regional sourcing manager for the whole of the Middle East.”
Studying for a British qualification was hard at first and took so long he felt isolated from his friends. “After the first two modules I knew what I was doing and it took more like two to three hours a day which was manageable. And well worth it!“