Distance learning: Wherever you go, you can take your studies with you

Most universities and colleges now offer online academic qualifications

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!“

News
people Biographer says cinema’s enduring sex symbol led a secret troubled life
News
newsGlobal index has ranked the quality of life for OAPs - but the UK didn't even make it into the top 10
News
people

Kirstie Allsopp has waded into the female fertility debate again

News
In 2006, Pluto was reclassified as a 'dwarf planet'
scienceBut will it be reinstated?
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
people
News
Researchers say a diet of fatty foods could impede smell abilities
scienceMeasuring the sense may predict a person's lifespan
Sport
footballArsenal 4 Galatasaray 1: Wenger celebrates 18th anniversary in style
News
peopleStella McCartney apologises over controversial Instagram picture
News
Gillian Anderson was paid less than her male co-star David Duchovny for three years while she was in the The X-Files until she protested and was given the same salary
people

Gillian Anderson lays into gender disparity in Hollywood

Life and Style
Laid bare: the Good2Go app ensures people have a chance to make their intentions clear about having sex
techCould Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Burr remains the baker to beat on the Great British Bake Off
tvRichard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
Life and Style
fashionThe Secret Angels all take home huge sums - but who earns the most?
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Amazon has added a cautionary warning to Tom and Jerry cartoons on its streaming service
tv
News
The village was originally named Llansanffraid-ym-Mechain after the Celtic female Saint Brigit, but the name was changed 150 years ago to Llansantffraid – a decision which suggests the incorrect gender of the saint
newsA Welsh town has changed its name - and a prize if you can notice how
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Student

KS1 and KS2 Primary NQT Job in Lancaster Area

£85 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Preston: Randstad Education is urgently...

DT Teacher - Resistant Materials

£33000 - £34000 per annum: Randstad Education Group: Technology Teacher (Resis...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + Uncapped Commission, 1st yr OTE £30-£40k : SThree:...

IT Technician

£26000 - £27000 per annum: Randstad Education Group: Experienced Science Techn...

Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

Italian couples fake UK divorce scam on an ‘industrial scale’

Welcome to Maidenhead, the divorce capital of... Italy

A look at the the legal tourists who exploited our liberal dissolution rules
Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

The vintage series has often been criticised for racial stereotyping
An app for the amorous: Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?

An app for the amorous

Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?
Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid. Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?

Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid

Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?
Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

After a few early missteps with Chekhov, her acting career has taken her to Hollywood. Next up is a role in the BBC’s gangster drama ‘Peaky Blinders’
She's having a laugh: Britain's female comedians have never had it so good

She's having a laugh

Britain's female comedians have never had it so good, says stand-up Natalie Haynes
Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LED lights designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows

Let there be light

Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LEDs designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows
Great British Bake Off, semi-final, review: Richard remains the baker to beat

Tensions rise in Bake Off's pastry week

Richard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
Paris Fashion Week, spring/summer 2015: Time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris

A look to the future

It's time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris
The 10 best bedspreads

The 10 best bedspreads

Before you up the tog count on your duvet, add an extra layer and a room-changing piece to your bed this autumn
Arsenal vs Galatasaray: Five things we learnt from the Emirates

Arsenal vs Galatasaray

Five things we learnt from the Gunners' Champions League victory at the Emirates
Stuart Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

This deal gives England a head-start to prepare for 2019 World Cup, says Chris Hewett
Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

The children orphaned by Ebola...

... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

Are censors pandering to homophobia?

US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
The magic of roundabouts

Lords of the rings

Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?