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UK Distance learning

Distance Learning

The defining feature of distance learning is that you do not need to attend the awarding university/institution in person. This style of study is not new.

The University of London established its External Programme in 1858 to make the degree accessible to students who, for one reason or another, could not come to London to study, and it now offers a range of undergraduate and postgraduate qualifications, to almost 24,500 students in over 157 countries around the world.

Many professional bodies were also aware of the conflict that people face between the need to work full time and the need to acquire and keep up to date a professional qualification. Since the turn of the century, such bodies have offered their members the opportunity to gain qualifications through correspondence courses.

Although it is not an awarding institution itself, the National Extension College, founded in 1963, is another well established distance learning provider, offering general skills courses as well as tuition for GCSEs, A levels, University of London undergraduate degrees and a range of professional and vocational qualifications.

Provision for students unable to attend university increased in 1969 when the Open University was established. The OU differs from most other British universities in that it is open to any adult living in the UK/EU irrespective of previous educational qualifications. It offers its 150.000 students the opportunity of studying for undergraduate and postgraduate qualifications or a range of professional diplomas.

Now a growing number of other UK institutions are developing distance learning programmes to offer students the chance of studying without leaving home.

Distance learning suits people for many different reasons. For one, "Family and financial circumstances prevent me from studying abroad for extended periods, but I could manage a couple of short visits." For another, "I now have 2 small children it is impossible for me to attend University. I would, therefore, like to study at home". Finding the finance to study may have been difficult. "Due to financial constraints, I could not further my education in any conventional way, so I joined the bank, my present employer. My ambition is to improve my career prospects by obtaining a university degree". For people whose job requires regular travel or irregular working hours, distance learning may be the only way they improve their qualifications and seek promotion. In most cases students have the choice of when to study and how quickly they progress through the programme. Some programmes have minimum and maximum study times (the University of London allows its undergraduates up to eight years in which to complete their degree, postgraduates five.) Many business people have obtained professional qualifications while still keeping up a hectic schedule of travel and work.

The academic support given to a distance learning student varies from programme to programme and from institution to institution. However, the focus is on self-study. In its simplest form, students may receive basic academic guidance through specially written study guides and past examination papers and reports. However, many programmes provide an extensive range of materials including videos, computer disks, audio tapes and annotated texts. Some institutions have introduced programmes of study which can be delivered to a student’s home by Internet. Direct tutor support may not always be available, but, if it is, it may be given through seminars given by visiting academics and email/fax responses to assignments returned to the home institution, residential summer schools and/or revision weekends. Some universities and colleges have local partners who provide on the spot advice and support.

Academic support is not the only support required. Without the support of family, colleagues and friends, studying for a qualification as an external student would be a great deal harder. John Chetcuti says ‘my wife’s support throughout all these years has been instrumental. Had it not been for her support when I was down in the dumps I probably would not have persevered to the end’. Gisela Stuart (law) would agree. Although she found ‘studying, revising, looking after family and staying sane’ was no easy task, she felt that she was lucky. She ‘had a tolerant and supportive spouse, children who responded to a flexible routine and the stamina and determination needed for success. ‘Shantina found that she benefited from the support of her 85 year old father who then ‘was inspired by my studying and began studying himself!’ There are no age barriers in distance learning.

However, it is not an easy option: it demands hard work, dedication and sacrifice. If there is one quality that successful distance learning students have in common, it’s self discipline. Lynne Russell, who competed a master’s in agricultural development by distance learning, studied for a few hours each weekday and was ‘very strict about this, guarding my time against all corners’. John Chetcuti (who studied undergraduate economics) spread his studies ‘evenly throughout the week, putting in around thirty hours reading and researching’. He allocated his ‘weekday evenings to reading and research and Sundays to complete assignments’. George Pappas does not understate the difficulties "You need discipline, commitment and a strong desire. You must have an iron will and must want to achieve success. No desk, computer or telephone will help you unless you have the desire to learn’.

Although studying at a distance is usually cheaper than attending university, students must make sure they choose a programme that offers value for money. Institutions offering degrees or professional qualification must meet stringent quality standards set by educational funding councils and/or professional bodies. The standards should be the same as those set for internal students so asking about standards is one easy way of ensuring a reputable institution is chosen.

The choice qualifications available to students is wide, from ‘A’ levels to undergraduate diploma and degrees, master’s programmes and PhD by research. You will find information on all levels of distance learning at UK-wide institutions in a guide called ‘Distance Learning and supported Open Learning, UK’ published by Hobson’s Publishing in conjunction with the Open University.

If you feel that you have the grit and determination is needed for success and that distance learning is for you - take one final step and find the answers to the following questions before you begin!

  • Who awards the qualification?
  • How is the qualification recognised: by the government? By a professional body?
  • Who controls the quality of the programme and what is the value of the qualification?
  • What will the course involve?
  • How much will it cost?
  • How long will it take?
  • What course materials are provided? Books? Tapes? videos? Computer program?
  • What support is available locally?
  • What are the entry qualifications?
  • Will I have to sit for examinations or will my work be evaluated by continual assessment?
  • If there are examinations where do you I sit them? Who sets and marks the papers? What feedback will I get?

Are there opportunities to transfer as an internal student to a university/college when I have completed part of my course?

Only if you are satisfied with the answers should you enrol. The results can be well worth the effort. John Chetcuti said ‘I cannot explain the joy and satisfaction I experienced on receiving the results. I was simply euphoric ..I am chronically ill with the study bug’.

Happy studying!

The Author: Susan Gidman, University of London External Programmes, U.K.

 This article first appeared in Educational Courses in Britain

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