Elspeth Harrison of the Open and Distance Learning Quality Council discusses the history of home-study courses, the advantages and drawbacks of distance, and gives some pointers on choosing the right course.

Learning need not take place face-to-face with a teacher or tutor. Increasingly, distance learning is the method of choice for many.

Distance learning is not a new idea. The first correspondence courses are said to have been introduced by Pitman in the early nineteenth century. At that time, courses really were all done by 'correspondence' - documents sent out to students, who wrote their answers by hand and posted them back. Since then, distance learning has moved with the times. Audio cassette, live TV and radio broadcasts and videos have all been tried and remain an option today. It is, however, the revolution in home computing that has for some time led the way in this area. CD ROMs were once the 'in thing', but have been superseded by courses offered over the Internet.

Many believe this 'e-learning' is the future of education. One American university has gone so far as to insist students take at least one online course a year. Just as with the rest of the Internet, the jury is still out on how much activity will take place in cyberspace, but it is yet another weapon in the distance learner's armoury. What is clear is that distance learning (at least in the UK) is an increasingly popular way to master new skills and qualifications.

The obvious attractions of distance learning are the flexibility and the capacity to fit learning to lifestyle. Study wherever is convenient, at times to suit, at a speed you set, and start dates are not necessarily fixed to an outdated academic calendar. In recent years, the choice of courses has expanded to cover practically any subject, and these lead to a wide range of qualifications, from GCSEs to Masters and Doctorates.

'Home study' need not mean second-class or unsupported. Success rates are often higher than for traditional learning, as distance learners have more control over their studies and more motivation to excel. High quality course materials are specially adapted for optimum learning in this way. Each student has an individual expert tutor, drawn from amongst the best in the country, to provide professional guidance, support and encouragement, which may be by correspondence, telephone, fax or e-mail. Nor should learners feel lonely. Larger providers will have student and careers advisers on hand to help and offer advice. Some organizations are finding mentoring particularly useful.

Peer-group contact and discussions can take place, either locally through special sessions, or through new innovations such as e-mail chat groups. These will also develop the teamwork and communication skills in high demand today.

Course Quality

Nonetheless, distance has disadvantages too. It is essential to assess any provision carefully to ensure that the desired outcome is confirmed, that there is adequate support, and above all, that the course is of a high quality. Learners with Open and Distance Learning Quality Council (ODL QC)-accredited providers are covered by the ODL QC Guarantee. Those who receive a poor service or have a dispute they cannot resolve can write to ODL QC, who will look into their case. Such support is not always available from other providers.

To help learners select a quality provision from the hundreds available with providers in the UK and abroad, the Open and Distance Learning Quality Council has produced a booklet entitled 'A Buyer's Guide to Distance Learning Courses'. The Booklet is available free from the Open and Distance Learning Council on 020 7612 7090. A series of questions aim to enable learners to make informed choices about the courses available, reassuring them that they will obtain a quality course at that the level of study they desire. According to figures from the Open University, 25% of first degrees and a higher proportion of postgraduate diplomas are gained via distance methods. International students can enjoy the all the benefits of qualifications renowned worldwide, without the necessity of living abroad. Today, the Internet makes communication with tutors and other learners almost instantaneous, and a great deal cheaper than international telephone calling.

About The Open & Distance Learning Council

Established by government as the official accrediting body for Open and Distance Learning, the Council has thirty years unrivalled experience of ensuring excellence. ODL QC aims to ensure that learning is flexible, friendly, and above all, secure.

Author: Elspeth Harrison, open and distance learning quality council



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