Thanks to improved technology, distance learning has grown in popularity in recent years and, of course, the ability to learn remotely has proved invaluable during the Covid-19 pandemic.
This article explains what we mean by distance learning, tells you how it works and gives some examples of course providers. It also draws your attention to both the pros and cons. Distance learning isn’t right for everyone in all circumstances; there are lots of things to consider in order to find out whether it could work for you.
What is distance learning?
You may come across terms like ‘remote learning’, ‘home study’, ‘online learning’ and ‘e-learning’. Here we use the term ‘distance learning’ as a broad term for learning by yourself away from a traditional, classroom setting.
You register for a distance-learning course through a provider and they will give you access to the resources you need. Some courses are taken entirely online using videos, self-assessment tools, reading materials and so on. With other courses (often known as ‘correspondence courses’) you are sent study packs through the post. Sometimes there’s a mixture of online and paper-based materials.
If you need practical learning alongside your distance-learning studies, opportunities may be provided for you to do workshops, field trips, laboratory work or even work placements. Face-to-face tutorials, residentials, summer schools etc are sometimes important parts of the course. Where there is a mixture of distance learning and other types of study, this is sometimes called ‘blended learning’.
Providers and courses
All sorts of organisations offer distance-learning courses.
- Some providers – such as the Open Study College – offer a wide range of subjects and qualifications, but others, for example the Open College of the Arts, specialise in offering courses in particular subject areas.
- Certain providers focus on offering courses leading to particular qualifications. Examples include The Open University (OU), well-known for its degree-level programmes, and the National Extension College is just one of a number of providers of GCSE and A level courses.
- An increasing number of mainstream further education colleges and universities offer distance-learning courses alongside their campus-based programmes.
- Many professional bodies offer their qualifications via distance learning either through accredited providers or directly to their student members.
- MOOCs – massive open online courses – are free online courses hosted on platforms developed by universities, major companies, professional bodies and other institutions, often in partnership with each other. Well-established examples of MOOC platforms include Coursera, edX, FutureLearn and OpenLearn (part of The Open University). MOOCs are usually short courses in very specific topics.
If you want to learn informally, there are all sorts of educational apps, teach-yourself books, podcasts etc.
Links to organisations that can provide all sorts of online courses, often for free, can be found through the National Careers Service.
The pros of distance learning
Let’s look at some of the many benefits of distance learning.
You can study at times that suit you and fit your learning around other commitments you may have. You can learn in the comfort of your own home, at work, in a library or in a café anywhere in the world!
2. No geographic restraints
You’re not restricted to courses in your locality. This is particularly helpful if you live in a rural area or travel around a lot. Or, you might want to do a course that’s not widely available.
3. No time restrictions
You may be able to start a course at any time. Or there may be a number of start dates to choose from. (However, some distance-learning courses – including those that involve sitting public exams – do follow the academic year.)
4. Study freedom
You can usually study at your own pace. Although you may be given a timescale to finish the course, find out whether it’s possible to complete the course quicker than suggested or take longer without incurring extra cost. You can often build up to a full qualification by taking modules at your own pace.
It can work out cheaper than doing an equivalent classroom-based course. Not only do fees tend to be less but, if you wish, you can fit your studies around paid employment. If you’re in employment and a course is relevant for your work, your employer may fund some or all of your distance-learning tuition – it’s worth asking! Rather than paying all your fees in one go, you may be able to fund one module at a time or pay for the course in instalments (as is the case with The Open University where you can take out an OU Student Budget Account). Depending on the course and your circumstances, you may be eligible for a government-backed tuition fee loan or other financial support in the form of grants, bursaries or scholarships. Course providers should be able to advise.
6. Routes to entry
Entry requirements may be more flexible. The course provider should give you guidance on any background knowledge/qualifications you need in order to succeed, but there are often no formal entry criteria.
7. Independent study
You may prefer to study on your own. Especially if you’ve not enjoyed classroom study in the past.
8. You don’t have to travel
This saves you time, effort and money. Not having to commute to a college is ideal for anyone with mobility or other issues that make taking journeys difficult.
The possible cons of distance learning and factors to consider
Apart from checking the broad topics you will cover, when researching courses, there are lots of other things you need to think about.
1. You need the motivation and time to commit
Even if there is tutor support, you won’t have a teacher encouraging you to get your work done. Think about whether you have the self-discipline to learn on your own – it’s not always easy to avoid distraction! With any luck, you’ll have a quiet place to study and there will be people around who will encourage you. And, depending on the course, there may be an online student community. Make sure you investigate how many hours you will be expected to commit to your studies and be honest with yourself as to whether you have the time.
2. You may feel that you’re missing out socially
If you decide to do a distance-learning course instead of a classroom-based programme, think about whether you will miss the opportunity to interact with other students and participate in college/university life.
3. Be wary of less reputable course providers
Distance-learning course providers are not necessarily vetted in the same way as colleges and universities, and the quality of courses will vary. Some are keen to take your money, so before you commit, check the provider’s reputation. Find out about student retention and success/pass rates, and what students have gone on to do, especially if you are taking a course to help you enter or progress in a career. The provider may be able to provide testimonials or put you in touch with former students. Some providers are members of (or accredited by) bodies such as The Association of Distance Learning Colleges and bound by a code of ethics. It’s worth checking the credentials of the provider and any organisation that appears to endorse their courses.
4. Not all courses/qualifications are widely recognised
If you want to take a course or gain a qualification for career purposes or for entry to higher-level studies, make sure that it will be recognised by employers, professional bodies and/or colleges and universities. If you take a degree course, it will be officially recognised if it is awarded by a university or college that is either on the list of recognised bodies or on the list of recognised awards.
5. The amount of support varies
With some courses little or no help will be available, but with others you have access to a tutor. If this is important to you, find out what support your tutor/s can provide. It’s unlikely that they will be on hand all the time, but they may answer specific questions, assess your work and provide you with feedback.
Contact with your tutor might be through email, phone calls, videoconferencing, a virtual-learning platform or a mixture of these.
6. Hidden extras and course funding
Find out what will be included in the course fee. You may have to pay extra for certain resources, practical elements, to sit exams or to gain certification, for instance.
7. Distance-learning delivery methods don’t suit everyone
Make sure you know exactly how the course will be delivered. If the course is online, are you sure you will cope with this type of learning? Also check that you have the necessary technical requirements – decent hardware, and a fast and reliable broadband connection. It’s a good idea to ask to see some sample learning materials so that you know what to expect.
8. Assessment arrangements vary
Not all distance-learning courses involve assessments, but if there are, find out what these involve, how frequently you are assessed, how you get feedback, typical pass rates etc. If there are external exams, you may need to travel to sit these; make sure that you can get to an exam centre. Also find out whether you can resit any assessments if necessary and, if so, whether there are additional costs.
Whether you’re intending to do a distance-learning course to gain a qualification or simply to learn for pleasure, as you will have read, there are lots of factors to consider. If you do your research, choose your course wisely and prepare well, there are certainly lots of benefits. If you are considering distance learning, before you make a big commitment, why not sign up for a short course to see whether this type of learning suits you?
Debbie Steel, March 2022
With a background working with apprentices and teaching in further education, Debbie was employed as an in-house careers author before establishing herself as a freelancer. As well as co-authoring numerous careers books, Debbie has produced resources and web content for a range of high-profile clients. She is an enthusiastic proponent of impartial and reliable careers information.