A Guide To Distance Learning In The UK

If you are unable to study full-time, or you are unsuited to the discipline of academic life, distance learning offers the perfect solution.

Whatever skills you possess or however personable your character may be, unless you can produce the appropriate paperwork detailing your academic qualifications, it is increasingly difficult in a globally competitive labour market to get your foot in the door or to advance your career once you are employed. You might be naturally talented and the perfect candidate for a particular position, but many employers won’t even grant you an interview unless you produce that crucial piece of paper.

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Why Choose Distance Learning?

You might not have left secondary school and gone straight into higher education for financial or personal reasons. Perhaps you started a family and put your career on hold, or you are stuck in a job you don’t like and want to move into something different but cannot do so until you get a relevant qualification. Or maybe you simply weren’t ready at the time to spend years attending lectures. Regardless of the reason, it doesn’t mean you are stuck in a rut for eternity. Today it’s easier than ever to gain the qualifications you need.


What Does Distance Learning Entail?

You can study at home for a diploma or degree at any stage in your life and distance learning has the added advantage of studying at a pace which suits you. You can plan your study around work, family commitments, or even your social life. However, you will find it more productive if you have a structured timetable so you don’t become distracted from your ultimate goal.

How long the course takes to complete will depend entirely upon the amount of time you dedicate to it. Although flexible, some online education providers will set a time-frame for you to complete the course.

Most courses are now run through the internet so providing you have access to broadband, it doesn’t matter where you are physically located. You can keep everything online if you wish, though it’s essential to maintain a constant back-up as even the best computers and laptops can crash, or you can download and print it, whichever is the safer option for you.

The method of study is via the internet but in every other respect it’s exactly the same as it would be in an academic institution. There will be material to read and assimilate and exercises to complete and return for marking. As each module is finalised you progress to the next until the course is concluded. Almost all of them provide one-on-one tutorials for assessment and feedback and, with the advances in technology, it is possible to ‘attend’ a lecture via a video link.

While some courses are completely online, some online institutions encourage students to meet up with their classmates and tutors throughout the year.. This gives students the opportunity to network with their peers and meet their tutors face to face. There are also a growing number of "blended learning" courses which combine online learning with weekly lectures on campus and examinations in a physical location.


Is Distance Learning As Good As Traditional Higher Education?

Distance Learning has previously been criticised as being a poor substitute for the interaction and support

provided by face to face campus education. However, the technology used and best practices implemented by most online institutions have meant distance learning has improved considerably over the past few years - in particular in the amount of interaction between students and faculty. 

Nowadays students are immersed in a virtual campus and support network via video technology, chat rooms for interacting with teachers and classmates and provided with a completely downloadable syllabus.

 The increasing use of smartphones and tablets have allowed students to be more mobile than ever before. Some online institutions have further improved support levels with dedicated staff for interacting with distance learning students and answering any questions they may have. 


Choosing A Distance Learning Establishment

With such a plethora of online courses on offer, it can be a daunting prospect when it comes to deciding which is the most suitable for you. First and foremost, you want to ensure the qualification you achieve at the end of your course is fully accredited and recognised by professional bodies.

In the UK there are over 150 colleges and universities offering distance learning across a wide range of different courses. Whereas most institutes offer perfectly valid degrees, you are probably better off choosing a university which is renowned and well established.

With a little research, you will find plenty of options and it is important to pick one which best meets your requirements. There are also student forums where you can glean extra information and league tables, such as those compiled by the Complete University Guide, which are regularly featured in print and online. If you put in some effort before committing yourself to a specific course at a particular learning establishment, you will feel more confident and secure in the knowledge that your years of study will not lead to unnecessary disappointment.

Most of the major cities have reputable universities which offer distance learning, including Oxford and Cambridge. Among some of the most acclaimed are the Universities of Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Edinburgh and Nottingham, while in London there is Imperial College and the School of Oriental and African Studies.

However, the most well-known is the Open University, which opened its doors, proverbially speaking, in January 1971. In any given year it usually has 250,000 students enrolled, of whom one-fifth are from overseas. It also has the advantage of offering short stays on campus, where you can meet your tutors and interact with other students.


What are the costs of distance learning?

There are costs involved with tuition fees, as there are for obtaining any qualification, but they tend to be lower than if you were studying full-time. You might also be required to purchase books to help with your course, but you won’t have to finance accommodation away from home or pay for travel expenses.


Are there disadvantages?

If you are studying a subject such as medicine or science, you won’t have free access to some of the specialised equipment, and your networking potential will be more limited than if you were living on campus.