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Open and Distance Learning

What is Open Learning?

There are many different names for learning away from the traditional classroom environment. You may have heard of distance learning, open learning, correspondence courses, home study and flexible learning. Some of these are different and some mean the same thing.

Distance learning

Distance learning is where you study at home. You may be sent course materials by post or access them on the internet and receive support from a tutor by phone, e-mail or post. Correspondence courses and "home study" are the same as distance learning.

Distance LearningOpen learning

On an open learning course there could be a mixture of study methods – studying at home, using a resource centre, residential short courses and face-to-face tuition.  In practice the terms distance learning and open learning are taken to have the same meaning.

Flexible learning

Flexible learning is a different concept to distance or open learning. It’s attending a college, adult education centre or other course provider at times agreed between you and the centre. You usually work through a tuition pack with tutors on hand.

Why study from home?

Open and distance learning can be helpful if:
  • your work or domestic schedule is irregular and you can't commit to a course at a certain time each week
  • you look after children or relatives at home
  • you prefer to work at your own pace
  • you didn't like school and the whole 'classroom experience'
  • there's no college nearby, or the course you want to do is not running locally
  • the social aspect of working in a group is less important for you
  • your mobility is impaired and you find it difficult leaving the house
  • you don’t want to wait until September – you want to start a course immediately
Of course, one of the biggest advantages of studying from home is the cost comparative to studying full time. Also, some students can access help with course fees, study materials and other costs. The Open University for example offers financial assistance for students with disabilities, medical conditions or specific learning difficulties. In addition, part time distance learning students can work while studying towards their qualification.

Will it suit me?

On most open and distance learning courses you’ll work at your own pace and fix your own deadlines. While this is one of the main advantages for most people, it brings its own challenges; you’ll have to be motivated and have self-discipline.

Jobs and Careers for Young People

Although you may be motivated to learn and want the qualification, imagine if you’re working full-time and studying in the evening – sometimes after work it might be very tempting to put your feet up and switch on the TV! You’ll have to set yourself targets and stick to them.

Working at their own pace suits some people. This may be because they can only spare three hours study one week but can make 15 hours the next. Also, some people find working at the pace of the whole group restrictive – if you’re learning well and it’s all sinking in you can work through the material more quickly.

It will also help if you’re a confident learner who works well on their own. If you’re the type of person who likes the support of other learners you might find it’s not for you.

What can you study?

Practically anything. For practical reasons, there are some skills and qualifications you can’t pick up from a distance learning course. Some examples would be learning to drive, studying to be a vet or midwifery.

In other words, courses with a practical element to them will be difficult to achieve through distance learning, although some courses attempt to give you the theory part of the course. But be careful – learning the theory will give you a head start but to qualify in some jobs the practical element is essential.

An example of this is plumbing: some distance learning courses offer you the underpinning knowledge you need for the NVQ 2 qualification. However, you’ll have to either be employed in plumbing or have a work placement to be assessed on the job and become fully qualified to work as a plumber.

Who are the main course providers?

There are a few providers that offer a large range of subjects - academic courses such as GCSEs, vocational courses such as computing, professional courses such as banking, and leisure courses you may study for pleasure such as painting. These are some of the more commonly known large providers:

1.   ICS Learn

Courses offered: International Correspondence Schools provides a wide range of distance learning courses including GCSEs & A Levels, BTEC, AAT etc.

Features: Courses are designed in partnership with nationally recognised awarding bodies such as CIPD, AAT, BTEC & NCFE.  Flexible payment options with most courses.

2.  Learn Direct

Courses offered: English, Maths, IT, Job Search Skills, Business and Administration,
Customer Service, Health and Social Care, Team Leading, Management and Languages.

Features: Many courses are free of charge. If you’re aged 24 or over you may be able to take advantage of a 24+ Advanced Learning Loan.

3.  NCC Home Learning

Courses offered:Over 350 distance learning courses in a vast range of subject areas from Acrylic Nails to Zoology.

Features:  Part of the National Consortium of Colleges: NCC has links with colleges of further education across the UK.  Flexible interest free finance options.  Majority of courses offer personal tutor support.  Courses are accredited by established Awarding Bodies including Ascentis, EDI, Edexcel, ICB, NCFE and Sage.

4.  National Extension College (NEC)

Courses offered: GCSEs and IGCSEs, A Levels, professional courses in Book-keeping, Childcare and Early Years, Counselling, Teaching and Training, Business and Management, Creativity and the Arts.

Features:  None of the courses require you to have any previous qualifications, but for some it is recommended that you have already studied the subject to some extent. You won’t need to have a GCSE in Maths to study A level Maths, for instance, but it is recommended that you do. Assessment for some courses (e.g. childcare) uses real experience in the workplace, so you must be working in a suitable setting when you enrol. You can enrol at any time.

5.  The Open University (OU)

Courses offered: first degrees, postgraduate and professional training, and special-interest subjects.

Features: For most courses you don't need any previous qualifications. A world-leading blend of distance learning and innovative study materials. They provide financial help, support with the study skills and careers advice to help you develop or change your career. Also a wide range of services for disabled students.

6.  University of London External Programme

Courses offered: University of London degrees

Features: Qualifications for both internal and external students are of the same standard. Some courses require students to spend a short time in London or at recognised classes.

7.  Open College of the Arts (OCA)

Courses offered: Specialists in creative arts education including art history, creative writing, fine art, illustration, graphic design, music, painting, photography, textiles and visual communication.

Features: All courses and degree programmes are delivered through part-time open learning with the support of experienced tutors who are also practising artists, writers, photographers, visual communicators or musicians. There are no entry qualifications and no fixed enrolment dates so you can start studying with the OCA straightaway.

8.  Open Learning Foundation (OLF)

Courses offered: Social Work, Business Studies and Health & Nursing

Features:  Provides a range of courses in Social Work, Business Studies and Health & Nursing suitable for students (A-Level, foundation, undergraduate and postgraduate) and employees in these fields. Mainly for use by colleges and employers but individuals can enrol too.

What other ways of learning are there?

There are other ways of learning outside of the classroom. They’re different from structured courses because you won’t get any tutor support, but for some people they’re ideal:
  • Books – there are many ‘How To’ books where you can learn anything from computer skills to DIY
  • Audio tapes and CDs – many people learn languages using this method, although other common topics are management skills and personal development
  • Home computers – you can learn computer skills with a tuition manual, an on-screen tutorial or via the internet
  • TV and Radio – the BBC’s Learning Zone is an example of this

How do I choose between course providers?

Universities and colleges are state funded so the government inspects them. Many open and distance learning course providers are private organisations, so you’ll need to check to make sure the courses they provide meet recognised quality standards and that completing their course will take you towards your goals. Firstly, check if the course provider is accredited. The Open and Distance Learning Quality Council (ODLQC) is an independent body that inspects course providers and assesses whether their quality standards are being met. Most approved course providers show the ODLQC accreditation logo on their promotional material.

The ODLQC website lists their accredited colleges, the courses you can study with them, and has more general information and advice on open and distance learning.

The Association of British Correspondence Colleges is a trade association whose members adhere to a code of ethics that maintain quality.

If a course provider uses another organisation’s accreditation logo on their course materials, check it is a reputable and independent organisation that inspects course providers.

There are many non-accredited course providers. If a course provider isn’t accredited by one of these organisations, you’ll have to assess the quality of their courses yourself. You should get answers to questions such as:
  • is the course at the right level?
  • does the course lead to a recognised qualification (if you need one)?
  • have they got a customer satisfaction or refund policy?
  • Your personal circumstances may change during the course. Will you be able to stop or suspend the course?
  • is there a guaranteed level of tutor support?
  • Is support via email, face-to-face or phone?
  • will they send you an example of the course materials?
  • will they put you in touch with other people who have completed the course?

What else do I need to consider?

  • check if (and how much) you need to attend for tutorials, face-to-face tuition and examinations
  • shop around to see if the course is available through other providers – you may get a better deal
  • add up all the possible costs – in addition to the course fee you may have to pay for an enrolment fee, books, equipment, examination costs, internet usage, travel and accommodation
  • check for time restrictions – although many distance learning courses are open-ended and you learn at your own pace, some have time limits

Can I get help paying for the course?

It can be difficult getting funding for open and distance learning if the course provider is a private organisation.

Most statutory funding – such as the Learner Support Fund, Adult Learning Grant and Student Loan - is linked to attending courses at government-funded providers such as colleges and universities.

Many people pay for the courses themselves using savings or a bank loan. However, you should check out all funding options before stumping up the money. As with all courses  any funding will depend on your circumstances and the subject you’re planning to study. Here are some of the main options for funding open and distance learning:
  • your employer - if you can convince your employer that doing the course would not only benefit you but also the organisation, they may fund the course and give you time off to attend
  • Career Development Loans – if the course is vocational
  • 24+ Advanced Learning Loan - for courses at level 3 or 4 (provided you are at least 24)
  • Local Educational Authority discretionary awards
  • Job Centre – if you are unemployed
  • educational charities and trusts – may give small awards based on your circumstances and your course subject
Ask your course provider if they offer fee discounts or free courses. Some have a limited number of fee concessions for students on benefits or a low income. Some also have links with a sponsorship organisation.

Many course providers also allow you to pay the fees in installments. This helps you to spread the cost over the year rather than paying one lump sum. They may charge a higher total fee for this to cover administrative costs.