There are many different names for learning away from the traditional classroom environment. You may have heard of distance learning, open learning, correspondence course, home study, flexible learning and also MOOCS. Some of these terms are different and some mean the same thing. This article explains the terminology for you so that you can help your teen decide whether any of these ways of learning are appropriate or not.
Distance learning is where the learner studies at home. They 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.
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 is a different concept to distance or open learning. Learners attending a college, adult education centre or other course provider locations at times agreed between the individuals and the centre. Learners usually work through a tuition pack with tutors on hand.
Why study from home?
Open and distance learning can be helpful if:
- your teenager’s work schedule is irregular and prevents him or her from commiting to a course at a certain time each week
- they have caring responsibilities, looking after children or relatives at home
- they prefer to work at their own pace
- they didn’t like school and the whole ‘classroom experience’
- there’s no college nearby, or the course they want to do is not running locally
- the social aspect of working in a group is less important for them
- their mobility is impaired and they find it difficult leaving the house
- your teenager doesn’t want to wait until September and wants to start a course immediately
Of course, one of the biggest advantages of studying from home is the cost compared 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 your teenager?
On most open and distance learning courses they will work at their own pace and fix their own deadlines. While this is one of the main advantages for most people, it brings its own challenges – they will have to be motivated and have self-discipline.
Although they may be motivated to learn and want the qualification, for example, the reality of working full-time and studying in the evening may mean that it might be very tempting for them to put their feet up and switch on the TV! You will have to help them set targets and stick to them if motivation wanes.
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 someone is learning well and it’s all sinking in they can work through the material more quickly.
It will also help if your teenager is a confident learner who works well on their own. If they are the type of person who likes the support of other learners they might find that distance learning is not for them.
What can they study?
Practically anything. For practical reasons, there are some skills and qualifications can’t be picked 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 learners the theory part of the course. But be careful – learning the theory will give a learner a head start but to qualify for some jobs the practical element is essential.
An example of this is plumbing: some distance learning courses offer the underpinning knowledge needed for the NVQ 2 qualification. However, your teenager has 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. Our information on Apprenticeships can help you get to grips with this as a potential pathway for your teenager.
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 and there are 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 the learner is aged 24 or over they may be able to take advantage of a 24+ Advanced Learning Loan.
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. are on offer and the 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 requires a learner to have any previous qualifications, but for some, it is recommended that they have already studied the subject to some extent. They won’t need to have a GCSE in Maths to study A level Maths, for instance, but it is recommended that they do. The assessment work for some courses (e.g. childcare) uses real experience in the workplace, so the learner must be working in a suitable setting when they enrol which can be 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 students with disabilities. The OU’s Finance Finder is a helpful tool to enable potential learners to identify sources of funding which may include student loans.
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.
The big revolution in education in the last five years or so is the introduction and popularity of MOOCs. These are online programmes which learners can sign up for, usually with some form of online interaction with other learners, though not always. Some are just self study.
Courses range in size from bitesize or micro courses which take a total of 30 minutes through to full degree programmes. Many are free, depending on the course and provider if a learner just wants the learning experience, however, if they want a certificate, then there is an administration fee, usually for each module which will need to be paid, though most courses offer significantly good value for money.
The choice is massive and ranges from university MOOCS provided by for example FutureLearn, EdX , and Coursera, through to learning platforms such as Lynda, Udemy, LinkedIn Learning and Teachable for learning anything from photography to programming as well as professional learning. There are also specialist company providers like Google Garage for digital skills learning.
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 and e=books – there are many ‘How To’ books where you can learn anything from computer skills to DIY
- Audio books and CDs – many people learn languages using this method, although other common topics are management skills and personal development
- 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 help your teenager check to make sure the courses they provide meet recognised quality standards and that completing their course will take him or her towards their 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 they offer, 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, it’s best to 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 and your teenager will have to assess the quality of their courses yourself. Get answers to questions such as:
- is the course at the right level?
- does the course lead to a recognised qualification (if needed)?
- have they got a customer satisfaction or refund policy?
- If personal circumstances may change during the course is it possible to stop or suspend it?
- is there a guaranteed level of tutor support?
- Is support via email, face-to-face or phone?
- will they send an example of the course materials?
- will they put you and your child in touch with other people who have completed the course?
What else do I need to consider?
- help your teenager to check if (and how much) they 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 there may be charges 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 learners can go at their own pace, some courses have time limits
Can I get help paying for the course?
Many people pay for courses themselves using savings or a bank loan. However, you should check out all funding options before stumping up the money for your teenager’s course. As with all courses, any funding will depend on your circumstances and the subject they are planning to study. Here are some of the main options for funding open and distance learning for your teenager:
- their employer – if they can convince their employer that doing the course would not only benefit the learner but also the organisation, the employer may fund the course and give your teenager time off to attend
- Career Development Loans – are useful if the course is vocational
- Advanced Learner Loan – applies to courses at level 3 or 4 (provided the applicant is at least 24)
- Local Educational Authority discretionary awards
- Grants directories such as Turn2Us and other sources including educational charities and trusts – may give small awards based on your circumstances and your child’s course subject
Ask the 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 the fees to be paid in installments. This helps to spread the cost over the year rather than paying one lump sum, though be aware that they may charge a higher total fee for this to cover administrative costs.
Remember to look at our page on financing higher education if your child is looking at doing a degree by distance learning.