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Is a distance learning course right for you?

More flexible, accessible and affordable – a growing number of universities are developing distance-learning options alongside their conventional degrees. But is it right for you?

The largest provider in the field is the Open University, so we asked it to explain how distance learning study typically works and what you need to bear in mind as a distance learner...

What is distance learning?

Instead of you going to a campus to learn, the learning comes to you. You study wherever suits you and at times you choose. It’s possible to study full-time or part-time. Distance-learning degrees from UK universities have the same status as campus-based ones.

Who is it for?

Anyone. But it’s especially relevant if you’re:
 
  • Budget conscious: distance-learning courses often cost less, and there’s no accommodation to pay for.  And you can offset the fees by …
  • Working and studying: if you want to earn an income or gain work experience while you study, distance learning is ideal because it fits around your job.
  • Lacking A-levels or Highers: no academic qualifications are needed for most Open University undergraduate courses. Other distance-learning providers may also be flexible with entry requirements.
  • Not a conventional student: if you have health issues, caring responsibilities or other things in your life that make it hard to commit to a fixed period of campus-based study, distance learning may be your best - sometimes your only - option.
  • Living somewhere remote: if you're a long way from a university campus, distance learning can overcome geography by bringing study to you.

Distance learning – the student experience

19-year-old Joanna Tisdale from Cornwall is on track to complete a BA Honours in humanities in three-and-a-half years with the OU, at the same time as working full-time as a secretary.
 
She says many of her school friends opted to go to campus universities because it was ‘the conventional social thing to do’ but to succeed in a distance-learning degree you have to be more committed.

The reason I find it easy to put the study time in is because I really want to do it. I wouldn’t have done it any other way. I like the flexibility of being able to work and study. And my employer is really impressed that I am working full-time and studying full-time. 
 
The internet resources on my current course are just fantastic. It makes it so easy, because I can get on my computer and study during my lunch break.
Joanna Tisdale | Open University Student

How does it work?

Most courses provide:
  • a tutor or study advisor, who can be contacted by phone, email or online.
  • a range of study materials. Usually a mix of text, audio and video, structured to guide you through your course.
  • virtual learning. Increasingly, learning is online, with interactive learning environments blurring the distinction between distance and conventional learning. You may find yourself using a virtual microscope or taking part in lively online class discussions.
  • face-to-face sessions are offered by some providers, including the Open University which operates throughout the UK.

How can I pay for it?

Distance and part-time students in England are now eligible for student loans and students in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have a range of financial support options available. Some distance students get employer sponsorship.

Distance learning pros and cons

Pros:
  • Flexible and fits your lifestyle
  • Costs less
  • You can earn while you learn
  • Not an ‘ivory tower’ education allows you to combine academic learning with work and kick-start your career.
Con:
  • No ready-made campus social life
  • Less face-to-face contact with other students
  • Fellow students may not be your age (though this can also be a pro as you get to learn with students from a wide range of age groups and backgrounds)
  • Not a soft option. Standards are as high as a conventional degree and working while studying takes commitment.

Try before you buy

An increasing number of household name universities are offering distance learning or online degree course options, including the Universities of Central Lancashire and Derby. Head to individual university websites to find out more.

Or get a taster before committing to a distance learning course. The OU has some free taster materials you can sample download them on iTunes or watch on YouTube.


Which? University provides guest spots to external contributors. This is from the Open University, the largest provider of distance learning courses in the UK. It's not the only one around, with many other institutions getting in on the act - so explore a variety of distance learning options in the same way you'd compare other degree courses before deciding on what's best for you.
 

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