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Learning need not take place face-to-face with a teacher or tutor. Increasingly distance learning is the method of choice for many, particularly post-graduates.

Elspeth Harrison of the Open and Distance Learning Quality Council discusses the real advantages for post-graduate study, the drawbacks of distance, and gives some pointers on choosing the right course.

Distance learning is not a new idea. But more and more people today find it the most suitable way to master new skills and qualifications.

The obvious attractions of distance learning are the flexibility and the capacity to fit learning to lifestyle. Study wherever is convenient, at times to suit, at a speed you set, and start dates are not necessarily fixed to an outdated academic calendar.

In recent years, the choice of courses has expanded to cover practically any subject, and these lead to a wide range of qualifications, from GCSEs to Masters and Doctorates.

The Internet is creating new possibilities. The advocates of “e-learning” argue that it will revolutionize education. One American university has gone so far as to insist students take at least one online course a year.

“Home study” need not mean second class or unsupported. Success rates are often higher than for traditional learning, as distance learners have more control over their studies and the motivation to excel.

High quality course materials are specially devised to optimize learning at a distance. Each student has an individual expert tutor, drawn from amongst the best in the country, to provide professional guidance, support and encouragement, which may be by correspondence, telephone, fax or e-mail. Where hands on experience is essential, for instance in the healing arts, this can be provided through separate sessions.

Nor should learners feel lonely. Peer-group contact and discussions can take place, either locally, through special sessions, or using new technologies such as e-mail chat groups. Larger providers will also have student and careers advisers, ready to help and offer advice.

However, distance has disadvantages. It is essential to assess any provision carefully to ensure likely outcome matches aspiration, that there is adequate support, and above all that the course is of a high quality. Learners with ODL QC-accredited providers are covered by the ODL QC Guarantee. Those who receive a poor service, or have a dispute they cannot resolve can write to ODL QC who will look into their case. With other providers, such support may not be available.

Motivation can be higher amongst those in the correspondence community, but commitment and stamina are essential to complete courses. Learners who lack the will power to ‘get down to work’ or the time management skills to organize their studies will find it harder to succeed. When choosing a course prospective learners must be pragmatic about their own abilities and the time necessary for any program of study.

For post-graduates distance learning can be a particularly effective.

Learners who wish to obtain a specific qualification, such as MSc or Doctorate, are more likely to be able to judge whether any provision will give the required result. In addition, a first degree (gained via distance or traditional methods) will have taught study skills and organizational techniques.

Post-grads with analytical skills can take advantage of the wealth of courses offered by international providers. The US is a particularly strong player in distance learning and with careful selection, learners anywhere can benefit from a world-class provision in practically any subject.

According to figures from The Open University, a high proportion of post-graduate diplomas are now gained via distance methods. There is no single reason for this but the key is undoubtedly the flexibility that distance learning allows.

Graduates may decide on extra qualifications once established in work to enhance or change their career. After university students often wish to experience “real life”, and to undertake any further study whilst working. The value, both monetary and through the eyes of employers, is great. In practical terms, it allows learners to fund their studies and gain financial independence. Costs, particularly transport and residential, are kept to a minimum.

Increasingly, qualifications alone are not enough to climb the career ladder. Whilst demanding highly educated staff, employers also seek evidence of transferable skills, and often demand relevant professional experience. Distance learning is the ideal way to meet this challenge. What better way to prove organizational skills, flexibility and motivation? Indeed, many courses are run in partnership with employers, who provide time and money to support training.

Every learner wants to choose a high-quality, relevant provision. A new booklet from the Open and Distance Learning Quality Council (ODL QC) shows how to identify a quality provision and find the right course. Entitled “Distance Learning Courses: A Buyers Guide”, it is available upon request.

Established by government as the official accrediting body for Open and Distance Learning, the Council has 30 years unrivalled experience of ensuring excellence. ODL QC aims to ensure learning is flexible, friendly, and above all secure.

Accreditation, which allows providers to display the ODL QC Guarantee, gives learners much needed reassurance as to the quality of the opportunities on offer in the rapidly expanding “home-study” sector. For details of ODL QC Accredited Providers (and the courses they offer) contact ODL QC at the address below.

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