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Article: Distance and Open Learning


This article looks at what distance/open learning means, as well as its features, advantages and disadvantages. It also looks at costs, what to think about when choosing a course and how to prepare.

What is distance or open learning?

Distance learning is any learning where you are not physically in the same place as the trainer, teacher or other learners for all or most of the course. It is sometimes known as open or flexible learning, particularly when you might need to meet a tutor face to face at certain times during the course.

Distance learning courses (traditionally called correspondence courses) have been around for over 100 years. These days, computers and multimedia are used much more than the postal system. If you can't get to a classroom, distance learning could be the right choice for you.

Features of distance and open learning

Distance and open learning courses make use of some or all of the following types of materials and resources:

  • Podcasts.
  • Interactive and social media.
  • Written materials - books, leaflets, self-assessment tests, worksheets.
  • TV and radio programmes.
  • DVDs.
  • Online courses (e-learning) plus email for contact with tutors.
  • Online community forums.
  • Equipment for experiments.

You might receive course materials by post, or in some cases you might have to collect them from a local centre. A tutor might deliver course materials to you in person at the start of the course. You might download materials from a website, or you might be able to access them through a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE). This is a computer system that lets you interact with your tutor and other students, use course materials, take tests and submit work to be marked. You can use a VLE from any computer.

You usually have written or practical assignments to do, which you might need to send to your tutor by post or email to be marked. Other ongoing support from your tutor might be by phone or face to face. You might need to attend a number of residential courses, tutorials and workshops during the course.

Some courses are blended (for example, plumbing) where most of the course can be done at a distance, but with a concentrated period of attendance at a workshop or centre.

Types of course available

Many different types of course are available by distance and/or open learning, including:

  • General interest and personal development courses.
  • Languages.
  • Work-related skills such as book-keeping, electronics, beauty therapy or IT.
  • GCSEs and A levels.
  • University-level courses, including foundation degrees, degrees and postgraduate courses.
  • Professional qualifications.

What are the advantages and disadvantages?


  • You can choose your own time and place to learn, for example, early in the morning, late at night, in the car (audio) or on the train.
  • You can fit the learning around your own lifestyle. For example, you could have a break from studying because of personal circumstances if you need to.
  • You can sometimes take as long as you want to complete the course (there will be time restrictions with some courses, though).
  • Travelling is minimised - most of the learning will take place at home.
  • You can start some courses at any time in the year rather than being tied to school or college term times. However, courses tied to externally assessed qualifications are more likely to have a number of fixed starting points, and a fixed time frame as well.
  • You might actually have more opportunity for one-to-one tutor contact than you would on a traditional course, but in short, frequent bursts.

In addition, you will be gaining new skills that you might not have had as much chance to develop by attending a full-time course. These include taking responsibility for your own learning and managing your time.

Courses that are delivered entirely online could help you if:

  • You have problems with mobility or health that could make travel or attendance at a traditional classroom-based course difficult for you.
  • You live a long way from a college or training provider.
  • You work shifts.


  • You will need a lot of self-discipline and motivation to keep going.
  • You might feel isolated without face-to-face contact with a teacher or trainer.
  • It might be harder for you to ask questions about topics you find difficult.
  • You might miss the chance to learn from other people doing the same course.
  • You could be interrupted if you are learning at home.
  • You might need to buy equipment that would have been provided for you on a full-time course, for example, a computer or tablet.

Choosing a course

You will need to consider the following issues:

  • The reason for wanting to learn - such as for work or for general interest.
  • What you want to achieve.
  • How much time you have available.
  • The circumstances in which you might get a refund, for example, during a trial period, if you are ill, you don't like the course or you do not pass an exam.

When you are comparing courses, look for:

  • A provider and course accredited by the relevant national or professional organisations.
  • A course that's pitched at the right level for you - some providers allow you to complete a free 'taster' or speak to current or past students.
  • One that provides the right level of support for you.

Note: there are two types of accreditation involved here. Firstly, course providers can be accredited with the Open and Distance Learning Quality Council (ODLQC). The ODLQC says that learners will get a good quality learning opportunity from accredited providers but does not validate any course outcomes. Course accreditation by many awarding bodies, on the other hand, says nothing about the quality of training on offer, but does validate the outcome. You need to check carefully both the course and the provider to make sure that you are happy with the standards on offer.


There are some free online courses, but you will have to pay for the majority of distance learning courses. It is worth comparing the costs of courses from different training providers, together with what is included in the price. For example, you might have to pay extra for exams or to attend residential sessions.

Be aware that if you drop out of the course, even if it is within the first few weeks, you might not get a refund. So you need to read the small print before you sign up for a course, especially on refunds.

For some work-related distance learning courses, you might be eligible for a Professional and Career Development Loan from a bank. You do not have to start repaying the loan until after you finish the course. If you drop out, you will still have to repay the loan to the bank. You can take out a Professional and Career Development Loan if you are employed, self-employed or unemployed. You can find out more about Professional and Career Development Loans from the GOV.UK website.

How to prepare for your course

You will need to plan carefully before you start the course, so that you get the most out of it. You will need to decide how many hours each week you will spend studying, and how you will divide them up. For example, will you do some studying every day, or just at the weekend?

Find a place at home where you can study quietly. Is there a room you can use, or will you have to find a spare corner to keep your paperwork? You might find that you need to set up a shelf or cupboard and buy folders and other equipment so that you are well organised from the start.

If you have not studied for a long time, you might be able to do a return to study or study skills course (by distance learning) before you start.

Ask for help from your family and friends. They could help by doing some household chores for you, or by going out for a walk and leaving you to work quietly.

You usually need to have access to a computer/laptop/tablet and the internet, either at home or in a library, local learning centre or other place. Depending on the course, you might need to have certain software and/or hardware.

You might have to book holiday time to take exams or tests, or to attend residential centres or workshops. If the course is related to your work, your employer may allow you time off for exams and revision.

Set realistic aims for what you can achieve in the time you have available.

During the course

Some science courses contain practical activities that are suitable for trying out at home and laboratory experiments for which access to a laboratory might be necessary. You will need to ask your local school or further education college if you can have access to one of their laboratories.

There could be compulsory practical tests for some qualifications.

Depending on the course, you might need to arrange your own exam entry at a local school or college and pay any associated fees. Check that information about exams is included with your course materials and ask your course co-ordinator to provide you with guidance.

Some courses require you to do practical work experience in order to build up a portfolio of evidence that you have demonstrated certain skills. For example, if you are taking a distance learning course in pre-school practice you will usually need to spend about six to eight hours a week in a pre-school playgroup, nursery school or primary school reception class.

Further Information

Open University (OU)

Tel: 0845 3006090


Professional and Career Development Loans - Guide

UK government services and information


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