Once it was the poor relation of the educational establishment. But, today, distance learning is one of the most innovative and fastest- growing sectors in education. "Inquiries from would-be students have quadrupled over the last 12 months," says Alison Cornell, the marketing services manager of the National Extension College.
Increasingly, the new technology is changing both course content and delivery. "Now people are beginning to ask about online-based courses, and we are looking at ways of delivery online. People will be able to have tasters, and although the courses are still mainly paper-based, we are using CD Roms," she says.
The NEC runs over 140 distance learning courses, including traditional GCSEs and A-levels, basic skills, languages, and career qualifications. "We also have a large number of writing courses which are particularly popular," says Cornell. "In childcare, which is popular, we offer training for childminders, a diploma in pre- school practice, and a certificate in playwork."
Alan Perkins is a train driver whose NEC course was funded by his employer, South West Trains. He chose to tackle GCSE maths and, despite the rigours of shiftwork, he is doing well. "It makes me feel I don't want to slack off, I owe it to them to pass it as well as to myself."
At some time in the future, he plans to take A-level maths, which he hopes will open up the possibility of a career as a pilot. Students who are not funded by an employer can apply to their local TEC for an Individual Learning Account, which can provide help with fees.
Seven years ago, Dunstan Taylor was a draughtsman with Rolls- Royce. "I saw I wasn't getting anywhere, and I thought that computers were the way to go," he said. The Open University (OU) was his only option. "I looked at night school, I looked at taking a break from work, but that didn't suit me because I've got a mortgage to pay and three children to feed." The course was extremely hard work, but, "the computer is a godsend. Initially it was all done on disc which came through the post, later on I used e- mail much more, and now the students have got conference rooms that they can use."
Taylor believes his degree has helped him reach his present position as a Computer-Aided Design Training Coordinator with BA Systems. "After I wrote to British Aerospace, they asked me to do a presentation. The OU gave me the confidence to attempt it."
Institutions traditionally associated with higher education are starting to see the potential of distance learning. Students at the Nottingham Law School, based at Nottingham Trent University, can gain an LLB after four years of home study. From September, course materials will be available on the Web. "Through our website we can give students access to immediately updated …