Distance learning, home study, e-learning, remote study, online learning – the terminology varies, and, whilst there may be differences, all provide alternatives to traditional classroom study.

New and improved technologies have made it easier than ever to study online. Whilst the Covid-19 pandemic has imposed online learning on many students, for others, choosing a distance-learning course is a deliberate decision. In fact, there’s been a surge in interest in distance learning with people wanting to update their skills for the job market and because of difficulties accessing classroom-based tuition during the pandemic.

This article will help you explore the option of distance learning with the students or clients you support. With so many providers and courses to choose from, it’s important that they do their research.

Why consider distance learning?

The most obvious benefit of distance learning is its flexibility. It’s possible to study anywhere and at any time; study can be fitted around paid work and/or other commitments. It’s also perfect for those who can’t access the right course in their locality, who live in remote areas or who have mobility issues. There may also be the additional flexibility to start a course at any time in the year and decide how long to take.

A distance-learning course often works out cheaper than a traditional programme. Fees are generally less than classroom-based courses, there are no travel costs and students may also be able to keep earning an income from employment.

In many cases entry requirements are more flexible for distance-learning courses. Nevertheless, it’s important for potential students to consider whether they will cope with the level of study and volume of work.

For some people, the main benefit of distance learning is the ability to study outside a formal learning environment, perhaps because in the past they have not enjoyed or succeeded with classroom-based study.

Distance learning providers

There are hundreds of independent providers of distance-learning courses.

Some offer programmes at different levels in a wide range of disciplines. Others – such as the Open College of the Arts – specialise in a certain subject area. Then there are those that focus on offering courses leading to particular qualifications; The Open University (OU) is well known for its higher education programmes and the National Extension College (NEC) is a well-established provider of GCSE and A level courses.

In recent years, more and more mainstream further education colleges and universities have started to offer distance-learning courses. Many professional bodies also offer their qualifications via distance learning either directly or through accredited providers.

For those who want to study informally, there are all sorts of educational apps, books, TV programmes and podcasts. There are also MOOCs – massive open online courses. These are short, often free, courses designed by universities and other institutions in the UK and abroad, primarily to give people a taste of learning about a topic at higher-education level. Organisations offering MOOCs include FutureLearn and OpenLearn, which is part of the OU.

The Skills Toolkit is a new online learning platform launched by the Department for Education to boost workplace skills. Free courses are available through a number of established providers for those who want to learn new skills and boost their employment prospects.

Supporting potential students

In order to make an informed choice regarding distance learning, there are all sorts of factors to consider. To support your students/clients, try posing the following questions.


  • Are you self-disciplined? With distance learning, students need to take responsibility for their own learning. If they don’t keep up with the work, it’s unlikely they will be chased.
  • Will you be able to fit study around your other commitments? Although a major benefit of distance learning, it’s not easy to start studying after a long day at work or childcare, for instance. They need be realistic about the number of hours they will have to set aside for studying each week.
  • Will you have the support of the people around you? Will they give you peace and quiet to study, and encourage you to learn?
  • How important is social interaction to you? There may be an online student community, but will you feel you’ve missed out on the social aspects of being a student?

Reasons for taking a distance-learning course

  • Why are you considering distance learning as opposed to a traditional course? What benefits will there be for you?
  • Are you learning for pleasure, to improve your qualifications, to generally develop your skills or with a career goal in mind?
  • If the reason is to gain access to a particular career or for promotion, will the course and any qualification it leads to meet employer, sector and/or professional body requirements?
  • If you want to gain a qualification to help you progress generally, is it widely recognised? If you intend to take a degree, check that the provider is either a ‘recognised’ or ‘listed’ body.

The learning provider

  • What are the provider’s credentials? It’s important to be aware that providers do have a vested interest in signing up students and are not inspected in the same way as public colleges and universities, so read between the lines of their marketing blurb.
  • What have previous students gone on to do? Is the provider happy to put you in contact with alumni to discuss their experiences of the course?
  • How successful have ex-students been? If there are exams, what is the pass rate?
  • Is the provider a member of, or accredited by a quality-setting body? For example, members of The Association of Distance Learning Colleges have to abide by its code of ethics, and the Open & Distance Learning Quality Council accredits 16 providers that meet their standards. Check the credentials of, not only the provider but any bodies that may endorse their courses.

Course structure, content, teaching and assessment

  • Do you have to start the course at a particular time of year? Many offer flexible start dates, but where there are national exams, for example, this isn’t always possible.
  • How long does the course typically take to complete? Is there a time limit or are you free to do it more quickly or to take longer if needed?
  • What topics does the course cover?
  • Is the level right for you? Could you do a taster course before committing?
  • How is the course delivered? What resources will you get? Will these be online or paper-based? How interactive is it? It’s a good idea to ask to see some sample materials.
  • Are there exams? If so, where will you sit them? Will you have support finding an exam centre? Can you resit if necessary?
  • Is the course supplemented by face-to-face tutorials, weekend workshops, seminars or summer schools? If so, are these essential? Practical learning is an important element of certain professional courses.

Tutor support

  • If there is tutor support, will you have the consistency of one tutor throughout your course?
  • What help can tutors provide? In some cases they assess your work and give feedback but have little other interaction.
  • How do tutors provide support – phone, videoconferencing, email, a virtual-learning platform etc, or a combination of these?

Money matters

  • What’s included in the course fee? Are there any extras for resources, assessments, practical elements, exams and so on?
  • Do you have to pay upfront or can you buy one module at a time? The OU allows you to pay in monthly instalments through an OU Student Budget Account.
  • Is it possible to do a trial or have a cooling-off period after which a refund is available if the course isn’t right for you? Are refunds available in other circumstances?
  • If you are in work and the course is relevant to your role, would your employer be prepared to pay for all or some of your fees?
  • Does the provider offer any special bursaries or loans, or know of any other funding streams?
  • Would you be entitled to a government-backed loan? Depending on the course and their circumstances, distance-learning students are sometimes able to claim an Advanced Learner Loan, a Tuition Fee Loan or other loans and grants.

There’s certainly a lot to think about.

If potential students explore all of these questions, they should be in an excellent position to decide whether or not distance learning will work for them and whether their chosen course will be a good investment for their future.