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There are many different names for learning away from the classroom. You may have heard of distance learning, open learning, correspondence courses, home study and flexible courses. Some of these are alternative names for the same thing but some are different learning methods altogether.

Home study

Studying from home is often known as distance learning. You may get your course materials through the internet and email or sent through the post. A tutor will support you by phone, email or post. 'Correspondence courses' and 'home study' are different terms for distance learning.

Open learning

On an open learning course you can combine study methods - studying at home, visiting a resource centre and face-to-face tuition.

Flexible learning

Flexible learning is not home study; it's attending a college, adult education centre or other course providers at times agreed by you and the centre. You usually work through a computer-based learning package or a tuition pack and have tutors on hand.

Why study from home?

You might like to study by open learning and home study if:

  • your work or domestic schedule is irregular and you can't study at the same time each week
  • you look after children or relatives at home
  • you prefer to work at your own pace
  • you didn't like school and the whole 'classroom experience'
  • there's no college nearby, or the course you want to do isn't running locally
  • the social aspect of working in a group isn't important to you
  • you work overseas and want to get a UK qualification
  • your mobility is impaired and you find it difficult leaving the house
  • you don't want to wait until September - you want to start a course immediately.

Will it suit me?

On most open learning and home study courses you'll work at your own pace and fix your own deadlines. This can be a big advantage and suits a lot of people. But it also means you have to keep yourself motivated. This can be difficult sometimes, especially if you have been working all day. You'll need to set yourself targets and stick to them.

Working at your own pace might suit you if you think you might study for three hours one week but 15 hours the next. Also, some people find working at the pace of the whole group restrictive - if you're learning well and it's all sinking in you might be able to work through the material more quickly.

It will also help if you're a confident learner who works well on your own. If you're the type of person who likes the support of other learners you might find it's not for you.

What can you study?

You can study a huge range of courses such as accounting, horticulture, counselling, law, languages, IT and computing, public relations, psychology, travel.

For practical reasons, there are some skills and qualifications you can't pick up from a home study course. Some courses can give you the theory part of the course. Learning the theory may give you a head start but to qualify in some jobs the practical element is essential.

An example of this is plumbing: some home study courses offer you the 'underpinning knowledge' you need for the NVQ 2 qualification. However, you'll have to either be employed in plumbing or have a work placement to be assessed on the job and become fully qualified to work as a plumber.

Who are the main open learning and home study course providers?

There are a few providers that offer a large range of subjects - academic courses such as GCSEs, work-related courses such as computing, professional courses such as banking, and leisure courses you can study for pleasure such as painting. These are some of the more commonly known large course providers:

What other ways of learning are there?

There are other ways of learning outside of the classroom. They're different from structured courses because you won't get any tutor support, but for some people they're ideal:

  • books - there are many 'How To' books where you can learn anything from computer skills to DIY
  • audio tapes, CDs and DVDs - many people learn languages this way, although other common topics are management skills and personal development
  • home computers - you can learn computer skills with a tuition manual, an on-screen tutorial or via the web
  • TV and radio - the BBC's Learning Zone is an example of this
  • online - find information, or get the background to a subject you are interested in.

How do I choose between course providers?

Universities and colleges are state funded so the government inspects them. Many open and distance learning course providers are private organisations, so you'll need to check to make sure they meet quality standards.

Check that your course provider is accredited and recognised by the industry. The Open and Distance Learning Quality Council (ODLQC) is an independent organisation that inspects course providers and assesses whether their quality standards are being met. Most approved course providers show the ODLQC accreditation logo on their promotional material.

The ODLQC website lists their accredited colleges, the courses you can study with them, and has more general information and advice on open and distance learning.

The Association of British Correspondence Colleges (ABCC) is a trade association. Course providers that are members of the ABCC have agreed to their code of ethics.

If a course provider uses another organisation's accreditation logo on their course materials, you should check it is a reputable and independent organisation that inspects course providers.

You'll find there are quite a few non-accredited course providers. You'll need to assess the quality of their courses yourself. You might want to get answers to questions like:

  • does the course lead to a recognised qualification (if you need one)?
  • has the course provider got a customer satisfaction or refund policy? (Your personal circumstances may change during the course and you may want to stop or take a break from the course)
  • is there a guaranteed level of tutor support, and is it via phone, email, face-to-face or phone?
  • will they send you an example of the course materials?
  • will they put you in touch with other people who have completed the course?
  • is the course at the right level? If not, get some advice or speak to the course tutor.

What else do I need to consider?

Some other hints and tips:

  • check if, and how much, you need to attend for tutorials, face-to-face tuition and exams
  • shop around to see if the course is available through other providers - you may get a better deal
  • add up all the possible costs - as well as the course fee you may have to pay for an enrolment fee, books, equipment, exam costs, internet time, travel and accommodation
  • check for time restrictions - many courses are open-ended and you learn at your own pace, but some have time limits.

Can I get help paying for the course?

It can be difficult getting funding for open learning and home study if the course provider is a private organisation. Most statutory funding - such as Learner Discretionary Support and the Student Loan - is for students on attendance courses at government-funded course providers such as colleges and universities.

Some people pay for the courses themselves using savings or a bank loan. However, you should check out all funding options before you consider paying yourself. As with all courses, any funding will depend on your circumstances and the subject you're planning to study. Here are some of the main options for funding open learning and home study:

  • your employer - if you can convince your employer that doing the course would not only benefit you but also the organisation, they may fund the course and give you time off to attend
  • Professional and Career Development Loan - a repayable bank loan you can use to fund learning that enhances your job skills or career prospects
  • Local Educational Authority discretionary awards
  • JobCentre Plus - if you are unemployed
  • educational charities and trusts - they may give small awards based on your circumstances and your course subject.

Ask your course provider if they offer fee discounts or free courses. Some have a limited number of fee concessions for students on benefits or a low income. Some also have links with a sponsorship organisation.

Many course providers allow you to pay the fees in instalments. This spreads the cost over the year rather than paying one lump sum. They may charge a higher total fee for this to cover administrative costs.