Opening the door to brave new world of flexible learning


Distance learning was once the poor cousin , but increasing recognition of these degrees by employers is changing all that, writes Fiona Reddan

WHILE IN the past the concept of distance learning suffered from negative connotations, over the past number of years it has increasingly become more accepted and has made its way into the mainstream.

Where once distance learning degrees were considered to have less cachet than those received via traditional on-campus learning, and students opting for the distance option were perceived to be less accomplished, much has changed in recent times.

In 1969 the British Open University (OU) pioneered distance learning by offering university level courses which could be completed at home by a student. Since then, the concept of distance learning has evolved to meet the demands of modern living and match the expectations of professionals who are keen to further their education, but given time, location and personal commitments, are unable to do so in the traditional setting of a university.

Flexibility is a major advantage of such courses, as students can study when it suits them. Moreover, such courses are also far more flexible when it comes to completion, with students having up to 10 years to complete the OU's MBA programme, for example.

With many of Ireland's top universities now offering distance learning programmes, such degrees are recognised by employers as being on a par with full-time degrees. Moreover, a number of Irish universities have also responded to the growing need for courses aimed at professionals who are looking to gain a master's qualification, but who, for a variety of reasons, are unable to commit to either a full- or part-time course. This year, University College Dublin's (UCD) Smurfit School launched its first postgraduate distance learning programme, the Master's in Management, which offers a broad range of business-related subjects including marketing, management, law, human resource management and many more.

According to Tom Begley, dean of UCD's School of Business, the course has proven very popular, with 60 participants this year, despite the fact that they never advertised it.

Dublin City University (DCU) offers a Master's in Operations Management (MOPS), as part of its Oscail distance learning programme, which is awarded on a gradual basis.

The OU still offers a wide range of taught master's programmes to students in Ireland, including courses in management and business research methods, international finance and management and a Master's in Business Administration (MBA), while the University of Limerick (UL) also offers a distance learning programme in project management.

John Kelly, director of the Centre for Project Management at UL, says the course was initially delivered on a block release basis, whereby students attended the university for a block of three days every month. However, this didn't suit project management professionals - due to the nature of their work, it was difficult to commit to certain days.

"So we saw an opportunity to deliver the course by distance learning, which has been very successful. The course intake is now about three times the size it was before," says Kelly.

In addition to distance learning programmes, other more flexible programmes have also appeared on the Irish market.

Earlier this month the Institute of Management (IMI) launched its Master's of Business (MoB) programme, which is a lifelong learning framework aimed at enabling experienced professionals to further their education in a flexible manner.

According to programme director Simon Boucher, the MoB is based on the concept of a "credit bank", whereby students can work towards a master's by completing certain IMI courses.

IMI candidates can complete the MoB within three years, or can take up to six years by enrolling for their dissertation within five years.

"There is always a market for MBAs which respond to people's needs for greater choice and flexibility," says Boucher, and he says that the MoB is a real alternative to the traditional MBA.

"The MoB is very flexible. Rather than giving up a year to complete a full-time MBA, candidates can do it at their own pace. Also, it is a flexible option for employers - with an MBA they have to pay for someone to take a year out."

The OU also offers a flexible version of the MBA, for those who don't have the time or the resources to commit to either a full-time or part-time course. While the MBA can be completed in 2½ years, candidates also have the flexibility of taking up to 10 years to finish it.

Such programmes also often offer more choice, with candidates free to choose the broad areas which they study each year. There is no mandatory foundation year to the MoB, and students can select from five diplomas. In addition, Boucher says that the IMI is looking to expand this range, and could also design bespoke diploma courses for companies. Moreover, the courses often have a very strong workplace focus. "At each step we try and make it as specific to work as possible," says Boucher.

However, while distance learning offers many advantages, it also poses many challenges, and candidates must be realistic about the effort involved in completing such courses. In addition, candidates must be particularly well motivated and not only adept at planning study schedules - but also at keeping to them.

"Anyone taking on a master's on a part-time basis needs to be self-motivated," says Kelly, "but distance learning also requires a level of discipline with regards to how students structure their free time and allocate it to the programme. When starting out, people often find it difficult."

The biggest challenge is "finding the time", adds Kelly, saying that before students commence the programme at UL they must attend an interview to ensure that it's the right time for them to start the master's, and that they're aware of what's ahead of them.

Most of the institutions offering distance learning courses provide a range of student supports aimed at assisting students to complete the programme. At UCD, students of the Master's in Management have access to a personal tutor, who is available to discuss course matters by telephone, e-mail or through a drop-in service.

The OU has developed "supported open learning", whereby students study in their own time, where or whenever suits, but they receive support from a tutor, the student services staff at regional centres, and centralised areas such as the OU's library.

In Ireland, the OU has offices in Belfast and Dublin, but students can also interact with other students through tutorials and informal study groups organised by the OU's students' union. At UCD, students can access all course material online, while a discussion board and chatroom facilitates on-going interaction. The OU has an online conferencing system and also offers its courses with online tuition. Some face-to-face interaction is also deemed important, and at UL, students are expected to attend a residential school during their first semester, to consolidate the learning experience and to develop team-based and leadership skills. At UCD, the formation of regional study groups is encouraged and facilitated.

Distance learning courses often have looser entry requirements than their traditional university counterparts. At DCU, there are five entry routes to its distance learning programme, including evidence of substantial relevant work experience.

To qualify for a UL master's, applicants would normally have a primary degree with first or second class honours. However, candidates with a pass degree, or an approved professional qualification, along with exceptional working experience, may also be eligible.

While in the past distance learning courses were not as well perceived as in-house learning, Kelly says that no employer has ever questioned the robustness of UL's distance learning master's.

In fact, he says that employers often prefer the distance learning option, as it offers some reassurance that their staff can engage with the learning process in a flexible way, and it means that it won't put constraints around their ability to complete their work.