In praise of distance learning


In today’s Guardian, Jonathan Woolf reviews the history of distance learning in the UK and the article has been given the somewhat misleading heading:

‘Distance learning: good on costs, not so good for social cohesion’

The sub-heading is also an inaccurate summary of the article that follows:

‘The danger of distance learning is that it may make second-class citizens of students who choose it’

On the contrary, Woolf’s article celebrates much that is good in the history of open learning, notably the contribution of London University’s external degrees. As one who taught on one of these distance learning programmes (via Wolsey Hall, one of its long-lasting agents), I can vouch for their importance in helping learners, in a wide variety of personal situations, rise the social and academic ladder.

Nelson Mandela was one such student in an earlier era but by the 1980s, the London degrees were very much in decline, at least in the UK. The reason was simple – the programmes were not funded in the same way as the Open University.  The latter’s operation was hugely subsidised by the state while London’s far-flung students were generally in receipt of no financial support at all and generally having to pay the full market rate for whatever teaching and textual support they could find.  As far as HE distance learning was concerned, the Open University was granted a virtual monopoly and they have done a great job with that opportunity.

Social isolation is a relative term and these days distance learning is a much less isolated affair if only because technology enables easy and speedy contact between students who are geographically separated.  Distance learners are encouraged by organisations like Oxford Home Schooling and Oxford Open Learning to integrate themselves into the wider community of learners and to share their learning experiences. There are chatrooms and blogs and virtual learning environments where friendships can be made and common interests shared.

Of course, the opportunities could be better still. We hope that the government will embrace the ethos of distance learning, and not just at a Higher Education level.  At modest cost to the state, huge improvements could be made in the infratructure and affordability of distance learning and lead to a revival of the idea of lifelong learning.

Distance learning can help to make first class students of us all.