Distance learning in postgraduate education has risen in the last decade on the back of greater flexibility and suiting the needs of the modern worker, writes Fergal Browne.
Distance learning has increased massively in recent years. The Open University (OU), the oldest distance learning university in the British Isles, is now the largest academic institution in the United Kingdom and Ireland catering to almost 250,000 students, 50,000 of which are overseas.
OU was first created in 1969, so the concept is not new but with the rise of fast and ubiquitous internet, the advantages of this style of postgraduate learning has increased, especially for people working full-time.
“It’s ideally suited to full-time workers”, says Susan Sharkey from the Open University Ireland. “Nowadays, all the courses are online and we are across a whole range of degree subjects. There’s a massive support network for students whether by phone, email, online forums or online classrooms with all materials supplied, and the majority of courses provide a one-on-one tutor. We have amongst the highest student satisfaction rates in the UK and Ireland”, she says.
Unlike in universities where you have to go on campus and attend lectures at set times, in distance learning, students can tailor their degrees with their work needs. “You take it on a module-by-module basis. It’s stretched over a longer period of time so you can fit it around your working schedule”, adds Susan.
Patrick O’Hare studied an undergraduate degree in Marketing in DIT and moved into a full-time marketing position at an SME after finishing university. While there, he did a Postgraduate Diploma in Digital Marketing at the Digital Marketing Institute.
“My undergraduate degree covered all aspects of marketing so I wanted to specify and felt digital marketing was a growth area and something I’m passionate about”, says Patrick who set up his own website shortly after finishing the postgraduate diploma. “It augmented the experience I was getting in my role at the time and with it I was able to implement my own marketing strategy as a result,” he adds.
Patrick says he was never concerned that the degree wouldn’t be recognised by employers in the same way that a degree in a ‘bricks and mortar’ university would. “You do hear stories about degrees that have no accreditation whatsoever, but I was comfortable this wasn’t the case here. It had a lot of accreditation and from my research seemed to be really valued by employers”, says Patrick.
“In the past that perception was there but that’s just not an issue anymore. All the courses are FETAC-accredited and on the same level as any other university in Ireland. The only piece of advice we would give is that, as students study with us from across the world, make sure the degree is recognised in your country. But in Ireland, that’s never an issue”, affirms Susan.
The Postgraduate Diploma in Marketing course is mixed between distance learning and attending the tutorials in the institute. “The tutorials take place at the weekend so you could attend if you wished. But they were all recorded so you could watch online later. It was really good and flexible in that sense,” says Patrick. “Separately they also did what were called ‘webinars’ where all the students would login remotely and a lecturer would be live and answer any questions that a student typed in”, he adds.
This flexibility extends to the range of modules students can do too. “STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) have been big in the last few years. For example, you get a lot of teachers looking to do a topic they haven’t covered in an undergrad, for example, maths. So they go to the Open University, get the qualification and they have permission from the Teaching Council to teach the subject. We get that a lot in business and management too”, says Susan.
Funding distance learning is often tailored to the need of full-time workers. “A 60 credit module course would cost in and around €3,000 at the Open University”, says Susan. “But that includes everything. All course material and there’s no relocation or commuting costs. Students can pay monthly, the state gives tax relief for further study and in a lot of cases employers fund the course in part. There are a lot of options”.