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Independent resettlement & recruitment guide for serving Armed Forces & Veterans

Distance learning in close-up

Distance learning in close-up


13 Apr, 2023

Sometimes also referred to as online learning or remote study (among other things), distance learning offers the perfect opportunity to focus on picking up new skills and qualifications – wherever in the world you are and without distractions …

Whatever you choose to call it – distance learning, open learning, supported learning or something else – it all comes down to the same thing: it’s a learning method that allows you to study whenever and wherever suits you. It could offer the lifeline you need to help you continue – or embark on – your training and studies, with the invaluable flexibility that is characteristic of distance learning.

Whether you are still serving, preparing to leave the Armed Forces or have already left, now more than ever it’s important to keep looking to the future and continue to pursue courses or training that will set you up for life ‘outside’. Of course, it’s impossible to study everything remotely, but you might be surprised by what is out there. Even those subjects with a strong practical element often have modules that are suited to distance learning.

For many training courses, there’s no need to be physically on-site or on-campus to study. And that, of course, is a considerable benefit to those forced to quarantine, as much as those posted to far-flung locations, meaning that you can continue your studies wherever you may be. Nothing need come between you and your preparations for life in the civilian world and workplace.

Female student learning at home

What’s involved?

As noted above, as well as ‘distance learning’, you may come across other similar terms such as ‘open learning’ and ‘distance supported learning’. In truth, all of these types of learning are likely to overlap, but, as a rough guide, open learning includes more face-to-face classes than distance learning, while the word ‘supported’ usually indicates that there are tutors and physical material available to help students.    

Courses delivered through distance learning range from those taking as little as a few hours, to degrees and postgraduate qualifications that may involve several years’ study. So-called short courses typically last days or weeks as opposed to months or years.  

Thanks to the widespread availability of digital technology these days, learning materials and support may be provided by either one or a combination of the following means: books, phone, email, the internet, podcasts and via mobile learning; the latter is where the student accesses course content stored on a mobile device or through a server. Some providers offer course elements via the iTunes Store, whose app can be downloaded free of charge. As you might expect, many courses make extensive use of the internet. Others involve tutor groups, which may meet regularly, or ‘summer camps’ of a few weeks’ duration to provide classroom education that complements regular, directed coursework at a distance.

Nothing need come between you and your preparations for life in the civilian world

Study at your convenience

The great thing about distance learning – especially for people like you, who are in or have recently left the Armed Forces – is that it puts you in control of your education. Once you have chosen and enrolled on your course (see below), you are free to study when, where and how you choose, so you can fit your education around your current work, family commitments and/or enforced isolation.

And, of course, in these days of laptops, notebooks, tablets and mobile learning, you can set up and study at a location of your choice – these days that’s likely to be at home, of course, but normally would also include work, at a cafe, even while travelling. Also important is the fact that you can work at your own pace – there are no term times to be rigidly stuck to (although you may have to sit exams, which could take place only at specific times).

To sum up, distance study enables you take responsibility for your own learning. However, although you will be in control, a good provider will offer plenty of support – so you will certainly not be alone, left completely to your own devices, but will have back-up and assistance as and when you require it. There are also likely to be self-checks and interim tests to help ensure that you are on target, and tutor-marked assessments to provide valuable feedback, as well as a telephone helpline to call, or someone to email or message for advice if you get stuck.

How do I choose a course and provider?

Although necessarily influenced by demand from learners, there are loads of courses available in distance learning form. And because the choice of provider is huge, too, you are more than likely to be able to track down the course you are looking for. This may be something that will give you a general grounding or background in a particular subject or area (that you may go on to study in more depth later), or you might be looking to focus on something very specific – such as the entrance examinations of a particular professional body.

Both higher education (HE) and further education (FE) courses can be taken via distance learning. The difference between these is not always clear-cut though, and in some cases (e.g. foundation degrees), both types are involved. Many qualifications are modular; this means that you complete them in sections (modules), often of your own choosing, and credits gained from a selection of such courses can be collected to ‘add up’ to degrees and other HE qualifications. It is not always necessary to have an undergraduate degree to gain a master’s, and neither is it necessary to have one in order to achieve many professional qualifications.

Increasingly, Service people like you are taking distance learning modules as part of the training that contributes to their career progression. So, you could be studying with a view to gaining qualifications that will help you while in the Forces or when you leave, or just for personal interest – out of enthusiasm for a particular subject.   

But how do you know who is a good provider and who is not? And exactly which course you need? All this choice can prove confusing! In the accompanying ‘Ask yourself …’ panel, there is a checklist that should help you.


  • Does the course lead to the qualification I want/need?
  • Will the course train me to the level required (by me or a potential employer)?
  • Can I view the training materials first, before committing?
  • Can I chat to previous learners?
  • Do I have to pass an entry test?
  • How much support is available? And in what form?
  • Can the whole course be done at a distance, or is it necessary to attend training sessions at specific times?
  • How much time will I need to set aside for study?
  • How much does the course cost?
  • Will there be an exam at the end?
  • Is the provider inspected or accredited by an independent body?
  • If I choose to study for a degree, do I have to complete it within three years? 
  • Will I receive any special consideration for study problems as a result of operational duties?
  • Is the course available via learning tools that I will be able to access? (For example, if you are in an environment where IT availability is limited, you should select a course where it is possible to use paper and telephone, at least for a limited period.)

Even subjects with a strong practical element often have modules that are suited to distance learning

student looking at laptop studying online

How to find out more

Service education and training staff, both within your unit and specialists, can often provide the best advice about what you might want and what it is actually possible for you to achieve. They can also provide you with information about the funding available to support your studies, and recommend the subjects that you should be encouraged to pursue – particularly with a view to a second career when leaving the Services. Increasing numbers of Forces learning and education centres and personal learning advisers also have access to e-learning opportunities.

Information about courses is also available from learndirect which also runs its own courses and learning centres with tutor support, where students can undertake online learning, and that use ICT systems to enable users to access learning.

Other information sources include direct from the ‘horse’s mouth’ (somebody who has first-hand experience of a course or a training provider), written prospectuses and, of course, the internet. The website of the Open and Distance Learning Quality Council (ODL QC) is particularly helpful.

Who are the learning providers?

Many learning providers are neither HE nor FE institutions, although they may have links of varying strengths with one or more colleges or universities. Many companies run large training departments, and there are also many commercial organisations that provide training to paying clients. Much of the training such providers deliver is of excellent quality and targeted carefully at the needs of civilian employers in a specific market sector. Many commercial businesses offering training use the premises of academic institutions to deliver courses, and may have contracts with employment agencies to help their students find work.

You are likely to have heard of some of the bigger distance learning organisations, however – as mentioned above – there are many other providers out there too, also offering a wide range of courses, some with discounts for Service people (ask your education and training adviser for further information).

To see a list of ODL QC-accredited learning providers, visit its website where you will see a clickable link on the homepage