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2012: A distance education odyssey

Education's flight into the future
© Luis Portugal |

If you’re thinking about studying in the next couple of years, you’re going to face a fork in the road. And the direction you take could have a profound effect on your education and how you experience it.

‘Should I study on campus, or via distance education?’

Distance education – meaning doing your courses online or by correspondence – is growing very, very quickly. In Australia today, the online education industry is worth close to $4 billion, up from $2.5 billion three years ago. A recent DEEWR report found that over 12 per cent of tertiary education students are now studying exclusively online/by distance, and nearly eight per cent are studying via a blend of on-campus and online/distance. Back in January, market research body IBISWorld reported that online education is set to grow by 10.6 per cent in Australia this year alone.

It’s a similar picture in the US. A Sloan Consortium report on more than 2500 tertiary education institutions found that over 30 per cent of all higher education students now take at least one course online, and that online enrolments grew in 2011 by 10 per cent – far surpassing the less than one per cent growth of overall higher education student enrolments.

With everything being done remotely these days – work, shopping, socialising – it’s no surprise that education, too, has gone online. And more people than ever are taking advantage of that.

SEEK Learning’s General Manager, Tony Barrett, says, ‘Online and distance delivery has become increasingly important for us in the last few years, and we expect that it will continue to grow very strongly as more and more time-poor consumers realise how it can enable them to fit study into their busy lifestyles’.

The broad acceptance of online learning

Distance education is nothing new, and online courses are a natural extension of correspondence courses, which have been around for a long time. But now, with the expansion of online activity to every facet of modern life, online learning is seen as a viable and natural option for many – and not just those who live in remote areas. Ours is a generation of digital natives, and that means studying online is the most natural thing in the world.

Many education providers have recognised the appeal and benefits of online study, and have developed online course programs that are of the same quality and value as on-campus programs – except that you can complete them in your own time and from the comfort of your own home. With more educational institutions going online, the range of online courses being offered is growing all the time.

More government-supported places

Since 2008, there has been a 20 per cent increase in the number of undergraduate student places in Australia. And this year there are 20 000 more of these at public universities than in 2011.

This is largely because back in 2009, in a bid to bolster national education levels to meet demand for professional skills and double the number of 25- to 34-year-olds holding bachelor degrees by 2025, the federal government announced it would begin to ease off enrolment caps at universities. Less caps means more students, and a more skilled and educated nation.

This year the caps were officially lifted, and with them the number of government-funded undergrad places has risen substantially. Study suddenly becomes an attractive and affordable option for a great many more people – many of whom are choosing to study by distance.

Suitability of study for working adults and retirees – not just school leavers

Traditionally, on-campus study is synonymous with youth and kids just out of high school. Distance education, especially online study, turns out to be ideal for that demographic, but also for many already in the workforce who want to upskill or change careers, as well as those in retirement.

A recent study from online education provider SEEK Learning found that over a third of Australian workers plan to return to studies to further their careers. The better part of that third are seeking a career change.

With many of today’s workers changing careers several times in their lives, more people than ever are going back to study to reskill and gain new qualifications. It’s certainly easier to re-train when study options are flexible and courses are plentiful.

‘A key driving factor is the fundamental change in the way we think about careers. The days of going to university straight out of school and then staying in one career for life are well and truly gone. Now the typical person may have several roles and even several careers during their working life, often across different industries, which will likely mean returning to further study that they need to fit in around work, family or other obligations. When you combine that with rapidly developing technology and the ever increasing sophistication of online learning, it’s not hard to see why so many students are now choosing to study online’, says Tony Barrett.

Wide range of courses

The range of courses now available online is probably much wider than you think. It’s not just bachelor degrees that are available by distance education, but postgrad courses, certificates, diplomas and short courses. So while you can study degrees in nursing, education, engineering, accounting, law and marketing via distance education, you’ve also got shorter courses in animal care, fitness, photography, make-up and massage, to name just a few.

This wide range makes distance education not only flexible in terms of delivery, but also versatile in meeting people’s various study needs. Reskilling? Upskilling? Or just keen to find a hobby? It’s all at your fingertips.

The benefits

The biggest appeal of distance learning is its flexibility. With distance or online learning you’re not bound to a university’s timetable, and don’t have to attend lectures in a theatre on some campus 160 suburbs away. You go about your studies when you want and where you want.

That means you can work, have a family and have a social life while you study. You can nestle your studies around your lifestyle, set your own pace, and study from home or while travelling – heck, even at the beach if you’re keen. It’s up to you – you’re in control.

You also have access to the same range of educational resources as on-campus students – you just don’t have to travel for them, or lug a dozen textbooks around with you. You have constant communication with tutors and fellow students, and you’re still part of a university community – you just share your ideas and voice your queries via online forums, email, phone, social media, web seminars, online chat and SMS.

For those who prefer some face-to-fact contact, distance education doesn’t have to mean wholly digital, and many courses offer blended study options or some on-campus components. That means there’s a course arrangement to suit just about everybody.

We all know that life is short, knowledge is power and the job market is competitive – taken together, these are good reasons to keep learning, but that doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice everything else in your life. Distance education means you have more freedom and more options – and you’ve gotta love that!

Take advantage of the plethora of courses available online. Check out our comprehensive range, for every industry and every interest.

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