Distance learning isn't anything new in itself, of course. The Open University (OU) will tell you it has been doing it for over 30 years and today has a worldwide student community. No, what's exciting is the potential, offered through advances in technology, for an even wider audience to benefit from Scotland's academic excellence in new and exciting ways.
E-learning is both improving the quality of education and broadening access to it, geographically as well as in terms of social inclusion. And the potential isn't wasted on the OU. Over the last seven years, the university has invested some 30 million in e-learning. It's quick to point out though that it doesn't want to become an 'online' university. Courses only adopt e-learning techniques where they enhance the student's learning experience. In other words, they're not just doing it for the sake of it.
So what kind of tools and techniques are we talking about? One of the most exciting is Stadium webcasting software developed by the OU's Knowledge Media Institute. Stadium enables organisations to stage large-scale live events while giving remote participants anywhere on the 'net' a sense of 'being there'. A great way to capture and share expert knowledge, it has been used by BP Amoco, mountain climbers and the OU itself to great effect.
Individual beacons of light
Many of Scotland's universities and colleges run their own distance learning programmes. Dundee University, for example, boasts arguably the broadest Distance Learning prospectus. Stirling University runs a number of postgraduate programmes too, including its pioneering MSc/PgDip in Media Management and unique MBA in Retailing by Distance Learning.
It's not just confined to Scotland's purely academic institutions either. Learndirect Scotland, for example, is a nationwide initiative aimed at helping as many people as possible to fit learning into their lives. As an alternative to studying in the classroom, at work or at home, learndirect scotland offers people the opportunity to learn in one of over 325 learning centres stretching from Gretna in the south to Shetland in the north, Barra in the Western Isles to Arbroath in the east. They'll even advise on funding and childcare availability to make it all possible. Internationally, the British Council Scotland provides its worldwide audience with a window on Scotland's educational expertise. Through its Managed Learning Centre in Delhi, for example, students can take a first degree, Higher National Diploma or Master's degree at the University of Abertay, Dundee. Examinations are held in the British Council's offices.
Everyone's a winner
Whether it's provided through an international organisation, nationwide initiative or individual university, the benefits of distance learning remain the same students get the opportunity to learn at a time, pace and place that's convenient for them.
What about social interaction though the actual rather than virtual meeting of minds isn't that an important part of learning too? Well yes it is, which is why many distance learning courses include a weekend or weeklong residential tutorial. Others, like the University of Aberdeen, which caters for the North of Scotland and the Islands, has developed a more practical alternative. UK leaders in the educational use of audio and video-conferencing, the university makes it possible for its Key Learning Opportunities students from far afield to see and hear their tutors. Neighbouring Aberdeen Business School meanwhile, has developed its own award-winning Virtual Campus. Here, virtual classrooms enable distance learning students thousands of miles apart to interact with their fellow students and tutors.
The last word is on human nature. Given the chance to learn at our own pace, aren't we bound to take longer? Well encouragingly, no. Almost half of the students enrolled on Heriot-Watt's new distance learning Business and Management undergraduate courses have just completed their degree a year faster than students on a comparable full-time course. Great news indeed since the quicker you learn, the quicker you earn.