Distance is no object

Some may confuse distance learning with correspondence courses, but Fennell Betson reveals there is a world of difference

Distance learning may be seen as the modern equivalent of correspondence study, but its proponents say it it is a lot more than that. An increasing number of universities are now offering LLBs through “off campus” study and some even see this see this as an important new market opportunity.

The University of London's external programme, which offers an LLB and a master's degree, is the grandfather of them all. The external LLB examination standards are the same as for internal students at the six colleges of the university, although the structure and content varies from course to course.

Law is by far the most popular of the 20 or so undergraduate courses the university offers and it has around 8,000 students registered worldwide. British and Malaysian students make up the bulk of this total with around 3,000 in each country.

A more recent entrant to the field is the University of Wol-verhampton, which launched its distance learning LLB in 1991 and has attracted more than 3,000 students from 40 countries.

Wolverhampton says it did not create a separate degree, a course that could be described as “an export model”. The university's John White says: “What we are offering is much more than a correspondence course. It involves the production of specialist, tailor-made, written study materials, audio and video cassettes, combined with the provision of face-to-face tuition for students in the UK and elsewhere.”

An essential component in the university's approach was to ensure it could achieve the same quality of delivery. White says the same staff teach the distance learning students as teach their full and part-time counterparts.

“Because of the innovations in teaching, we had strict internal validation with external specialists on the validation panel to be sure we could teach a law degree properly in this way,” says White. He believes the course's high standards mean students can be confident about the qualification.

Professor Nigel Savage, of Nottingham Law School, says it is the course materials, learning methods and quality of monitoring which differentiates modern distance learning courses from the older correspondence course approach.

According to Savage, the school has been offering its LLB on a distance basis for four years. “Our intake is running at 60 to 70 students at present per year, but we are looking at increasing this as demand is growing,” he says. Its first distance learning students qualified this year.

Northumbria University, which has just launched its distance learning course in law, believes the immediate pros-pects for the course centre on local needs. The university's Greer Hogan says a part-time law degree had been offered by the institution since the 1970s. People attend this course two evenings a week from as far away as Lincoln and north Yorkshire.

“We knew there was a market for those who would find it impossible to make the journey, or who wanted to soak up the subject at their own time and pace,” says Hogan. “The aim is to provide flexibility.” And the educational entry requirements can be “more flexible” than for those studying for a full-time LLB.

This year the course started with around 40 students, mainly from the university's northern catchment area.

Northumbria has invested considerable resources in developing its course work books and other materials. These are backed up with study days, which students are expected to attend at the university.

Outside the UK, the area traditionally interested in distance learning courses has been the Far East. London University says Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore have been its strongest markets. However, with Singapore developing its own courses and Malaysia following suit, it expects this market to shrink.

Wolverhampton says its distance learning programme has developed significant markets in the Far East. However, the university has also been affected by the changing educational trends in the area, so it is promoting the degree throughout the world. Recruitment growth has been strong in the Caribbean and the Indian sub-continent. Africa is seen as a developing market and there is a growing number of students enrolled on the course in Japan.

Up to now Nottingham has been offering its course mainly in the UK. “But,” says Savage,”we have had applicants from all over the country.” He believes there are significant opportunities for LLB degree courses abroad, particularly in the Far East, perhaps even in the US. “We also see openings in South Africa,” he says, and is visiting the country shortly to talk to academics.