Distance learning – is it for you?

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Studying accountancy on your own is never easy but for many people distance learning is a viable – and often the only – option. Sonya Ashbarry of Eagle Education and Training helps you decide if it’s for you

Distance learning (also known as home study or flexible learning) is a very popular study method in today’s modern society.

There are many reasons why students choose to follow this study method, but whatever the reasons, people who choose distance learning generally want to enjoy the benefits that flexible study brings.

In recent years training providers have invested in this growing market and developed a wide range of varied products and services.  As a result, prospective students can initially find it daunting when trying to choose a distance learning provider.

As a distance learning specialist, I have prepared this article to help you:

•    understand what distance learning is
•    decide whether the study method would suit you
•    choose a training provider that will meet your needs.

What is distance learning and is it suited to you?

Most distance learning courses do not require you to attend college for tuition. Tuition is provided using a range of alternative methods to classroom teaching, but you are required to attend a venue to sit your assessments (exams).

Generally, most aim to provide you with complete flexibility. That means you can study where you want, when you want, and at a pace that suits your individual needs. However, distance learning is not an easy option.  When you commit to this study method you are choosing to study as an independent learner, also known as a self directed learner.

Independent learners usually do very well on distance learning courses because they take responsibility for their own learning. Think about your daily life: if you can motivate yourself, organise your own work, set yourself goals, discipline yourself to stick to them and work as part of a team then you’re likely to respond well to distance learning.

Dependent learners, on the other hand, can become frustrated with distance learning. Generally, dependent learners rely on teachers to tell them what needs to be done, how they should do it, when they should do it by, and they need constant reassurance and a high level of support.

That’s not to say dependent learners can’t become independent learners. Initially they’re likely to find distance learning challenging, but as they become more familiar with it they may feel empowered, as they can focus fully on their own individual needs and take responsibility for the way they prefer to learn and their own decisions and choices.

Independent learning should not mean that you’re left to get on with it entirely on your own.  It’s not about learning in isolation or unaided. Good distance learning providers will work with you; as if you’re part of a team. They will help you to:

  • set targets
  • discuss strategies to help you study effectively
  • give feedback on your performance in progress tests and mock exams
  • recommend when you’re ready to sit exams
  • provide guidance and advice to help you overcome any challenges you may face during your studies.

Sometimes studying does get tough, and if you try to figure out what is best on your own, you might never move forward. Mentors and support tutors can act as a sounding board, allowing you to look at a wider range of options and choose those that are most likely to achieve the desired goal. Teams make things happen.

Choosing a training provider

Before we discuss how to choose a training provider, let’s quickly consider another important factor: the way you prefer to learn. There is such a wide variety of distance learning courses on offer: from providers who equip you with textbooks as your main learning tool; to those courses that are purely online; to others that provide a mixture of learning tools.

If you loathe reading large volumes of text (I know I do), then you’re unlikely to get on with textbooks as your main learning tool. Does the prospect of sitting in front of a computer to study after a day’s work excite you, or fill you with dread?

You could be studying with your training provider for anywhere from six months to three years, depending on which route to qualification you take. We recommend you take that little bit of time to do your research, as the quality of the products and services they provide can affect your motivation, how rapidly you can achieve the qualification and how cost effective that will be.

Here are some questions you might like to ask a training provider:

1.    Is the course you offer distance learning or purely online?
2.    Is it structured, or completely flexible?
3.    What learning tools do you provide?
4.    Which is the main learning tool I’m expected to use?
5.    How is the mentoring/tutor support organised?
6.    How quickly should I expect to wait when I ask for assistance?
7.    How do you monitor my progress?
8.    How do you provide feedback on my progress?
9.    How long does it take to give me feedback?
10.    Who is responsible for organising my AAT membership, exams and assessments?  (If it’s in the control of the training provider perhaps ask if they set exam dates, or how long it takes to organise these things.)
11.    What happens if I need to resit an exam?
12.    How long does it take to mark AAT assessments and give me a result?
13.    How much does the course cost, and what’s included?
14.    What’s your refund policy if I change my mind?
15.    Are there any additional costs?
16.    For how long do you provide me with support?
17.    What are your unique selling points? Why should I buy from you?

You could also ask about exam success rates, but bear in mind that these are not always a reliable quality indicator.

Things to watch out for

•    Excessive course costs. Paying more doesn’t guarantee better quality, or vice versa.
•    Accurate comparisons. Ensure you’re comparing like for like. For example, smaller scale organisations may not charge as much as large national companies, as they generally have fewer overheads.
•    Sales-driven businesses. A provider should be interested in ensuring you choose the right qualification, the correct study method and a training provider that is going to meet your individual needs.
•    Flexible payment options which are spread over a very long period. You should have paid for your course before you want to start the next level.
•    Discounts for buying several levels. Most courses are sold on a non-refund basis.  What if your circumstances change, you decide you would like to try classroom courses for the next level, or the training provider didn’t suit your needs?
•    Unrealistic claims. For example, if a training provider claims that you can contact your tutor 24/7, think about whether this is likely to deliver a professional service.  What if they’re watching their favourite film and drinking a bottle of wine when you call?
•    People or organisations that speak very negatively about competitors.
•    Claims that AAT recommend them as a ‘preferred’ training provider.

If you’re still undecided

We usually recommend that prospective customers use the AAT discussion forums to obtain feedback.

There is a lot of information in the forums so we recommend that you do a search and pop in the name of the training provider you’d like to research. If you look at feedback that has been provided over a long period of time, then it could give you a rough idea about the level of service that is provided and how consistent it is. We are careful to say ‘rough idea’ because of course, we all have to exercise caution when using online sites to help us make decisions. A one star service to one customer can be a five star service to another!

Finally, don’t forget AAT is a very supportive organisation. They cannot recommend training providers but they can provide accurate information and act as a sounding board so that you can make an informed decision.

Sonya Ashbarry is the Director of Eagle Education and Training Ltd.

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