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Date published: 16 November 2011

New technology is making distance education even more appealing no matter where you live, writes Margie Sheedy.

Just because you can pass a university on the way to work doesn't mean you can get there to study.

"As our lives get busier and busier, distance education is becoming a more realistic option for many people," says Judith Bowler, the faculty head of health and community services at distance-education provider Cengage.

The chief executive officer of Open Universities Australia, Stuart Hamilton, says right now, the take- up of distance education is much better in metropolitan areas than rural regions.

"Given the changes in the economy and new-economy jobs, people don't want to give up their jobs to study," he says. "The convenience of doing it online is paramount."

"In NSW, 82 per cent of students enrolled with Open Universities, which offers units from 18 different universities, are from major cities [Sydney, Newcastle and Wollongong]."

A further 14 per cent are from inner-regional areas, 3.5 per cent are from outer-regional areas and fewer than 1 per cent of students are from remote regions of NSW.

The deputy vice-chancellor (academic) at the distance education provider Charles Sturt University, Ross Chambers, says its most popular courses are related to professional services such as librarianship, early childhood, nursing, food science, accounting and social welfare and its allied health areas.

"Traditionally, distance education was most suitable for the arts and education [teaching], however the new capacities of flexible and online learning make it more possible to offer a greater range of courses," he says.

Such is the demand for flexibility and convenience, Charles Sturt launched its first phone application last month, specifically aimed at its distance- education students.

"Students will be able, more and more, to use mobile devices to access connectivity anywhere, any time," Chambers says.

He says being connected is vital for students who are enrolled in distance education.

The technology builds a cohort effect and gives students the capacity to build relationships while studying via distance," he says. Obviously, to engage online you need a computer and, ideally, a broadband connection.

"The better the bandwidth, the better," Chambers says.

Hamilton agrees."Last year, 10 per cent of our units required broadband access," he says. "This year, 56 per cent required broadband. People can still study without it but they won't be able to engage fully."

And being engaged with their fellow students and tutors, Hamilton says, is how people studying from home stay motivated.

"Great self-discipline is needed when you study via open learning and you need to find the time in your life about 10 to 12 hours a week," Hamilton says.

"For the ones who want a more structured, face-to-face approach, open learning is not for them."

Date: Saturday 18 June, 2011
Publication: Sydney Morning Herald
Title: Appsolutely fabulous for study