When it comes to career development, the flexibility, one-to-one support and financial benefits of distance learning make it an increasingly compelling option for SMEs, says Sandra Quinn-Smith, owner of ATB Accounting Training for Business.
For those of us who, frankly, couldn’t wait to leave school, the idea of signing up to further training later in life is not exactly tempting. The thought of going back into the classroom and sitting listening to a teacher all day – however imaginative the lesson – is a big turn-off for many. Not only that, but the sheer inconvenience of having to turn up to classes in a specific place at set times can be extremely tricky for those with family and work commitments.
But the good news is all that doesn’t have to be a barrier to continuing professional development, now that there is such a wide range of distance learning providers, providing an effective and accessible alternative. These types of courses are becoming increasingly popular with both companies and individuals, with a 2012 article from The Guardian reporting how The Higher Education Academy found that employers favoured distance learning as a way of delivering career-related study.
Benefits of distance learning
Clearly, flexibility is a big plus when it comes to distance learning. Home and life commitments tend to increase with age and that is where a course undertaken in a student’s own time scores highly on convenience. SMEs particularly value the fact that this type of training fits in well with the unplanned demands of working life. When the business is small, it means staff must often be more flexible and willing to take up the slack in different parts of the organisation than they would in a larger office and distance learning courses mirror this approach by allowing participants to access information as and when they can. From a business point of view, distance learning also enables employees to undertake further training with minimal impact on the day to day working of the company – unlike sending staff away on training courses for days at a time. The value to the company in increased learning from undertaking these courses is one thing, but time out of the office, even for a few days, can be really disruptive – especially in a small business.
When it comes to workplace equality, too, a distance learning course is a far better option for small businesses. People with children can commit to this type of learning much more easily as it will fit around family life, likewise the millions of people across the UK who care for sick and elderly relatives during their time out of work. With a flexible learning scheme students can commit to a programme of learning without worrying that they will miss essential modules if there is a crisis with their relative. The Office for National Statistics reports that as many as one in 10 people – a total of 5.8 million of us – cares for sick, disabled and elderly people in England and Wales. Clearly this is a major consideration for people when choosing a programme of study and it is likely to increase as the number of carers continues to rise.
Not only does flexibility allow people to fit study around the other things going on in their life, it also allows them to set their own pace. With more traditional study programmes forcing people to commit to producing set pieces of work when the course demands, under the more modern distance system students can work at times and at a pace that suits their particular learning style. Some people, for example, prefer to work in blocks of time whereas others like to fit in an hour or two here and there when they can. It can also be that some people may like to study quicker than a class-based course allows. When the motivation to study strikes, it can be frustrating to have to wait for the start of the programme to come around again, while distance learning provides the flexibility for businesses and individuals to start studying whenever and however they choose. And with what is called a “blended” approach, meaning a mix of study material is involved, including online, hard copy, audio and video, the student’s interest is kept continually engaged.
One of the issues that many people say they may have with distance learning is the perceived lack of support, the chance to talk to a tutor face to face. It is certainly true that if you’re going to undertake a distance learning course then you must have some level of self-discipline to keep up that motivation on your own. However, good providers will also offer individual support from a tutor and check up on a student’s progress. If the participant is struggling, a distance learning provider will be able to give encouragement and tips on how to structure work, in exactly the same way as a class-based system – in fact, probably more so, since the tutor will be able to communicate directly with a student. In today’s communication age, with Skype and email, it is far easier for people to get in touch for free than it has ever been, and the distance learning option is able to capitalise hugely on these technological advances.
When it comes to networking with other students, too, distance learning can still achieve the same as traditional setting-based courses. A good provider will facilitate learner forums giving people the chance to support each other and get help with any problems from other people who have done the course. There is also the opportunity for positive networking with other businesses in complementary fields, a fact highlighted by The Guardian 2012 article (see link above).
One final, but very important, advantage to distance learning is its cost-effectiveness. As outlined above, employees’ time away from the office is at minimal levels, so no dip in productivity should occur and also these providers are often able to offer comprehensive learning courses at very reasonable prices. For SMEs this is very important; it means their staff can access the same kinds of higher level learning opportunities as with larger companies, but at a fraction of the cost and with no travel costs or time. The only expense will be a laptop for participants, but with many businesses already owning these there shouldn’t be any need for capital outlay when training staff in this way.
Affordable, flexible, comprehensive, fully supported, distance learning is the perfect way that SMEs can contribute to their staff skill base and enhance their career progression, without having to pay for it with too much time or money. Which, in anyone’s book, is a win-win result.