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It's OK to be at a distance

Distance learning is not what it used to be. Gone are the days when it was considered a distant cousin to traditional face-to-face learning. It is opening up new possibilities for adults but also, increasingly, for school-aged children. Young people, such as one 12-year-old who is studying his maths AS-level with us, are being encouraged to use distance learning in a new way. Some use it for re-takes, some because they're being home-schooled and some just because they are really interested in a subject and want to combine that with a qualification.

As we celebrated gifted children this week, under the "It's All Right To Be Bright" initiative, it is worth underlining the point that distance learning allows the parents of gifted youngsters, in particular, to strike a balance between their emotional well-being and intellectual challenge.

If traditional academic institutions could embrace some of the experience of long-established distance learning providers, and if we add in a healthy dose of 21st-century methodology, we could perhaps bring another dimension to the notion of self-directed learning. By combining traditional home study methods (books, module guides, online resources and 24-hour access to a specialist tutor) with social networking technology, students have instant access to a global classroom where they can exchange ideas with fellow enthusiasts.

It's not just the gifted and talented who can benefit from more flexible working across the curriculum. People develop at different rates and have a wide variety of learning styles. Traditional academic institutions simply can't cater for a limitless palette of approaches, but they could access resources that are already tried, tested and available. In areas of teacher shortage such as maths, a distance learning option used within an institution can provide students with access to a network of excellence.

Where this has been tried in schools, the anecdotal evidence is that there is still some way to go before results are on a par with face-to-face teaching, and there is always the question of the inspiration and encouragement provided by the best teachers. But just because we haven't got it quite right yet doesn't mean we can't.

Sugata Mitra's Hole-in-the-Wall project, which allowed slum children in Delhi access to a computer connected to the internet, suggests that children can find ways of working together and progress faster when left to their own devices than they would if a teacher was taking them through a prescribed curriculum.

Imagine a classroom where the students are studying different subjects, at different levels, using on and offline materials and receiving support, challenge and inspiration from a virtual classroom. In their real classroom, the teacher is showing them how to learn and encouraging them about where this learning can take them.

The generosity and accessibility of world-leading academics is a constant surprise and delight. Social networking can make this expertise accessible to students in a way that has never been possible before. What a great opportunity we have for young people to be challenged by world experts and, equally importantly, to have the opportunity to evaluate the input of those who are less expert, but more opinionated.

A true democratisation of information but a huge challenge for all of us to decide what we consider, what we reject, and what we value. I believe distance learning has its part to play.

Sally Pulvertaft is managing director of Glasgow-based International Correspondence Schools.

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