In a world rapidly shrinking under an ever-tightening web of computer communication links, distance learning is no longer a daunting prospect. But networking existed long before the Internet, among those in remote areas determined to broaden their horizons.
Morag Gray, Pat Ash, Betty Wardrop and Catherine Gibb are, as postgraduate students of Northern College and teachers living in Shetland, in the unique position of being both local pioneers and vestiges of an old order: pioneers, in that they are among the first in the islands to complete distance learning courses in special educational needs and early education; vestiges in that they are the last to do so without the aid of computers.
Having started their courses in 1991, they have, up to now, narrowly missed out on the cyber-education revolution. Their college, based in Aberdeen and Dundee, is now rapidly expanding its computer links throughout the UK and the world, and has just installed its own network in Shetland, enabling students and tutors scattered throughout Scotland to communicate simultaneously as a group.
But while the four have little or no experience of computer networking, they are well aware of the benefits of forming a human network on the island.
For three of them, Pat, Betty and Catherine, the loneliness of being long- distance learners led to them forming their own mini-support group. Having completed their certificate in early education with five other Shetland teachers, with whom they still keep in touch, they are buoying each other up to finish their post-graduate diploma, after four years of study.
As full-time teachers - Pat is assistant headteacher at Sandwick junior high, Betty is senior teacher (nursery) at Mossbank primary and Catherine is senior teacher (middle stages) - with families, the three admit they could never have worked in complete isolation.
"You need the support of the others to keep going, I would have found it very difficult to have done the course on my own," says Pat. Betty agrees: "There are certain pressure points when you need to feel you're not on your own. If I feel I'm not getting anywhere with what I'm doing, I'll call up one of the others and it really helps."
Catherine, who lives on Yell, one of Shetland's northern isles, says she would have felt especially isolated, had it not been for Betty and Pat.
Family support is also vital to the distance learner. Morag Gray, now a teacher in special educational needs at Sandwick junior high, studied for her four-year post-graduate diploma at home on the tiny island of Bressay, just off Lerwick. She admits she would never have stayed the course if she had not had the support of her family and friends, who helped by doing anything from housework to typing up her assignments.
"Bressay is a very close-knit community and I received a lot of help. I needed it. At the time, I was working as a part-time learning support teacher at Bressay primary school and my two sons were primary age. My husband feels like he's earned a diploma himself," she says.
She also relied on regular contact with the seven other Shetlanders on her course and their tutor, whose telephone tutorials and quarterly visits were a great inspiration to Morag. "Every now and then I needed a shove to keep going. After I completed my certificate, I thought about stopping there, but my tutor persuaded me to go on."
Pat, Betty and Catherine have also found much inspiration in their tutor, Liz Greig, who admits a large part of her job is providing a "wee psychological nudge" to distance learning students when the weight of their studies becomes too much.
While Liz Greig is excited by the benefits of computer conferencing, she is aware that it cannot substitute for face-to-face or telephone contact between tutor and student and hopes to be able to continue visiting her remote students.
"It's important to get to know your students personally and it is very satisfying to see them grow and develop as they study. The whole post-graduate Primary Pathway course process is about helping people find the areas they particularly want to explore."
After graduating recently, Morag Gray has done just that. Gaining her diploma has enabled her to move from primary learning support teaching in a school with 38 pupils to looking after the special educational needs of children aged from three to 16 at Sandwick junior high, which has 270 pupils.
The course has helped her develop the range of skills required to support the needs of children with the full spectrum of difficulties, from slow early development to profound mental and physical disabilities. It has encouraged her to research in greater depth in specific areas and has given her the confidence to apply what she has learned to her day-to-day work.
"I am constantly researching and finding out new ideas. Each need has its challenges - just as every average pupil can be different from his or her classmates in learning, so will the pupil with a special need. There is no 'classic' cerebral palsy pupil or Down's syndrome pupil, or blind pupil, " she says.
Morag says Northern College's provision of supported, flexible distance learning has made an enormous difference to her personal and professional development. And while the delivery technology of her course may very soon change radically, with the introduction into Shetland of the Northern College network, she is satisfied with the outcome of her own learning experience.
"Although I thoroughly enjoyed my work in the primary school, the range of subjects I could give learning support in was very limited. Here, I am doing what I enjoy best - working with groups and individuals right across the curriculum, as well as consulting with other teachers and outside specialists.
"Distance learning has enabled me to take on this challenging job, which I would never have dreamed of applying for before."