GETTING to college from RAF Cranwell in Lincolnshire is no simple task. Not only is the base almost 13 miles from the nearest FE centre, Grantham College, but servicemen or women must also obtain day release from their superior to attend a course.
As in any enterprise, having someone out of the office - or aircraft hangar - costs money, so not as many personnel get to study as would like to. However, that situation is likely to change following the recent opening of a Learndirect centre at Cranwell, the RAF's officer training facility.
Rolling out online learning centres on air force bases is part of the Learning Forces initiative that reflects the Ministry of Defence's desire to make education of the armed forces one of its highest priorities.
The RAF has some 52,000 of the 210,000 service personnel and 90,000 civilians in the three forces, and its top brass hope that better training and education opportunities will help to stem the attrition rate of between 5,000 and 10,000 people a year.
While the air force is about much more than just gung-ho fighter pilots, even those who fly desks do not always get to develop computer skills in their jobs.
That is one reason why Michelle Wilde, 25, and Fiona Graham, 20, both personnel administrators at Cranwell, have seized the opportunity to take Learndirect's office computer skills and advanced office skills IT courses at the new facility.
Ms Wilde says that the courses will help her prepare for the European Computer Driving Licence (see Diary opposite) qualification, which would earn her a pay bonus and help in her annual appraisal. She adds that it would also improve her employment prospects in civilian life if she leaves the RAF, a reason Ms Graham also cites.
Both say the online learning concept is ideal for the armed forces, as they could continue studying if they were posted o another base in the UK or overseas, providing Internet access is possible.
The centre, open 24 hours a day, is already proving popular as more than 170 of the 2,000 service personnel and 1,000 civilians based at Cranwell have enrolled to take predominantly business and IT courses, says manager Karen Highmore.
The facility is very informal and allows students to complete courses in their own time without pressure - a radical departure from the armed forces norm, she says.
Meanwhile, flight lieutenant Pat Hewitt, 55, a pilot navigator instructor, is taking advantage of the centre to familiarise himself with the wonders of email and the Internet. He says it is the first time such an opportunity has been available in the RAF and believes it will lead him to do more online learning in the future.
Only a small number of air force bases have Learndirect facilities at present, but all have training centres, and in the meantime, the aim is to use them to provide access to courses through a virtual Learndirect centre. A telephone helpline is available to assist learners in the absence of on-site tutor support.
Learning Forces: www.learning-forces.org.uk; Learndirect: www.learndirect.co.uk, tel: 0800 100 900
LEARNDIRECT: THE FIGURES
* More than 100,000 people have signed up for about 200,000 Learndirect courses since it began in late October.
* There are 1,076 Learndirect centres across Britain in locations such as shopping centres, libraries, colleges and workplaces.
* Three-quarters of Learndirect's 400 courses are aimed at small and medium-sized enterprises and 70 per cent are available online. A further 400 courses will be available online bythe end of the year.
* The Learndirect helpline, which provides details of 500,000 courses throughout the education sector, has taken more than 2.7 million calls.