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There is some wonderful knowledge you can share and learn……and also to give you a little insight into the world I work in – although not directly involved in this venture, it is something very close to me.
www.virtualcollege.ac.uk - a breakthrough in flexible distance learning. The Virtualcollege (VC) currently offers distance learning courses in IT skills at NVQ Levels II & III. The courses offer complete flexibility for adult learners that haven’t for whatever reason, got the time to attend classroom based studies, typically well suited to people working unsocial hours, those who are housebound and working people with family commitments.
The VC has been going for around 4 years and during that time has responded well to both student and staff feedback that have helped make it the product it is today. During that time it has won both Welsh and British awards for its innovation and developments in e-learning.
SO WHAT IS IT? In the trade it is known as a virtual learning environment where you can study where and when you chose, all you need is an internet connection and access to a printer.
WHEN YOU SIGN UP LEVEL II The course you chose to do is up to you – if you wanted to study at level II, at the moment you can chose between:
• Wordprocessing • Spreadsheets • Databases • Presentations • E-Mail and internet • Introduction to Windows
With the following packages, currently in the process of being tested and should be available shortly: • MS Project • Frontpage • Macromedia Flash 4
You can enrol to complete either an Award or Certificate – typically the Award will take 90 hours of learning (3 subjects/units), equating to 30 weeks to obtain the qualification, if you stick religiously to the 3 hours a week timetable – the Certificate takes 150 hours (5 subjects/units), i.e. 50 weeks – although many students take a shorter or longer time dependent on other commitments – you simply pick what you want to study from the subjects above and complete the application form accordingly.
Once you have returned the completed form, you will receive a welcome e-mail with your username and password for the site, you will also receive a welcome pack in the post containing the first three modules of the course, the remainder can be downloaded from the website at your leisure. You will also be allocated a personal tutor who will contact you to agree a personal development plan, this will enable you to monitor your own progress against the deadlines you have set.
Application forms can be obtained by e-mailing the contact on the website, or telephoning the administrator.
If you have a higher skills set and think that Level II might be a bit basic for you, you could of course try level III, although at the moment you will be restricted to a choice from:
THE MATERIALS The materials are primarily text and graphic based which makes download speeds for those using a modem quite fast. You can then print the materials out and work them through them whilst disconnected (particularly handy if you have as a pay as you go connection), or alternatively, if you prefer, you can work through the materials on screen.
Materials are designed to be instructive and have a number of exercises that can be completed to practice your new skills as you learn them. Once you have completed the learning materials, there are self assessment quizzes and portfolio exercises which you can use to test your knowledge. Then, once you have completed all these, or when you feel confident you can complete and submit the marked assignment for that module.
Each of the six units within the subject area contains an assignment that requires marking, the seventh then pulls all this knowledge together from the subject area. Other than this, the modules can be worked through in any order and you can even switch between subject areas if you fancy a change.
VERSION Most IT courses focus on one version of a product, the Virtualcollege has tried to overcome this, and whilst notes are available in Office 97 and 2000, XP is also on the way, giving the customer a broad choice. You will obviously need to have access to MS Office, and if you haven’t you can obtain the basic package from places such as PC world on a student licence for approximately £110 – price does tend to very as outlets have sales and VAT free offers from time to time. Be aware that this package DOES NOT include Access or Frontpage – the latter again can be purchased on a single standard licence for somewhere between £100 and £149 depending on where and when you buy it, Access comes in at around £200, so if you are seriously considering this you should look at the MS Office Standard or Professional, prices vary between £350 and £500.
COMMUNICATIONS Many people might consider that a distance learning course of this nature could leave you feeling isolated, if you do, think about your use of Ciao and the associated guestbooks, mailing lists and chat-rooms that members belong to, well Virtualcollege is pretty much the same. It has integrated forums where you can chat to colleagues on your course an/or your tutor, there is a chat-room and instant message facility built in and also public, I should say, monitored, notice boards. When you submit your assignment, you tutor has a three day turnaround agreement for feedback, and there is also a technical helpline for those itchy moments when nothing seems to go right that is currently open normal office hours. Of course, there is gold old fashioned e-mail for raising any queries you may have.
SUBMITTING YOUR ASSIGNMENTS Assignments are submitted to your tutor using the integral drop box and a copy is directed to a secure area which satisfies the requirements of the examining body.
ACCESSIBILITY For anyone who doesn’t know, this covers people with disabilities who may encounter difficulties using products such as the internet. The Virtualcollege is working hard to try and accommodate students with a wide range of disabilities such as sight problems, dyslexia and colour blindness and has designed a personal settings function that allows students to change the text style and size, colour and background settings to something that suits them better than black on white. There is also moves to ensure that the materials will work with a screenreader and magnifiers should not cause a problem. Anyone considering studying through this method who is concerned in any way should not hesitate to contact them, they are very accommodating.
THE ADVANTAGES • Flexible learning you can do at a time to suit you • You don’t have to leave the house on a wet, cold winter evening • You don’t have to wait for September to start • You don’t have to worry about waiting for or keeping up with your classmates • If you get bored with a subject you can change to something else • Free if you live in Wales • Very helpful and accommodating staff • Tried and tested learning materials • A choice of subjects and assignments within each module • A choice of personal settings
THE DISADVANTAGES • If you live outside Wales you will have to pay • You will require a considerable amount of motivation as you do not have your peers around you all the time to chivvy you along when the going gets tough • You will need the software
THE COST AND SIGNING UP For anyone thinking this sounds like it will suit them, the next magic question is what will it cost me? Well if you live in Wales it is totally free, unfortunately, because of different funding structures, if you live outside there will be a charge - £100 for an award and £160 for the certificate. Someone raised the question why it is free in Wales - the VC is based in a welsh college and therefore comes under welsh funding regulations -there may well be similar operations in England, Scotland and NI.
In response to a number of comments on the cost to the non-welsh contingent, I have been browsing the web trying to find similar courses, www.beginners.co.uk advertises their courses as free, but places are limited, all I can say is that the VC whilst having a majority of welsh students, does have students from England and overseas, as the quality of the materials and tutoring are excellent and responsive to student needs. Some have also asked about financial support, try contacting your local Education Authority to see if support is available.
Unlike normal college courses where you typically have to wait for the start of a new term, often the Autumn, the Virtualcollege enrols students the first week of every month with the exception of August, and there are no real ‘holiday’ periods like campus based courses, although naturally tutors are human and do deserve a break as well, but naturally that communication will be between you and your tutor.
If you are still interested, have a hop along to www.virtualcollege.ac.uk and take a look for yourself. You can log in as a guest and check out samples of the materials for yourself.