Distance learning in colleges -one of the most important growth areas in further education - is failing to meet the needs of students, inspectors have warned.
Achievement and retention rates on distance-learning courses are low, guidance and support for students is inadequate, the use of IT to support learning is underdeveloped and management is weak, says a Further Education Funding Council report.
Evidence gathered by inspectors in visits to 50 colleges last year, and a survey of 1,400 distance-learning students, found inadequate support leading to "unacceptably low" achievement rates, with fewer than a fifth of students gaining even part of a qualification in more than three-quarters of colleges.
Achievement rates for distance-learning A levels in colleges is less than half that for all types of study. On security guarding courses, one of the most popular vocational subject areas for FE distance-learning programmes, the achievement rate was just 16 per cent compared with 59 per cent for all types of courses.
The poor quality of student support and weak management are largely to blame, the report says. Most colleges do not take the initiative in keeping in contact with students, and more than 40 per cent of students surveyed said they only talked to a tutor when there was a problem.
Many distance-learning students receive inadequate information about other forms of study and whether the qualification they are aiming for is appropriate, the report says. Of the students surveyed, 42 per cent had received no guidance on the best course and more than half had not discussed alternatives.
Inspectors say most colleges do not know their distance-learning costs for staff time or materials.
The findings present a daunting challenge to the government's electronic distance-learning flagship, the University for Industry, whose learndirect service will work in partnership with FE colleges to deliver courses.
Learndirect's IT-based learning materials have been criticised by colleges, but the Fefc report says inspectors also found colleges' electronic materials to be "fairly unsophisticated" and fewer colleges than expected were using new technologies to support learning.
The inspectors say that many of the underachieving students learndirect is targeting might struggle with distance learning.