Distance learning may seem to be a relatively new-fangled concept, involving words such as "moodle" and "live streaming", but the truth is that distance learning has its roots in the 28th century. And it all started with shorthand.

It was as early as 1728 when a Massachusetts-based "teacher of a new method of shorthand" named Caleb Phillips advertised for students who would be sent their lessons weekly. The method caught on, and in the UK it was a man named Isaac Pitman (developer of the most widely-used method of shorthand) who started teaching his own lessons through correspondence in the 1840s.

Technological advances have always been one of the key drivers of distance learning, and even before the advent of the internet, developments in the world's postal services certainly helped the growth of these correspondence courses throughout the 19th century. Indeed, so popular has distance learning now become that its flagship, the Open University, is currently the largest university in the UK, with some 180,000 students enrolled. And it is a telling statistic that, in the 39 years since its first intake, the OU has delivered its programmes to more than three million students.

Depending on a person's situation in life, distance learning will have a number of advantages over traditional learning. It may be used to gain a degree, a Masters, or, indeed, it may be used to satisfy CPD requirements. But whatever the reasons for embarking on a distance learning programme, its most obvious advantage is that it is not location-specific, which means that a person who would otherwise have been unable to attend college because they were tied to a specific area can now participate fully in their chosen programme.

Still, geography aside, distance learning can offer things that traditional college simply cannot.

Obviously, it will be more widely used by adults looking to return to education, whether to upskill, re-skill or simply to gain a qualification which they feel they deserve. It does have applications for students of school-leaving age, but most of these will be in a position to attend traditional college. And in these cases, traditional college tends to be a better fit – younger people benefit from the structures afforded by prescribed class times, and anyway there is a certain rite-of-passage quality inherent in attending college that distance learning cannot replicate. But many of the weaknesses of distance learning for young adults will actually be distinct advantages for adult learners who choose to go down the distance route.

Firstly, there is the time aspect. Adults tend to have jobs and families, but even without either of these things, there is still the element of adult responsibility. And while many mature students will profit from attending full-time college, most others will not; which is why the freedoms afforded by distance learning could make the difference between a person fulfilling their academic ambitions and a person who is stymied by the life that they are currently living.

It is the modular nature of distance learning that is allowing so many adults to return to education, in that people will generally be able to complete their degrees at a pace that suits them. So even if the completion of a degree takes years (and sometimes it will, depending on how much time the learner can devote to their programme), the student is still enhancing his or her own employability, while fulfilling the state's wishes to educate the workforce in preparation for the knowledge economy.

There is also the psychological advantage for mature students of being able to study for their degree in a relatively anonymous manner. Indeed, some mature students may be either daunted or nonplussed by the prospect of embarking on a degree programme surrounded by fresh faced, eager kids whose taste in music seems to get worse as the decades progress. But distance learning allows mature students to study in the comfort of their own homes and their own lives, immune from the worst ravages of youth.