For those who lead busy lives, distance learning can be an excellent way to add some skills mid-career, whether it's for undergraduate study, post-graduate qualifications or a trade certificate or diploma.

It's something which many top New Zealand sports people do in between tours overseas. Rower Storm Uru, swimmer Moss Burmester and cricketer Gareth Hopkins are all current or recent Massey students who studied extramurally while competing internationally.

Distance learning has come a long way from correspondence education when bulky, big assignments would arrive on your doorstep and lecturers were a letter or a toll call away.

But comparisons between distance learning and classroom instruction are no longer necessary, according to leading education researcher Professor Robert Bernard from Concordia University in Canada.

Distance learning is big enough to stand on its own, he says, although he stresses that to be truly successful, students must be interacting with their classmates, their curriculum and their teachers to make the most of distance learning.

Distance learning has got to such a level of sophistication that its systems are being adopted by their on-campus counterparts.

Canny campus students, rather than going to every lecture, will just go to key ones and stay in touch with their course through accessing weekly course notes online and pulling up podcasts of lectures.

They also tend to talk to their lecturers through email, as distance learning students do.

"We are saying the flexibility of distance learning is the new normal," says Associate Professor Mark Brown, director of blended and distance education at Massey University, which has 18,000 distance learning students and 18,000 on-campus students

There is no stigma around a degree acquired through distance learning, he says. In fact many employers are more impressed with a distance learning degree than on-campus, claims Brown.

Typically these students have pursued their study at the same time as holding down a job and other responsibilities, and employers respect that, he says.

"The kind of commitment and perseverance that they have had to make it are all very strong attributes."

Distance learners tend to take longer because they are juggling qualifications with other things, he adds. Around 65 per cent of the Massey distance learning students are women, juggling careers and family with their study.

For tertiary institutions like Massey, distance learning gives them access to more students.

"We have got students all round the world, we have over 1000 NZ internationals studying, and international students in Afghanistan and Pakistan."

Brown points out that not all distance learning students live in remote locations.

The university with an Albany campus as well as ones in Manawatu and Wellington, has 25 per cent of its students in Auckland. "It's not because don't have university access - they want the flexibility," says Brown.

The director agrees with Professor Bernard that interactivity is key -Massey distance learning students are making increasing use of podcasts, online quizzes and tests. There should be three kinds of interaction - with teachers, fellow students and class content, says Brown.

There are also opportunities for some face time. Massey runs 17 regional workshops annually around the country giving students a chance to meet up.

It is the advances made in technology which has really made distance learning so effective. "We are providing all learners with a heavily technology-enabled experience," says Brown.

There are extensive library facilities online, the university is digitising its content and there are tools to create virtual classrooms.

The most popular subjects for distance learners at Massey, are humanities, social science, business and education. Massey last year launched an online Masters of Veterinary Science which has attracted huge interest not just in NZ but overseas.

Even learning languages remotely is not a problem, says Brown. Students use the Wimba Voice web-based voice solution for speaking practice and oral tests.

Brown's son Josh learnt French through Massey when he was a professional cyclist in Europe, based in Belgium.

The Open Polytechnic, another major player with only distance learning students, has 25,000 enrolled this year.

It has seen students grow by 12 per cent in 2009, and the same growth rate is expected this year, as demand for this flexible way of learning increases. Almost all of them are part time and 62 per cent are aged 30 and over.

"Distance learning is now firmly in the mainstream of education and is experiencing huge growth around the world in response to the demand for ongoing upskilling and re-skilling," says Doug Standring, the Open Polytechnic's executive director of marketing and communications.

As with Massey, the bulk of their students are studying in urban areas and have other options available.

Of their 1300 courses and 120 programmes - the most popular Open Polytechnic courses include business, early childhood teacher education, real estate and applied science as well as graduate diplomas in sustainable management, accounting, human resources and strategic management.

Employers appreciate their staff doing extra study, says Standring. They show their approval for what their enterprising staff are doing. "Anecdotally, during interviews with our students they often tell us that their employer allowed them time out to study or attend exams, or helped them pay for their course or textbooks. It really is a win-win for employers," he says.

Phil Jones, a former IT project manager from London, is an Open Polytechnic graduate from a couple of years ago who decided he wanted a career change when he moved to New Zealand.

After completing some initial foundation courses, to see if study was something he could do after a 20-year break from university, he studied for a Graduate Diploma in Sustainable Management.

The diploma helps students understand how to devise solutions to environmental problems. Jones is now a sustainable business consultant at Andrew Stewart, an environmental and resource management planning company.

The former IT project manager was working part time for the company when doing the environmental studies qualifications. "It's easier if you've got the time, I certainly had the motivation. I was quite rigorous, I had a study timetable, on my days off I spent studying the full seven to eight hours."

His Open Polytechnic graduate diploma involved regular assignments - he had a contact person - and there were discussion forums for his class online. The distance learning suited him perfectly because he was living out on the West Coast near Waimauku.

Jones was able to transition into his new sustainablity role at Andrew Steward once qualified, and he is applying what he learnt on the course, he says.

Distance learning providers are aware that a lot of their students, like Jones, are out of the habit of studying and may need support especially at the early stages.

Charles Erlam, director of the Centre for Distance Learning at Laidlaw College, formerly known as the Bible College of New Zealand, says quite a lot of the centre's students have not studied for some years, so the college has dedicated staff to help them succeed.

"We give them support in terms of understanding the technology, the study process, and how to write an essay." This practical, human hand holding has "paid really good dividends" says Erlam.

Often people are afraid of the technology, he says, but he adds: "The reason people don't succeed is they have too many other things going on in their life. We have a little quiz to help people determine if they are up to it, and how much they need to do. Often it's not how smart you are but how much time you have," he says.

Laidlaw College, based in Henderson, offers a Bachelor of Education, a Bachelor of Counselling and Bachelors of Theology and Ministry. Distance learners can do the Bachelors of Theology, Bachelor of Ministry and a Graduate Diploma of Theology.

Subject matter is important, says Erlam. For many of the theology students, the topic is a personal passion so it's not a chore to study, he says. Some people however are very relational, they love chatting, so distance learning can be hard on them.