Distance learning courses advertised on the internet may be a useful avenue of study for many students. But learners who pay for the courses may want to check carefully that the qualification achieved at the end is recognised by the state.
The Irish Independent has established that a Dublin-based body known as the Distance Learning Accreditation Council (DLAC), which offers diplomas to Irish learners, has no official standing.
It is not recognised by the National Qualifications Authority of Ireland, the state body that oversees education qualifications.
The privately-run DLAC offers "accreditation'' to a number of colleges that advertise on the internet and operate from the same address on the Southside of Dublin.
It claims to be the "watchdog of quality in distance learning'' in Ireland. But it has no connection to the state body that audits further education courses.
Visitors to the DLAC's website can click on to a list of "DLAC-accredited course providers''.
All four of the colleges accredited are directly linked to the DLAC and operate from the same address -- ITEC House, Craft Centre, Cornelscourt, Dublin 18.
They include an outfit with the grandiose title, the National Training Authority, which has nothing to do with FAS, the state training agency.
The other colleges operating from the same address in Cornelscourt are the National College of Communications, Open College of Direct Learning and the Irish Training and Education Centre.
A spokesman for the group of colleges, James Flood, said that between them these distance-learning colleges have 10,000 students. He said the colleges had five full-time staff. The courses are devised by external tutors.
These colleges generally charge fees of between €300 and €500 for a vast range of courses.
The courses and the operation of the DLAC are perfectly legal and there is no suggestion that those who sign up to them are being defrauded. However, those who take the courses should note that the qualifications given are not yet recognised by the state.
Sean O Foghlu, chief executive of the Qualifications Authority of Ireland, said: "The Distance Learning Accreditation Council is not a recognised awarding body or quality assurance scheme.''
The range of courses offered by these distance-learning colleges is among the most extensive in the state.
They include: Alcohol and Drug Counselling; Counselling Adults who are victims of sexual abuse; Public Relations; Childcare Diploma; Health and Safety at Work; Forensics and Criminology; and Film Studies.
An internet search indicates that the DLAC qualification is used on the CVs of a number of individuals working in Ireland.
Typically, on enrolment , students receive a study guide, the first two modules of the course and assignments. All subsequent modules and assignments are sent when the assignments are completed.
At the end of the course, there is an optional final examination set by the DLAC, which usually costs €45. This exam is taken in the student's own time at their home address.
Students wishing to check the qualifications offered by a particular course can contact the National Qualifications Authority of Ireland.
Qualifications listed in the National Framework of Qualifications are quality-assured, so a learner knows that the programme he or she is undertaking, and the provider offering the qualification, is assessed internally and externally.
n Aontas, the National Association of Adult Education, advises students to research all distance-learning courses carefully.
Aontas spokesperson Jennifer Gunning says: "Know what's on offer, who the accrediting body is, what the fees are and the terms and conditions of payments.
"Research the qualification being offered to you. Is the take up on the course high, and if so, what is the drop out and completion rate?''
Ms Gunning said: "Students should also be careful to research distance-learning courses being run outside of Ireland/UK as unfortunately there are a lot of frauds waiting to take your money .
"Many distance learning courses are now approved by FETAC (the Further Education and Training Council) and HETAC (the Higher Education and Training Council). Futher information can be obtained by reading their websites.''