Gosh, what a lot of distance providers and online learning experts. I'm part of a group of ex- horticultural college tutors about to go online with our own RHS distance learning courses, after setting up the ones for Warwickshire (Pershore). Can I make some general observations on distance learning and the RHs courses, trying not to make it a specific advertisement?
Many providers are absolutely excellent, with long experience of providing distance learning and student support in horticulture and other fields, and now that you can communicate easily with other students on other courses via forums like this and Facebook groups, you shouldn't feel isolated. Online and distance learning is growing because colleges have to charge so much for the courses that numbers drop, the courses aren't viable and don't run... so everyone loses.
The main thing to consider when you choose a course is whether you want to gain an RHS qualification, or to take a horticultural course. The new QCF qualifications are still settling into place, and the way in which questions are asked, and exactly what students need to learn to answer the exams, is still becoming clear. I was involved in the group writing the new syllabus, and some exam questions, and I still find it hard to be sure because different horticulturists will interpret the scope of the learning outcomes in slightly different ways.
If you are aiming to take the qualifications, be aware of the RHS's published syllabus throughout your studies. Not every college, let alone every provider, has quite caught up with some of the changes for the new unit-based form. Principles of Horticulture is an excellent background textbook, but until the sixth edition comes out in October it hasn't been tailored to the new syllabus; the fifth edition is offering information that covers a wide field including the 'old' Diploma topics of ecology and genetics... When the new edition comes out it should be even more useful. ( NB I'm not involved in it - disinterested advice here.)
You need to be clear as you study that you will have to answer questions on EVERY OUTCOME in the syllabus, without choices. And there are two units in Plant Growth where those outcomes will cover science. In the old format of qualifications, if you messed these questions up but were an absolute whizz at plant health or something else, it balanced out and you passed. 'Failing' a part of the exams and needing to retake that part is now going to be more common because the RHS have broken the syllabus down into separate units.
It's much fairer because you only have to retake one small part of the qualification and keep the achievements in the rest, but 'fail' is a hard word to accept nowadays, when exams are less common than coursework. People who take the RHS qualifications are strongly motivated and can be hit hard by the idea that they've 'failed' in something, but it only means you need to try that part again. I've got a student putting in for a resit in February because she has one unit that just missed pass with commendation, bringing her down to pass overall...
If you aren't specifically wanting to study and take the exams for an RHS qualification, there are a lot of providers offering the some of the Australian Correspondence School's excellent 100 - hour courses, which cover the RHS syllabus in a broader sweep, and other courses that go into much greater detail on the design side of horticulture, herbs, viticulture, organics - whatever interests you. It very much depends on whether you want specifically to end up with RHS Qualifications or just a good general horticultural education...
Sorry to go on at such length but with the exam results coming through at the moment, and lots of new people looking at courses, I hope this will be helpful.
We are going to take our provision in the direction of 'blended learning', as well as supported online learning: this should allow us to support distance learners through the practical certificates as well, and then let them take their assessments on a relatively small number of 'assessment days' over the year at our training centre. It's scheduled to start in early 2012 because it takes time to go through all the centre assessment procedures to be accepted by the RHS for practical training! Watch out for us...