by Heidi Anspaugh
Distance learning, also commonly referred to as “online learning,” is a catch-all phrase used to describe study programs where the student and teacher are not in the same geographical location. It’s becoming an increasingly viable way for working students to earn a degree, advance their careers, build a portfolio, and pick up new job skills. Many distance learning programs use multimedia software to replace face-to-face interaction. There are generally three types of distance learning courses: audio-based, video-based, and Internet-based. Many programs incorporate all three types where course work is typically presented largely through written text, and supplemented with audio clips and video recordings.
Audio-based courses consist of one-way or two-way communication using radio broadcasting, phone conferences, and prerecorded audio CDs. Video-based courses can be either one-way or interactive. Students might get instructional videos in the mail, or they might be able to interact with professors and other students via satellite, video camera, or televised computer monitors. Internet-based courses only require a good Internet connection where students can access and read all course materials online, as well as email assignments and tests to professors. These usually offer the same curriculum as on-campus courses at the same price.
The advantages of distance learning are manifold for the right type of student. Online learning programs where there is no teacher looking over one’s shoulder, are best for the disciplined and self-motivated student who doesn’t procrastinate too much. Students should be able to set their own goals and see them through to the end. Also, since the majority of course material will consist of online texts, it’s important to have good reading comprehension at the college level. The social interaction of on-site classes will be absent, so distance learning is best suited for a mature adult student, or a younger student who finds their social interaction elsewhere.
One of the biggest advantages of distance learning is the flexibility. Once enrolled in a course, students can do the work at any time of the day or night, which makes it easy to fit around a full-time work schedule. There is also no strict deadline for finishing the course; students work at his/her own pace. The convenience of location gives many options of where to study. With a laptop and a WiFi connection, coursework can be completed at home, in a coffee shop, on an airplane, outside, or on a commuter train. Price flexibility is another major draw for many people. Online courses are often cheaper than their on-site counterparts, and there are enough distance learning courses out there that just about any budget can be accommodated. Since the time commitment isn’t huge, most people don’t have to quit their jobs in order to make time to learn. Maintaining an income makes it possible for more people to pay for their courses. Last but not least, the choices available for types of study and schools offering distance learning are huge. There are literally thousands of degree programs and courses offered, at colleges all over the country. Nearly any field of interest or subject can be accommodated.
Another major benefit of distance learning not immediately apparent is the potential elimination of all biases toward race, age, and physical disability that might occur in the classroom. With all students contributing to the class and interacting solely online, this effectively levels the playing field and creates an automatic equality that wouldn’t exist otherwise due to race, age, and physical discrimination. In some ways, interaction with other students and faculty may be increased, as there is much more emailing back-and-forth. The favoritism that might be shown to the youngest, brightest, and physically advantaged students in the classroom will no longer be an issue. Students are judged solely by the output of their minds and intellect, without their status in life or physical characteristics being a factor.
One way this could prove to be a disadvantage, however, is that the lack of interaction with other students could prove to be a disability as far as not adequately preparing students for the real world. Since students with race, age, or physical handicaps might already suffer from feelings of isolation, taking courses with no in-person contact might reinforce these feelings. The opportunity to engage in extracurricular, social activities that most colleges offer is also missing. Being involved in academic clubs, sports teams, and other social groups can be an important part of learning leadership skills, team dynamics, and people skills that could later be used in the work environment. Students might also lose some of their individuality, as personality characteristics other than how they think won’t necessarily come through over the Internet.
Overall though, distance learning provides many more advantages than disadvantages to students who might normally face discrimination. They receive the same quality of education and often times the exact same course content as on-site classes, have more schedule and location flexibility, and are able to interact with students and faculty on an equal playing field without facing race, age, and physical disability biases.