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Online Learning's Many Options

Linda Birdby Linda Bird

Linda has experienced the phenomenal growth of online learning from all three vantage points of higher education: as an administrator, instructor, and graduate student. Here she addresses frequent questions.

Question:  I'm hearing a lot these days about online and distance learning, but I am not quite sure what they are.  Is online learning the same as distance learning?

Answer:  Distance learning, which has been around for decades, offers students many options for taking classes or earning degrees without commuting to a physical campus. You may live down the street or thousands of miles away from your preferred college or university. In fact, you may even reside in a different country - and so could your instructors!

Online learning refers to one specific distance learning format that involves courses and degree programs accessed through the computer. It is sometimes referred to as eLearning. Most online classes and programs offer the tremendous advantage of empowering you to take your classes anytime and anyplace you wish. In recent years, online has emerged as the most widespread form of distance learning. Other distance learning formats include, but are not limited to, correspondence and print-based classes delivered by mail; telecourses; and audio and videocassette formats. There are also hybrid formats that combine in-person instruction with online coursework. The beauty of online and other distance learning formats is that you benefit from the double bonus of convenience and flexibility. That means you can personalize your class schedule around your lifestyle.

Question:   How popular is online learning in higher education?

Answer:   The 2010 Sloan Consortium Survey of Online Learning reports that approximately 5.6 million primarily adult students were enrolled in at least one online course during Fall 2009, the most recent term for which figures are available.  This is an increase in enrollment of nearly one million students over the previous year. The survey polled more than 2,500 U.S. colleges and universities nationwide.

Question: How do I know if I am a good fit for online learning?

Answer:  If you are self-disciplined and motivated to learn independently, you are likely to enjoy the online learning format. However, just about everyone has the potential to benefit from online classes. That includes busy adults with family responsibilities; working adults; people who reside in rural areas without a nearby college or university campus; and physically disabled individuals.  Even the U.S. Army and other military branches take advantage of partnerships with online institutions to educate soldiers who are deployed. Online classes are not limited to higher education; there are numerous virtual high schools and also programs for elementary school children.

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