Distance learning is college coursework or degree program curriculum completed by students geographically separated from the college or university. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 56 percent of all two-year and four-year degree-granting institutions now offer some kind of distance education. Technologies used include a variety of teaching methods to deliver courses: the Internet, telecourses (broadcast/video), correspondence, or a combination of several media that may or may not require traditional on-campus instruction. Some colleges with distance education programs require students to come to the campus for an orientation before classes begin, while the remainder of the coursework can be completed primarily through the Internet or other independent study.
Many adult students find that the opportunity for flexible scheduling and not having to commute to the campus for classes are the main advantages of distance learning. However, distance education is not for every student. Some students need the face-to-face interaction and communication with the instructor found in traditional programs. Although studies have shown that distance students learn as much as and perform as well (if not better than) students in traditional courses, the attrition or drop-out rate for distance learners is often higher. Distance education students need to take a more active role in their own education, be disciplined and self-motivated in keeping a study schedule and completing coursework, and be able to communicate and work effectively with the instructor and other students through technology and other interactive environments (for example, online discussions or group conferencing.) Taking this active role in education helps adult students become self-directed learners who are skilled at using or learning new technologies, a strong advantage in the workplace.
Generally, to be successful with distance learning a student should:
- Be self-motivated and self-directed in completing coursework and assignments.
- Be assertive when needing to ask for assistance, and resourceful when meeting challenges.
- Be able to communicate effectively (especially in written communication or e-mail), and be able to work alone in independent study or participate in group activities.
- Be knowledgeable and comfortable with the distance education platforms used (i.e., the Internet) and possess the necessary technical requirements. For example, a high speed Internet connection is recommended for degree programs delivered online.
- Be able to prioritize work, academic, or other responsibilities and have the time to concentrate on the demands of college coursework.
A student’s learning style is also integral to success. Students need to understand their strengths and weaknesses as a learner, and how they learn most effectively. For example, many students find they are primarily a visual learner, an auditory learner, or a kinesthetic learner:
- Visual learners learn from things they can see (i.e., print materials such as text, illustrations, and graphics).
- Auditory learners learn from things they can hear (i.e., listening to a lecture, a speech or other sounds) .
- Kinesthetic learners learn best from touching or working with objects (i.e., performing a task or learning by doing.)
You may find that you are comfortable with more than one learning style, though you will probably be stronger in one area than another. There are several resources online to help you find your learning style and use it to maximize your academic success.
Some colleges and universities provide online questionaires to help students decide if distance education is for them; i.e. University of Maryland University College and Kansas State University. The University of Maryland University College also allows students to test drive an online class to experience how online courses work. Such demonstrations allow you to view online coursework, discussion boards, and quizzes.
Choosing a Distance Learning Program
If you decide you are interested in getting your degree through distance learning, there are several things you should find out about the college or university before enrollment:
- What is the college or university’s program accreditation? In general, it is important to make sure the college is accredited by an established and accepted accrediting body, as well as any specialized accreditations. To learn more about accreditation and why it’s important, see Accreditation: Frequently Asked Questions.
- What are the admission and registration requirements? These may include age, academic qualifactions or prerequisites, required testing, transfer of credit and other academic policies.
- How new is the college’s distance program? Some new Internet degree programs may contain glitches in technology that can result in frustration instead of efficiency for distance learners. Some online programs are experimenting with new technology such as video streaming and whiteboard capabilities which can be troublesome with slower modem connections to the Internet. (If unsure, look for more reliable distance technologies such as the use of e-mail, bulletin boards and Web sites.) Look for a program that has a proven success rate, satisfied current students or alumni, or a history of providing quality programs for the adult learner. If you don’t know a graduate of the university, ask the university to provide some names of graduates you can contact.
- What are the technical (hardware and software) requirements for the program and is any technical support available?
- What are the qualifications of the faculty and what type of academic support is available? Do most of the faculty hold advanced degrees from a variety of schools, or did they most obtain their credentials from the school itself? Is the distance program designed and offered by regular faculty members of the college? Is the instructor experienced and knowledgeable in the delivery of a productive online course? What are the performance requirements for student coursework or other study or work assignments? Is advising and tutoring provided?
- What library materials and other needed resources are available for distance education students?
- Look at the faculty-student ratio, and how the faculty and student interactions take place. Is the program self-paced or on a fixed schedule? Look for a smaller class size, as courses with a smaller number of students can help you receive more personal attention from the instructor if needed. It is also important to know the school’s total student enrollment, as a large student enrollment is an indicator of a strong program with many graduates. Ask the college how many students have successfully graduated from the program and if they can provide information about job placement rates. (You can also get indepth college profiles in the Admissions section.)
- What are the school’s tuition and fees, including payment schedule? What is the reimbursement policy upon withdrawal? What kind of financial aid, financing, or grants and scholarships are available?
- Does the college or university provide good customer service? Before application, make sure the school is highly customer service oriented and will provide a personal academic advisor to assist with any questions and help facilitate your course of study from matriculation to graduation.
- Get a program outline and a timeline or estimated graduation date. This can be invaluable in keeping you on track and meeting goals in your distance plan of study.
To locate distance schools and learning opportunities, see Degree Programs.