What is Distance Learning?

Programs Improve and Gain Respect

Distance learning, or online college programs suffer their own misconceptions. Not so very long ago most were largely snubbed for their flimsiness in comparison to the campus icon. Higher education was wont to recognize the early pioneers like University of Phoenix, one of the leaders in distance education. Distance learning promotes an alternative educational model, inspired by a number of factors: increased business demands, the lifestyles of working adults, and the limitations of a traditional college model. Along the way to where we are now, education experts have discovered new learning paradigms. Learners from once disparate demographics have made their needs heard and a new academic industry has evolved thanks to technology and emerging media.

Distance Learning Basics

Distance learning is exactly as it sounds. Students study remotely, usually in their homes via personal computer, sometimes via video or webcast in a borrowed classroom. Universities, virtual and otherwise, make degree programs available in an online environment that is managed by real professors and instructors. Students register virtually, apply virtually and have access to their program on a 24/7 basis. They may typically study at their own pace, complete online exams, participate in online discussions, communicate with instructors, complete assignments online and even access their university library’s online resources. For the most part the only requirements are a computer, an internet connection, and a credit card.

Why Distance Learning?

Our modern society has changed immeasurably in the last few decades, primarily since the introduction of the personal computer. Computer chip sets have kept pace with Moore’s Law and business and industry have had to keep up. The technological movement has inspired reaction. In the business world, working adults once content with a high school diploma have discovered they will be left behind without degrees or higher education. College students are largely favored and even placed into jobs that outrank workers with years of on the job experience.

This is no new trend. The phenomenon has been afoot for a couple of decades and has now reached fever pitch. More and more adults beyond college age have sought advanced degree programs that offer alternative models. The lifestyle constraints of a working adult indicate a need for classes during off-peak hours, and the chance to progress at one’s own pace. Other factors that limit adults access to traditional education include family and regional location. Adults living in remote areas have almost no option to participate in traditional college courses, but when offered online the curriculum is an immediate and accessible commodity.

Adult Learners

The learning habits of adults beyond the age of 25 differ starkly from those of their college age competitors. Educational research has found that adults who’ve already spent time in the business world care less for abstract ideas, but prefer practical and hands-on curriculum. Most pursue online degree programs to gain an edge in their career. They have little time to waste and prefer the fastest track to their goal. This is called experiential learning. It is the foundation of most adult distance learning programs today.

Online Distance Learning Institutions

Almost everyone is familiar with the University of Phoenix. Although it is an actual campus in Arizona, the name is most synonymous with its online degree programs, which the university has marketed rather successfully for the last decade. Now the U of P shares the distance learning market with a slew of other reputable online universities, such as Capella and Kaplan Universities, as well as a growing number of traditional colleges and universities realizing the importance of their adult online students.

Online universities have grown a vast infrastructure around the concept of a virtual classroom. Students work in secure online environments at their convenience. A working adult with a late business meeting and children to put to bed, still has plenty of time to logon and study for a few hours before bedtime. The irony is that as much as technological advances have driven the need for higher education, so too the same have made distance learning a possibility. Blogs, online forums, chatrooms, podcasts and plain old-fashioned email have all contributed to the educational model.

Rip-offs, Scams and Other Challenges

The financial costs associated with a distance learning program are less in comparison with the traditional campus programs, but may still be formidable. A downside to the online degree program is the lack of government student loan support for the programs. Alternative student loans can be found, though, and some scholarships are also available for non-traditional and/or distance students.

An unfortunate byproduct of this new educational model are those sources that offer scam degrees or sell mass produced diplomas in what are called diploma mills. Students must shop very carefully for online degree programs and are advised to stick closely to the most reputable, or a program offered through a traditional college or university.

Some critics of distance learning have also argued that students miss out on the classroom experience, the academic sparring and social networking inherent in such a physical setting. This is largely personal and might not even serve as a valid argument in light of the basic needs of adult learners. For most it’s a blessing to sit down to their own computer, at their leisure and take up their studies.