What is distance learning?

The Internet threw learning out of the classroom and into cyberspace, making education available anywhere, anytime and adaptable to each person’s individual needs. Students in China are registering for computer degrees from American universities. Working parents in Minneapolis can squeeze in financial accounting courses from Coursera between their workday and family life. Overachieving high school students can include college calculus in their secondary-school curriculum. International travelers log in to virtual classrooms whenever and wherever they please. Distance learning currently reaches millions of people!

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Distance learning enables students to take courses on their own schedule and at their own learning pace through the use of telecommunication technology. Students do not have to be present at a specific time in front of a teacher and in a real classroom. Instead, they can learn in the comfort of their own home. All that is needed is a computer, modem and internet connection.

Students attend class on their own schedule. Lectures, coursework and discussions all take place at their convenience. A student’s location in relation to the teacher is no longer relevant-the student can be at home, at work, on campus, or in an internet cafe anywhere in the world. There are no physical boundaries to on-line learning!

Sounds great, but does it work?

Distance learning provides the same high-quality education as traditional educational institutions. Many on-line programs are actually run from conventional universities and professional training institutes. The teachers and professors are all highly trained and demand high standards. Its effectiveness is reaffirmed in the self-reliant style of educational discipline and its dependence on the clarity of the written word. Distance students are self-motivated, because they most often operate outside a formal class schedule

What is missing is the commute to and from the classroom.

How to Recognize if an Educational Institution is Legitimate?

You may have heard that some on-line programs may be ‘degree mills’. Remember that quality education requires time and effort. No legitimate program will offer a degree or a certificate without learning properly. It is important to check the institution’s accreditation by recognized accrediting agencies, but make note that many respectable institutions world wide may be unaccredited because some countries have no formal accreditation authority. For further information in this area, begin by contacting the US Department of Education.

Types of E-Learning

elearningToday you can learn everything on-line from professional certification to university degrees. Many established universities such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology have on-line departments that offer accredited degree programs: associate, bachelors, masters and PhD degrees. Credits can be earned on-line, then transferred and applied to other degrees at different educational institutions.

Professionals can take distance learning courses that in the past required them to travel. This flexibility is a key-the ability to work and gain professional training and technical skills. E-learning is a better educational environment for the business sector with its lower costs and individual time management.

Continuing Education is available on-line and takes on a leisurely atmosphere. Adult students may choose courses from around the world in subjects that interest them.

Some schools encourage student and professional camaraderie by requiring on-campus visits, which are often intense educational residencies or retreats, where students finish group projects, attend lectures with professors, and most importantly become acquainted with each other. These programs are highly successful.

Who are the Key Players in Distance Education?

distance studentAs in traditional learning institutions, distance education has faculty, students, support staff and administrators.

Distant teachers depend on the written word as their classroom is devoid of visual cues from “live” students. Often the spontaneity of the real classroom is lost in the transformation despite telecommunication technology such as video conferencing and chat rooms.

In instructor-led learning courses there is a curriculum which has been developed by the instructor. This instructor conducts the class, provides assignments, answers questions, leads discussions and grades student assignments.

In instructor-facilitated learning students learn at their own pace through the course curriculum developed by the instructor and share their thoughts with other students through telecommunications technology. The instructor evaluates the assignments that the students initiate.

On-line learning enables the educator to reach a wider student audience with a multitude of lifestyles and locations. In addition, speakers and resources are available from outside the geographical location of the educational setting, which is not usually acceptable in the traditional learning environment.

Distance students require additional motivation, discipline and the ability to analyze and apply the information taught. On-line learning often reflects the open educational theories. Many distant students are older, with the demands of families and jobs that often conflict with the schedule and location of the traditional educational settings. These students aren’t necessarily looking for the stereotypical educational social experience, but are in search of education as an end to a means. On-line learning enables them to study at the best program available, in the time and schedule they have. These students still meet fellow students and create professional relationships through e-mails and phone calls.

Distance students are usually more isolated than traditional students. There is less competition between students, because of the absence of the physical classroom that provides face-to-face contact. Some students may find this impersonal and be uncomfortable with the direct support from teachers. Distance learners must also be comfortable with technology as the conduit of their communication.

On-line educational institutions offer support staff to aid students with technical problems. Administrators are available as with any institution, aiding in the process of registration and academic needs. On-line colleges offer student services and conveniences such as financial aid, counseling and academic advising. The most successful institutions offer mentoring, librarians, and technical help on-line around the clock.

In reality, instructors find the on-line system astonishingly personal. The professor’s style and personality is present as in the conventional classroom, but with the added intimacy of email, he becomes more like a private tutor.

On the down-side, even courses taught by well-meaning instructors encounter problems if there are too many students for the instructors to keep up with the e-mail traffic. With a class of 40 students, an instructor may receive more than 300 e-mails a day. Sometimes, it is humanly impossible for the teacher to keep up with such demands of distance learning.

A View of the On-Line Classroom

electronic classroomPeering into a distance classroom, you see a highly digital setting. The formal education is conducted while seated in front of the computer screen which is connected to the internet. Absent is the struggle to find the location of the classroom on a large unfamiliar campus and being on time for the instructor’s entrance. Instead, students sit alone in the comfort of the environment of their choice, telecommuting concepts, assignments and jokes.

The first day of a class will begin by receiving a study package from the professor that includes a reading list, set of lectures to be downloaded chronologically at an individualized pace and assignment requirements. One also receives a list of fellow students, their e-mail addresses and a private classroom forum message board.

Electronic learning can be either synchronous or asynchronous.

Synchronous learning imitates the traditional pyramid classroom. Classes take place at a specified time, in real-time. Students are connected to each other and to the teachers through audio, satellite television and chat rooms. Questions and responses are immediate. Synchronous learning can take place anywhere, but not anytime and is dependant on available technology.

Asynchronous learning can take place at any time. Students receive a learning package to work on at their own pace. They communicate with teachers and class members through e-mail and message boards. This style of learning offers collaborative non-hierarchical experience that is boundless to time and place. Most on-line courses are conducted in this educational style.

Class size is limited similar to traditional education. Students receive grades, credits and certification according to the standards of the educational institution.

Many courses often have specified dates when they begin and end and include a schedule of coursework and assignment due dates. There are also courses that are self-paced, which are similar to independent study.

Most learning occurs in the communication between students and professors and among students themselves. Students are often graded on their on-line participation which is required five out of seven days a week. Students find these dialogues and academic debates demanding and quite challenging. Through these on-line chats, social relationships also grow. Social quantifiers, such as physical characteristics and race, don’t exist here. The entire experience is liberating. Just as in conventional education, distance learning creates strong social and professional bonds between students and their instructors.

Pros and cons on the benefits of distance learning

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Pros:
On-line learning places the advantage with the learner rather than the institution. It creates a more effective educational market as opposed to a controlled allocation of scarce teaching resources through the traditional regional location of educational institutions.

In many ways, e-learning is the globalization of education. A student can have classmates and instructors from all over the world. This in it self is a wonderful educational opportunity.

Cons:

Courses availability in terms of network speed limit.  President Obama’s ConnectED initiative helps local schools get 1Gb/s access to educational segment of Web.

Electronic learning may isolate students physically, which can have negative effects on team building and sociability. Students with an aptitude for verbal expression may suffer in the virtual classroom.

Not every student possesses the discipline needed to complete a distance course without instructor prodding them along. Unfortunately, classes with little instructor interaction have high dropout rates, sometimes as high as sixty percent. Students who get frustrated with the technology may lose faith. Employees having to learn on their own time can add to the workload of an already overstressed person.

Distance education is demanding, because it requires independent discipline from both the faculty and the student. As a result of the effort, learning becomes more meaningful with deeper comprehension. Students and their instructors share responsibility for developing individual goals and objectives. Students must actively interact with class members, which promotes reflection on the subject matter and elevates the students’ self-esteem.