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Distance Learning Resources
Learn about distance learning including the advantages, disadvantages and more.

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What is Distance Learning?

Introduction to Distance Learning

Distance learning traditionally has provided access to instructional programs for students who are separated by time and/or physical location from an instructor. Distance learning has been thought of as prepackaged text, audio, and/or video courses taken by an isolated learner with limited interaction with an instructor or other students. This perspective is changing however. Today information technologies can allow a rich interactive distance learning experience that may surpass the interactivity of a traditional classroom.

Distance Learning Defined

Distance Learning is conventionally defined broadly as, any educational or learning process or system in which the teacher and instructor are separated geographically or in time from his or her students; or in which students are separated from other students or educational resources.

Contemporary distance learning is affected through the implementation of computer and electronics technology to connect teacher and student. Content delivery may be achieved through a variety of technologies, including satellites, computers, cable television, interactive video, electronic transmissions via telephone lines, and others. Distance learning does not preclude traditional learning processes; frequently it is used in conjunction with in-person classroom or professional training. It is also called distributed learning.

Two Types of Distance Learning

There are two distance education delivery system categories - synchronous and asynchronous. Synchronous instruction requires the simultaneous participation of all students and instructors. The advantage of synchronous instruction is that interaction is done in "real time" and has an immediacy. Examples include interactive TV, teleconferencing and computer conferencing, and Internet chats.

Asynchronous instruction does not require the simultaneous participation of all students and instructors. Students do not need to be gathered together in the same location at the same time. Rather, students may choose their own instructional time frame and gather learning materials according to their schedules. Asynchronous instruction is more flexible than synchronous instruction. The self-paced format accommodates multiple learning levels and schedules. Examples of asynchronous delivery include e-mail, listservs, audiocassette courses, videotaped courses, correspondence courses, and WWW-based courses.

A Distance Learner Profile

Most students who enroll in distance education courses are over 25 years old, employed, and have previous college experience. More than half are women. As a group, distance learners are highly motivated. Their course completion rate exceeds that of students enrolled in traditional, on-campus courses. The successful distance learner is by definition a committed student. The individual must have the discipline to establish a regular study schedule each week and adhere to it without having to be reminded by an instructor or classmates to meet deadlines.

The number of enrolled distance learning students indicates growing interest in this educational option. Family PC Magazine estimates that 1 million students are taking distance learning classes via the Internet, while the International Data Corporation predicts that the number of college students enrolled in online courses will reach 2.2 million by 2002.

Why Distance Learning?

Distance education increases access to learning opportunities. Well organized distance learning accommodates multiple learning styles. Distance learning serves learners who are not likely to attend traditional classroom instruction. In some cases it can serve as many or more learners per dollar spent. Research continues to show that it can also attract and serve lower level learners.

Adult life for many is complex and demanding. Many adults are unable to or unwilling to attend traditional adult education schools and classrooms for many reasons including:

  • Growth of single parent families who work and need child care
  • Lack of public transportation systems in certain parts of the country
  • Public safety issues in many urban and suburban communities
  • Fear of classroom environments

People who can't attend traditional classes because of these realities need alternatives. These adults are prime candidates for distance learning. They are motivated to continue their education, but limited by circumstances as to how they participate in adult basic education. Flexible learning approaches that are not classroom centered appeal to these potential learners.

A wide range of employers-businesses, hospitals, government offices, and military installations-which find it difficult to release employees for on-campus study, are discovering that it is a good investment to bring the classroom to their worksites. According to a survey conducted by the International Foundation of Employee Benefits Plans, employees rank continuing education as more important than child care, flextime, and family leave.

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