The Ins and Outs of Distance Learning

Today’s education system has shifted drastically from even 30 years ago. Now students are able to complete college requirements in a variety of ways, without ever stepping foot on campus. From dual enrollment courses in high school to CLEP exams, students can effectively start college with a semester or more of credits under their belt.

Another option, for those considering working while attending school or even those seeking postgraduate degrees, is distance learning. What originally began as a way to take a class or two online to complement a work/life/school balance, has turned into an opportunity to complete an entire degree online.

The upside

As with any decision to go against tradition, there are positives and negatives. The 2010 Sloan Survey of Online Learning indicates a 21% growth in online enrollment, significantly higher than the overall higher education student population growth. So clearly today’s students are fans of online distance learning. Here are some of the things students prefer about online learning:

Flexible schedule

Perhaps one of the most exciting parts about online learning is the flexibility that it allows each student to have. Gone are the days when the professor’s preference for early morning, or Friday late afternoon classes, dictates your life. Now students can work on their studies when it suits their schedule, which for the nearly 70% of students who are also working, life suddenly becomes more doable.

Availability and variety of programs

Another thing that excites students who are considering distance learning is the increase in programs and schools that are available to them. Without geographic constraints, the whole world is your oyster! They can broaden their search to find exactly what they want to study.

No time constraints or travel

On top of having the flexibility to take classes when it works, students also frequently have more time to study when enrolled online through distance learning programs. Cutting out travel times, commutes, finding parking, small talk, etc. means students can spend that much more time reading and studying. It also allows students to study and write papers around their life schedule, which traditional programs may not allow.

Variety of learning formats

Students learn in a variety of ways and distance learning really allows them to find the way that works best for them. Some prefer to read, some like to listen to lectures and others prefer videos. When selecting classes as part of their distance learning, students can learn which professors teach in the style that appeals to them. They can re-listen to lectures when necessary and they can usually find videos that support the subject.


Even now, with online distance learning an accepted method of study, there are organizations and employers who are skeptical of the quality of education. Luckily, this has changed dramatically over the past few years, and as long as a program is accredited, most people would not know the difference when listed on a resume or C.V. Additionally, as more and more distance learning graduates move into hiring positions, this perception will be eradicated.

The downside

There are several reasons that distance learning has received some negative reports. Most of the drawbacks to distance learning have been concern for authenticity in the degree program. Over the past ten years, that has reduced significantly. Students are much more concerned with the reputation of the school they choose to attend and the online program they enroll in. The other downsides to online learning remain, but they are not a downside to each student.

Lack of personal interaction

Since these classes are completely online, social interaction is missing from these programs. Professors often include group assignments or required responses to other posts in order to attempt to make up for this gap, but there is no substitute to sitting in a room with others and learning through discussion. Also, when students don’t have the opportunity to see a professor on a regular basis, it makes it harder to approach them with questions and concerns.

Technology issues

As great as technology is, it can’t replace human interaction. Whether it’s a typo in an email, a forgotten attachment or a poorly timed laptop restart, technology can impact your distance learning program. In a worst case scenario, when everything is done on the computer, there is a risk that tasks will not be able to be completed on time when it comes to internet, power or computer issues.


If you are an externally motivated person, online distance learning may not be for you. When there is no class to attend, no professor to face when you miss and no student interaction, you may not feel motivated to complete your assignments. While it may seem like a minor detail, this can be a huge problem when working on a degree online.

Transferring credits

With almost 1/3 of students transferring colleges before completing their degree, it’s important to consider how your distance learning credits will be received by another institution. Again, the reputation and authenticity of online classes is more accepted now, but sometimes colleges have strict transfer rules, so read up on some of these when making this decision.

Financial aid

Paying for college is a consideration all its own. One thing to keep in mind is that financial aid may not be available for online programs. This would be a good time to utilize other options so that you can continue your education.

Your best bet: consider all your options

One of the best things about distance learning is the flexibility. You can take one class online or all of them. You can take them at your own pace, working around the other things in your life. You are in control of your education, so consider all of your options — distance or otherwise — before committing to one program.

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