By Margaret Adolphus
Distance learning (or distance education) is becoming an increasingly popular way to learn.
Far from being seen as a "last chance" or "second best" option for adults who have missed out on traditional forms of education, distance learning has become the format of choice for many people seeking higher level qualifications.
There are a number of reasons for the attractiveness of distance education:
- The Internet makes delivery of materials and communication so much easier.
- The flexibility of distance learning widens participation.
- In some parts of the developing world, it is seen by national governments as the best way for individuals in remote rural areas to access economy-enhancing education.
What is distance learning?
Distance learning is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as "a method of studying in which lectures are broadcast or lessons are conducted by correspondence, without the student needing to attend a school or college".
The physical separation of the student from the institution allows a greater degree of flexibility than a traditional, on-campus course. Within the limitations of course requirements (e.g. completion times of a particular module, assignment deadlines, etc.), students can create their own study schedule and work at their own pace.
Forms of study
There are various means by which students study, the most common is via the use of learning materials and resources, together with interaction with a tutor.
The materials can be in the form of workbooks, audio or videotapes, podcasts or vodcasts, set books, television programmes, a website, CDs or DVDs.
Traditionally, distance learners were sent learning materials, and delivered their assignments, through the post. The Internet, however, has revolutionized distance learning: not only can material be delivered through websites, but also communication can take place through discussion boards and live chat.
Internet-based communication has helped overcome one of the main drawbacks of distance education: isolation. "Traditional" distance learners often missed out on the social aspects of education and could feel very isolated and alone with their problems. The lack of peer-group interaction could make it difficult to stay motivated, while difficulties encountered as a normal part of the learning process could take on a much larger significance to someone working on their own, away from campus support mechanisms.
But, modern distance learning technologies make the solitary distance learner a creature of the past. Faculty can now communicate easily with learners through e-mail, live chat, discussion boards and videoconferencing. These technologies can also facilitate interaction with other students, both study-related and social.
It shouldn't be forgotten, however, that not every learner may have access to the devices – Internet connectivity, even a computer – that make these technologies possible. Indeed, some "developing" countries may lack the necessary nationwide infrastructure. In such cases, good distance learning institutions fall back on more conventional means of supporting students by having regional centres where they can meet up with tutors.
What makes a good distance learner?
The most important benefit the majority of people find in distance learning is its flexibility. Mature students in particular, with jobs and families to juggle, enjoy the convenience of being able to fit their studies into the framework of their lives. Distance learning allows people to work at their own pace and puts them firmly in charge of their own timetables and schedules.
However, a successful distance learner does need to possess certain key qualities:
- to be self-motivated and organized,
- to be a self-starter, setting goals and targets and then working systematically towards them,
- to be task-oriented and focused.
Another way in which distance learning differs from the more standard variety is the lack of a university social life: although hopefully there will be some interaction with other students, it is unlikely to replace the level of socialization those physically attending the institution have. This may suit people who are more socially self-contained, either by nature or situation.
The importance of planning
Most students studying on a conventional course have a fixed timetable of lectures and seminars around which they need to plan their study. Distance learners do not, and therefore need to create their own. In order to do this, two things are needed:
- An estimate of the time spent studying, on a weekly basis. Most distance learning courses provide this; for example, some distance learning MBAs suggest a study time of 15 hours per week.
- A study plan.
It is helpful to plan quite specifically by creating a weekly chart with days and times, such as in the following example (it is also possible to use other tools, such as Outlook calendar format, week to view):
Fill in your regular commitments, such as your job, travel to work, visits to an elderly parent, time spent caring for children. Consider the basics, such as eating and sleeping. Think about things you do regularly, but can exclude, for example watching television for three hours a night. Do, however, make sure you have time for essential relaxation and to be with those you are closest to. Then, fill in the grid, looking at the time that frees itself up for study.
Before you commit yourself to a regular study plan, you need to take certain other factors into consideration:
- What is your concentration span – how long can you work before you need to take a break? Monitor yourself for a day at work or at home, preferably when you are working at your full capacity and not feeling tired. Note when you take breaks, and their duration, as well as the concentrated time you spent working.
- How do you respond to pressure – are you someone who works best at the last minute, or do you like a "long run" at a deadline, putting in a steady amount of work on a regular basis? If you are in the former category, you may find that you tend to work harder in the week just before a deadline, if the latter, the weekly study time may vary little.
- What is your best time to work? People have different circadian rhythms: some hit the ground running as soon as they wake up, others take a few hours, some can get up very early, others are better late at night.
The right study environment
Being able to study effectively at home depends not only on planning, but having the right environment.
Do you have:
- A quiet place to study, away from the distractions of the family, etc.?
- Access to a computer, and to the Internet? Your place of study will provide you with a specification for what you need in order to view the materials, and interact with the tutor and your fellow students. However, if you do not have permanent access to a computer, you also need to consider when you can negotiate it. For example, your institution may have a network of regional offices which offer quiet study spaces.
- Somewhere to file course materials, including your notes?
The rewards of working from home, at your own pace, can be great. The key is a combination of personal commitment to the disciplines of self-motivated study and careful selection of the right course and institution.
Finding the right school
In the UK, the Open University (OU) regularly attracts very high satisfaction rates. For three years running (2005, 2006 and 2007; see ranking table) it was found to be the institution with the highest satisfaction rating of any in the country by the National Student Satisfaction Survey.
The success of the OU is a mark of how a properly run distance learning organization can provide value and real benefit to those involved. That degrees offered by distance learning are somehow second rate is a myth: a well-designed distance learning course can be just as effective, and have just as many student successes, as an "on campus" one.
However, it's important to remember that the OU is the "gold standard" of distance learning: at the other end of the spectrum are the diploma mills, the places which offer degrees online with apparently very little input from the student, and without accreditation from official educational bodies.
In between, there are a lot of places that may not offer courses which are as effectively structured as the OU's. Most universities are set up to teach face-to-face rather than at a distance, and are simply not geared for all the ramifications of supporting students in another mode.
The following considerations will help you select a good school.
It is most important to know that you are dealing with a reputable school.
- Is it accredited? (i.e. has it achieved certain levels of quality control with respect to programme design, teaching, research, mission, etc.?) If you are in the US (or thinking of studying there) you can find out whether the institution is accredited by logging onto http://www.chea.org. Business schools have a number of accrediting bodies ensuring their quality control; for example, The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AASCB), and the European Quality Improvement System (EQUIS).
- What is its reputation? You can find out a lot by word of mouth, but there are also various ranking tables: Business Week in the US and the Financial Times in the UK both rank business schools. The Guardian and The Times both publish a yearly league table of UK universities, while Times Higher Education publishes global results.
This may not seem important for distance study, but few courses require no contact and you may need to visit a certain number of times a year. If this is the case, make sure that this is feasible; if attendance is only occasional then it may not be so important.
Another consideration is that many large organizations, such as the University of South Africa, Universitas Terbuka in Indonesia, or the OU, have regional offices in different parts of the country, where students can attend tutorials. How close is one of these offices to where you live?
Fees and other financial matters
Generally speaking, the cost of a distance learning degree is less than that of a conventional one. You should check how you need to pay – for example, does the institution require payment in one, annual lump sum or on a modular basis so payments can be spread out?
You will also need to pay for books, and perhaps for computer equipment to the specification you need.
If you want to do a degree, you need to have certain goals and ensure that the course fits in with those goals. If your intention is to become qualified to work in a particular field, will it help you do so? If the field is rapidly moving, is the course truly ahead of the game?
If you are thinking of doing an MBA, bear in mind that the core content for MBA degrees is very similar, but electives may differ widely, so make sure your interests are covered and that there are electives in your particular field.
This is arguably the most important area for a distance learning degree. One of the main drawbacks of distance learning is isolation, which can be overcome with a supportive and empathetic tutor who has a real concern for your individual needs. One study carried out a survey of students' support needs, and stated:
" ... it is simply not enough for institutions to implement distance learning programmes solely through the provision of print and/or online materials. Quality with regard to distance teaching and learning cannot be achieved by merely providing the notes, activities and readings for students to read and utilise in assignments. It is crucial that students are facilitated in their learning by being able to access both academic and non-academic support from their lecturers. In these contacts with staff, students must be acknowledged as individuals and receive assistance that is personalised in nature. Staff must be able to build rapport with students and be capable of sustaining warm and supportive associations with many individuals over the duration of their distance learning programmes. In this way, students will be encouraged and facilitated to complete their studies" (Smith, 2004; p. 31).
You should find out as much as you can about how you will be supported.
- What form does the support take – online or through face-to-face groups? If the latter, do these take place at the institution, or at one of its regional offices? Some universities, such as the OU, offer residentials. Both online and face-to-face (and universities frequently combine them) can be made to work with appropriate structuring, but do you have a preference for one or the other? You might feel a bit strange about not interacting with colleagues in person, or you might find the time commitment of having to attend residentials difficult. Think carefully what will suit you.
- Will tutors be able to offer you prompt and empathetic support on the problems unique to you, such as advice on the programme, on interpretation of assignment requirements, and constructive feedback on your performance? How promptly will they answer e-mails? It may be difficult to get answers to these questions at the outset, but you should try and talk to the tutors and judge whether or not they seem genuinely enthusiastic about helping distance learning students. If you can get a chance to speak with other students, that will give you a good idea.
- As distance learning students tend to be more mature, they may be less likely to require support on non-academic issues, but you should still have access to people you can turn to if you are suffering from stress, need help with study skills, or have special requirements due to a disability. Also very importantly, is there a 24-hour helpdesk to assist with any technical problems?
Smith also provides a model for off-campus support in diagram form (below, Smith, 2004 p. 36):
Interaction with other students
Recent educational research has revealed the extent to which we learn from other people. Group learning and interaction with students is an important part of a course and you should check whether it is provided, and how.
Some universities do this by means of online discussion boards and chat. This can work well providing it is appropriately structured by a tutor. You should therefore check how online discussion works: is the discussion board just there for people to voice their views (in which case, it is unlikely to be used much) or does it focus on a particular theme, with mandatory contribution? Does it form part of assessment or attendance requirements? (Some courses require a certain number of contributions as evidence that the student has attended the module.)
Check whether appropriate preparation is given for online discussion, as this is an area where students can stumble because of lack of experience.
Of course, you will not spend your whole time interacting with peers and tutors and will need to study the course materials, which replace the lectures and help you prepare for seminars and tutorials.
Note, the course materials will contain not only the teaching notes, but also an explanation of how the module works.
It would be helpful if you could get hold of some materials of the course you are thinking of applying for, and try to judge their quality.
- Is the structure of the module clearly explained, so that the student knows what the objectives are, and what he or she has to do by when?
- If additional reading of core texts is required, are these supplied (as with the OU) or easily (and preferably not too expensively) available?
- If the materials consist mainly of core texts, is it clear how they relate to the module, and in what order you should read them?
- Are learning outcomes clearly stated, and do the materials help you achieve them?
- Pacing is very important in distance education, as it is in education generally. It is useful to chunk the material into discreet sections to help the student plan study time (e.g. two discreet sections per evening). Are the materials appropriately paced?
- Is the material written in an interesting and an engaging way? Is diversity properly addressed?
- Do the materials use a variety of approaches, for example summaries, case histories, illustrations, exercises, as well as narrative text?
- Is the student given advice on the time needed to complete the module?
- The "traditional" media for distance learning is print and cassette. Both are very user friendly and transportable. Other media however are frequently used – video cassettes, DVDs, vodcasts, podcasts, or web pages in a virtual learning environment. For media in non-print format, you need to ask yourself: Is this media the best way of delivering this material (for example, would a vodcast be better as a podcast?); Have I got the right equipment?
- Most courses now have course websites: is the structure of your website really clear and easy to follow?
- Are there sufficient materials to help the learner achieve the module outcomes?
Assessment will not differ very much for a distance learning course. However, you should consider such matters as, can you deliver your assignments electronically, and where are exams held?
A good library where you can consult required materials and search for others, is essential for a distance learner. Most academic libraries these days both offer support services for distance learners and enable their electronic collection to be accessed outside the walls of the library, by any member of the university.
- Can you access the libraries electronic resources and databases?
- Will you be provided with a named librarian who can help you do literature searches, etc.?
- Will it lend books by post, and is there a sufficient number of core texts?
- What sort of help will it give those who cannot access the Internet, for example will it print out articles and send?
- Can you receive help on information literacy training?
It is very important that courses should be available for those with special needs. Are all course materials fully accessible? For example, can they be read in a screenreader? For those elements which use software with accessibility issues such as Flash, are alternatives provided?
Many courses make use of asynchronous (happening over a period of time) or synchronous forms of communication (happening at the same time). The latter have more accessibility issues than the former. All students should be able to use discussion methods with ease.
Distance learning, far from being second best, can actually be a very positive choice enabling you to follow your own schedule rather than an imposed one. Self-discipline is required, however, as well as careful consideration of the school. As with most major decisions, it pays to look before you leap!
Smith, A. (2004), "'Off-campus support' in distance learning – how do our students define quality?", Quality Assurance in Education, Vol. 12 No. 1, pp. 28-38.
About.com: Distance Learning
Don't be put off by the commercial appearance of this site, it contains a lot of useful information about what distance learning is and how to find a good course.
Distance Education and Training Council (DETC)
Provides useful information on accredited organizations.
Distance Learning MBA
Provides some useful pointers as to what to look out for in a distance learning MBA.
Provides information about the various distance MBA courses in India, with admission dates, etc.