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Distance learning

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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:

  1. The Internet makes delivery of materials and communication so much easier.
  2. The flexibility of distance learning widens participation.
  3. 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.