What is distance learning?

By Frank Bolger - Last update

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It is just not always possible to go to a classroom at a set time every week. Outside pressures and factors such as work, family, distance, Eastenders etc. all make it difficult for many people to commit to a regular evening class. Luckily, this doesn’t mean you have to give up and remain uninformed and untrained forever. The exciting and fast expanding world of distance learning is here to save the day. . .

Distance learning has been around for quite a while. Some historians swear that Plato never met Aristotle, and instead they just sent stone tablets carrying philosophical questions and answers back and forward by courier (although they’re not very believable historians). The Open University have long made great use of off-peak British TV to broadcast their lessons, and many people have taken correspondence courses by post. More recently, technological advances such as CD-ROM and DVD delivery, online courses, LMS (Learning Management Systems) and e-mail communication have brought a whole new ease of access, interactivity and just general handiness to the world of distance learning.

Most distance learning courses are still ‘asynchronous’, which is a fancy way of saying learners and teachers don’t have to come together at the same time, and the student can study when it suits them. Many e-learning courses, however, now have synchronous elements however, such as online chatrooms and instant messaging where the learner and teacher can communicate in real-time, or with virtual classrooms where the teacher can talk to students situated all around the world over their broadband connections. This gives the students the opportunity to contribute in class discussions and well as interact with each other, albeit in a limited capacity.

The distinction between distance and on-campus learning can be a little blurred. Some students taking distance learning courses travel occasionally to their school or institution for progress meetings with tutors, while students on professional diploma or degree courses often attend weekend seminars or occasional intensive series of lectures.

There are numerous advantages attached to taking an online course. Chief among these is flexibility. People are less and less able to commit to rigid study timetables that require them to be at a certain location at fixed times on fixed evenings across an academic year. As well as this, distance learning students aren’t constrained by their geographical location. If the course that you have set your heart on isn’t available in your area, then distance learning can be a practical option.

Bear in mind that not all distance education courses are created equal. It’s a good idea to look closely at the school or institution offering the course, and make sure the award is fully accredited or recognised by a relevant professional body. You should also make sure of the full costs involved, and the support available, before you hand over any cash. If you get an unsolicited email offering a top class qualification at a bargain basement price, chances are it is a scam.

Despite all our fond hopes, distance learning doesn’t entail lying back on a chaise longue, Chardonnay glass in hand, while flicking through a simplified textbook. Any course worth its salt will require you to do a fair amount of independent study. However, if you have discipline and determination, then you should have no major problems – and you can gain a skill or a qualification while wearing your bunny jammies.

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Frank Bolger

Distance Learning: avoiding the scammers