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The Basics of Distance Learning


Online learning is a form of distance learning, and distance learning is just that - learning at a distance - education unbound from the physical site of a classroom. The terms distance learning, distance education, virtual education, and online education are often used interchangeably. "Distance" refers to the geographic separation between teachers and students, as well as the time gap that can separate lessons taught and lessons learned. Students can attend a college regardless of geography with the ease and control of technology. For prospective students, distance learning today affords an enormous set of options that never before existed.

The Rise of Online Education

Distance learning is not a new phenomenon - correspondence courses have been around for centuries and it is common today for people to self-educate themselves via CD-ROM, DVD, podcasts, and other technological tools - but the evolution of the Internet ushered in a new era of distance learning: widespread online higher education. Online education has its roots in the business world, where companies were quick to utilize computers and multimedia; as the Internet began to come into its own, businesses found it an ideal vessel for employee training programs. Web-based training, also known as e-training, and then online training, generally was dogged by the early obstacles of the Internet - slow connections, inefficient networks, crude interfaces. Early online academic programs made significant advances in the 1990's and by the turn of the 21st century online education was showing a marked rise in the number of participating students and the quality of provided education.

How Distance Learning Works Online

Online education programs are unique creatures, customized to content and stylized by instructors, but are commonly categorized into a few types. Two terms you will encounter are: asynchronous and synchronous. Most online courses are asynchronous. Asynchronous learning is the method in which the teaching occurs at one time and the learning occurs at another. Material is posted to web pages, delivered via email, or packaged in software, and can consist of reading assignments, video recordings, audio clips, or other lesson tools. Students then individually access and navigate this material, without necessarily needing to coordinate with other students in the course. Synchronous learning is the method in which teaching and learning happen at a synchronized time. Faculty and students share a common schedule and meet together via audio or video conferencing, web-based lectures, virtual classrooms, live chats, and the like. This method is becoming increasingly utilized as online education expands its reach.

Available Online Degrees

Online colleges offer the same degrees as traditional brick-and-mortar colleges: associate, bachelor's, master's, and doctorate degrees. Non-degree certification programs can also be found online. Availability depends on field of study. Certain fields of study are more prevalent than others because coursework is better suited to the immediacy of online delivery and the packaging of online tools. Yet, the non-profit Sloan Consortium reported in 2008 that online enrollment was showing growth in seven of eight designated disciplines: Business, Liberal Arts and Sciences, Health Professions, Education, Computer and Information Sciences, Social Sciences, and Psychology. Only Engineering lagged behind.

Why Choose Online Education?

There are a number of reasons students pursue an online education. Choice is one: without geographic limitations or relocation issues, students can consider schools that otherwise may not have been an option. The convenience and comfort of managing online course work at home is not just appealing but often necessary, especially for busy professionals and parents without the time to commute to a college campus. Online programs offer multiple course sessions and make fewer scheduling demands than traditional universities; students have greater flexibility to customize coursework and study time according to their own specifications. Online learning can also be cost-effective because it eliminates room, board, and other fees built into campus learning.

Most of the talked-about advantages of online education concern distance but there is merit to the learning, too. The Department of Education looked at over twelve years of research on online learning and found encouraging results: "students who took all or part of their class online performed better, on average, than those taking the same course through traditional face-to-face instruction. Learning outcomes for students who engaged in online learning exceeded those of students receiving face-to-face instruction." Granted, this is one study, but it is a good sign and a helpful reminder that education is education, regardless of format, an endeavor that comes down to educators and students, no matter how far apart they may be.

  • The United States Distance Learning Association (
  • "Distance Education at a Glance" University of Idaho Distance Learning Guides (
  • Online Education for Dummies, Kevin Johnson & Susan Manning, EdD, Wiley Publishing, Inc., 2010
  • "Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies, 2009, Department of Education OPEPD (
  • Staying the Course: Online Education in the United States, 2008, Elaine Allen, Ph.D. and Jeff Seaman, Ph.D., Sloan-C Publications, 2008

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