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What is Distance Education?

Michael Pollick
Updated May 17, 2024
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The traditional model for higher education usually involves the student traveling to the same physical campus as his or her educators. With the advent of videotapes, CD-ROMs, closed-circuit television and the Internet, however, a student can now receive pertinent classroom information without even leaving home. This is the basis for what colleges and university call distance education. This utilizes a combination of audiovisual lectures, objective examinations and planned meetings with human instructors.

A form of distance learning called correspondence schooling has been available for decades, but the programs have usually been limited and accreditation is often questioned. Students taking these distance education courses would receive a packet of study materials, worksheets and objective tests. A representative of the correspondence school would periodically grade these mailed-in tests and eventually bestow a certificate of completion. There is very little interactivity between student and instructor for most of these classes, and practical lab work is nearly impossible.

Traditional colleges and universities have now improved distance education through some trial and error. Earlier attempts involved little more than a series of videotaped lectures and a one-off final examination. Low test scores revealed a need for more interactivity between off-campus students and their campus-based instructors. Modern courses now feature real-time lectures with remote communications and regularly scheduled online exercises. Professors are encouraged to treat emailed questions with the same respect as those posed in a traditional classroom.

Distance education programs are generally aimed at older or returning students who cannot afford to commute and support themselves financially at the same time. Many of the class lectures are on videotape or CD-ROM, allowing students to select the best time in their daily routines to study. Because distance education classes fall under the same auspices as on-campus classes, they are considered accredited. A student enrolled in a videotaped freshman English 101 class receives the same number of writing assignments as a traditional student on campus. The difference is that the distance education program might allow for emailed submissions or a slightly modified grade turnaround time.

Those looking for a bargain-basement education may not necessarily find it through a distance education program, especially one provided by a major college or university. Registration fees for many distance education classes are compatible with those paid by traditional students on campus. The major financial advantage is significantly lower travel expenses. Meeting with a virtual instructor a few times during the semester is much cheaper than commuting to the campus every day or paying for on-campus housing and food.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Michael Pollick
By Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to WiseGeek, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range of topics. His curiosity drives him to study subjects in-depth, resulting in informative and engaging articles. Prior to becoming a professional writer, Michael honed his skills as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.
Discussion Comments
By sneakers41 — On Jul 04, 2010

Sunny27- I agree. Also keep in mind that taking distance courses at home requires discipline and dedication. Unlike a classroom setting, a student taking courses at home suffers from many distractions.

So it is important that if you decide to take online courses don’t sign up for more than you can handle. Many people underestimate the level of work involved in taking an online course.

Each three hour credit course offers ten hours of weekly homework, so consider this when signing up for your courses. I think it’s best to start with one course to see how you handle the workload.

By Sunny27 — On Jul 04, 2010

Excellent article, I feel that the growth of distance education affords more students the opportunity to seek the degree they have always wanted to obtain but could not.

Many accredited universities even offer graduate degrees in many disciplines. For example, the University of South Florida offers an online Masters in Gifted Education studies.

The prospective student, however, has to have a valid teacher’s license in order to participate. It is not just private colleges that offer distance education courses.

Many community colleges offer distance education courses in a variety of subjects. If you want to go back to school there is really no excuse now.

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to WiseGeek, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range...
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