Distance Learning: The Essential Guide (+ Tips & Benefits!)
Distance learning is now mainstream worldwide, already on the rise over the last decade and dramatically expanding since the beginning of 2020.
But is it effective, and does it generate quality results? And what types of distance learning are there?
This comprehensive essential guide is created for both instructors and students who want to expand their knowledge of distance learning.
We will give you all the ins & outs, tips, and benefits you need to know.
Let’s dive in!
What is Distance Learning
Distance learning refers to the situation where students are not physically present in the classroom. They are separated from their teacher and other classmates and study (mostly) from home whenever suits their schedule.
Unlike traditional in-person learning and hybrid courses, distance learning makes students follow lessons that are either broadcast, conducted by correspondence like email, or available via an online course platform.
Various technologies can simulate regular school classes and preserve a good quality student-teacher and student-student relationship, which remains ever so important. Instructors can use audio, video, and computers to bridge the instructional gap.
Distance learning is immensely popular and makes education so much more accessible for the general public.
Types of Distance Learning
1. Video Conferencing
Video conferencing is a live video-based interaction between educators and learners.
The uprise of Zoom and MS Teams since the beginning of 2020 shows how effective it can be to teach online and generate results (and even full degrees!) without being physically present-with the help of video conferencing.
It allows multiple people to meet virtually, collaborate, listen to guest lecturers, attend virtual field trips, and record and rewatch a specific lesson. Plus it is time-effective and saves on travel money.
Video conferencing prevails over audio conferencing, as seeing each other facilitates more learner engagement.
Some disadvantages include the lack of face-to-face interaction, the attendee limit, possible extra cost, and it may require a technical support team.
2. Synchronous and Asynchronous Learning
Synchronous means at the same time, so with synchronous learning, all students must attend virtual class together, at a specific day and time. They run in real-time with all attendees present, yet with everyone in different locations.
Usually, this type of virtual training is for courses where all participants go through the learning path simultaneously, with the instructor readily available for student support.
A self-paced study is an example of asynchronous learning. The instructor can set up a learning path, which students can follow at their own pace, yet under the instructor’s guidance.
Learning can occur in any given time or space, yet it is common practice to include weekly deadlines to keep students on track.
Whether you are the educator or the student, asynchronous learning has many advantages over synchronous learning.
Let’s look at those benefits.
Benefits of Asynchronous Learning
Online meetings may use significant amounts of data, something not every student may have access to. Asynchronous learning doesn’t require such arrangements.
There are also no audio/video issues, as education videos can be recorded up front and watched whenever it suits the learner.
Asynchronous education may give the flexibility your students need. When studying at their own pace, they can better deal with busy schedules and other commitments.
3. Open-Schedule Distance Learning
Open schedule equals ultimate freedom. These are courses without any regular deadline, therefore particularly suitable for learners with a full-time job or stay-at-home parents with young kids.
Open-schedule is an asynchronous form of education, and the institute provides learners with all the resources, textbooks, and any other eLearning content at the beginning of the course. It’s a valuable format for students who love working independently.
This form of education does require dedication, commitment, and self-discipline, hence why it may not be suitable for everyone.
4. Fixed-Time Distance Learning
Fixed-time is part of the synchronous learning system and has mandatory components.
It can also be, for example, a scheduled webinar or live chat that’s mandatory for students to attend.
Fixed-time programs are beneficial for learners who need the extra push of a non-negotiable study timetable.
It is, at this moment, the most common form of remote learning, though it may be less efficient for learners who can’t commit to the school’s immutable schedule.
5. Computer-Based Distance Learning
Video chat, webinar, chat room, digital forum, email, conferencing, and instant messaging are all computer-based communication platforms facilitating remote learning. It’s the computer replacing the chalkboard.
By using these various distance learning resources, schools can create virtual classrooms where students can learn (a)synchronously-but all from different locations-just by using their computers or mobile devices.
Creating demonstrations, interactive videos, simulations, and online quizzes are all computer-based training content.
6. Hybrid Distance Learning
Hybrid learning (or blended learning) combines face-to-face and online classes to create the best possible learning experience. It integrates technology with instructor-led classroom projects.
With the option to either attend class in-person or remote from home, hybrid learning makes education attainable for students with various learning strategies.
Blended learning gives flexibility in education schedules, instruction modes, and students’ engagement with their teachers and peers.
For teachers, instructing hybrid courses does require some upfront planning since you can offer assignments in various formats-a virtual learning module or a physical classroom lesson.
7. Correspondence Courses
Correspondence courses were the beginning of everything that involves remote education and predates the internet.
Studying in a correspondence course is flying solo. All educational material is sent by email or snail mail, as is homework you send in for review and grading.
There’s no regular teacher contact other than by email, and the student initiates communication between student and teacher.
A correspondence course is the ultimate form of independent studying.
What Makes Distance Learning Different?
Let’s look at how distance learning is different from regular learning.
- Remote studying gives students more freedom when and where learning will take place. They can choose a study time that better fits their location, schedule, and other commitments.
- The downside of all the freedom is that it requires more discipline than taking in-person classes. Students need to master self-motivation when following online courses.
- In regular education, the location where classes are held is not a free choice, and geographical location may not suit the student. Opposite to that, eLearning allows students to learn from whatever place they prefer, as long as there’s a working internet connection.
- Because everyone, including the teacher, is at different locations, interaction also differs from traditional school. Seeing each other online in class via computer screens generates another chemistry and interaction. Distance education relies more on messaging apps, online discussion boards, and video conferencing.
- The traditional setup of in-person schools allows a free flow of open communication between students and teachers. Constructive communication or lively discussions in online learning always requires the help of technology, which may downgrade some effectiveness.
- Online courses are dependent on technology resources, whereas traditional education only requires some physical basics such as tables, chairs, and textbooks.
Benefits of Distance Learning
1. Distance Learning is Flexible
Flexibility is by far the most significant benefit of any distance education program. Whether being a stay-at-home parent, working full time, or whatever other daily commitments, enrolling for online courses allows students to study and earn a degree at their own pace.
Continuous access to the study material gives time to absorb the information and review it again when needed. Attending traditional school requires more concentration since lessons will usually be explained only once.
Customizing your learning to suit your needs is highly appealing, as you can maximize your potential while keeping control over your own schedule.
2. Distance Learning is Accessible
For learners who cannot attend conventional classes daily or even regularly due to personal circumstances, a physical disability, or geographical location, distance education gives them full access to professional development, irrespective of their situation.
World-class universities like Cambridge, Harvard, and Oxford already offer access to high-quality online courses. Distance learning makes earning a qualification, certificate, Bachelor or Master’s degree from major schools worldwide within reach for everyone.
A student’s life path may not correlate with a traditional classroom schedule, and not committing to an exact school year is a huge benefit.
3. Distance Learning is Affordable
Operating an online program requires only a fraction of the regular overhead and infrastructure cost. The more students, the more staff, and inevitably the more expensive traditional face-to-face education becomes. After all, you can only have so many students in a physical classroom.
Online programs are not affected by these limitations, making the low-cost option of following an online course more affordable than regular education.
This can be particularly beneficial for students with financial limitations who simply can’t afford to go abroad and study on-campus. Online learning only requires suitable hardware and software and an active internet connection, resources they generally do have access to.
4. Distance Learning Encourages Personal Responsibility
Study freedom is a blessing, but it does come with the need for strict self-discipline. Online learners must possess the ability to make themselves do things even when they don’t want to.
Teachers are on hand in online learning for help and inquiries, though not like they are in traditional learning environments, where there’s immediate feedback or consequences for unfinished homework.
Online learning forces students to manage their time and tasks carefully. However, the personal responsibility it acquires is a life-long skill that will benefit the learner well beyond their study life.
5. Distance Learning is Adaptable
Some students are visually orientated, while others prefer listening to audio. Some are real solo players, while others thrive learning in groups. And what about learners with dyslexia or ADHD.
Simplifying the course directions and breaking assignments down into bite-sized chunks may aid course participants with a learning disability.
Online learning opens up various possibilities to present the training materials and can be easily adapted to cater to students’ individual needs.
[Editor's Note: for more information about how people learn, don't miss our post about the learning process!]
6. Distance Learning Allows You To Keep Your Day Job
When taking your career to the next level is dependent on higher education or new degree accomplishments, distance education can provide it without you having to quit your job.
Expanding your skills and knowledge to get a promotion or pay raise doesn’t have to cost the traditional years of keeping a classroom seat warm. Years you could have spent working full time, earning money to support yourself and your family.
Giving a boost to your career without losing your job, finding extra daycare, or wasting time commuting is provided by the flexibility of online learning.
7. Distance Learning Fosters Interactive Experiences
Who can’t remember the field trips they took as a child and adolescent? They are a vital component of education and a key part of the school experience. Not only for learning but also team building.
Virtual field trips are the solution for distance learning courses. Instructors who facilitate an online class should not underestimate the power it brings to student engagement.
In traditional classroom education, these trips were limited to the local library or other local facilities. Virtual trips, though, are limitless. They're not only inexpensive and quick to organize, but they can also virtually transport the students to locations all over the world.
Alternative field trip examples include:
- Visit the Louvre
- Great Wall of China tour
- Virtual safari
- Explore NASA
- Virtual museum tour
- Streaming Broadway shows
- Behind the scenes Zoo tour
Disadvantages of Distance Learning
- Difficulty staying motivated. For some, not having to sit in an actual school class is their favorite form of bliss. However, distance learning does require motivation and discipline from within to get the assignments done in time.
- Building relationships with peers is a challenge, and feeling isolated could be the consequence.
- It requires access to a computer and good quality internet connection to follow the course effectively.
- Learners don’t always get the immediate feedback they’re looking for. They have to wait for the teacher to value their contribution and send the feedback by email or message board.
- Taking online proctored exams may bring extra stress since there are external factors you need to worry about, such as background noise and IT problems during your exam.
For Learners: Distance Learning System
To enjoy your distance education experience to the fullest, here are some features to look for:
1. Make Sure Your Distance Learning System is User Friendly
You don’t need complexity in your life, so ease of use is essential. Your distance learning system should include a simple interface and essential features like digital whiteboards, screen recording, and compatibility with multiple devices.
Also, think about how the system deals with student-teacher and student-student communication. Does it offer live chat, a classroom messaging feature, regular video-conferencing, or even in-person meetings?
Check upfront whether your distance learning program provides the necessary accreditations. In other words, can you earn certificates and recognized degrees? Or maybe all they offer are certificates of completion.
Determine what the purpose of your study is, and see if it matches the school’s accreditation.
Do your research upfront to avoid any unwanted surprises.
3. Does it Fit Your Schedule?
This is not about a specific platform feature but merely about how and if the course fits your life’s daily schedule. Distance learning generally offers excellent flexibility but can still interfere with your personal schedule.
Is it asynchronous or merely synchronous? How long will the course take? Are there any (impossible) deadlines? Do your due diligence before signing up.
For Instructors: Building a Course
1. Create a welcome video
It can break the ice, and it’s great for building those first connections. Consider including the first call to action.
2. Make an introductory video for your course
Display a short and engaging taste of the course and include its objective, important dates, and contact information.
3. Provide weekly updates and reminders
Weekly contact is a way to give updates, answer questions, and enter new reminders for the week ahead.
4. Bring in guest speakers and experts
Introducing experts with insider knowledge adds value to the topic. A great way to do this is via synchronous live meetings.
5. Give meaningful feedback
Providing feedback in distance education can be a challenge. Think about recording feedback videos or leaving constructive comments online.
6. Participate in Learning
Support your students by participating in the student discussion boards, and comment on their posts. They will appreciate it.
Is Distance Learning Here to Stay?
Digitalization catapulted online learning forwards, and even though living on campus will never cease to exist, distance learning will only expand further.
Distance learning throws a world of new possibilities at your feet, and experts predict that many learning institutes will never fully return to in-person learning.
Don’t stay behind and join the digital education revolution now!