Self-Paced Distance Learning: How Does IT Work?

Some distance-learning classes allow students to work fully at their own pace, completing tests and assignments on their own schedule. However, many operate on a semester or quarter format and have strict due dates for classwork.

Distance Learning Courses

Colleges and universities increasingly offer online opportunities in many fields of study to accommodate Web-savvy students who find it more convenient to complete coursework from home. These are sometimes available as part of fully online certificate or degree programs. They may also be components of on-campus program; this format is known as a hybrid option.

Additionally, students can take online classes independent of an overarching program, and these are less likely to follow a traditional semester format. Though some universities dedicate an entire school to distance learning, online classes are often available through a college's continuing or adult education division for college credit or personal enrichment.

Self-Paced Classes

In some ways, most online classes are self-paced because they allow distance learners to log on to a virtual classroom and access course materials at any time that fits their schedules. However, there are differences in how online courses are delivered and completed.

Continuing education or non-credit classes and programs offered virtually are more likely to have more extensive self-paced components. Students may not have any set times they have to log in, complete assessments or participate in class discussions. Instead, the school might give them access to required learning materials and give a deadline for when all work has to be finished.

This is in contrast to other virtual classes typically found in for-credit degree or certificate programs, which require students to complete assignments, take tests and engage in discussions based on a strict schedule of due dates. These are designed to be similar to traditional, on-campus classes.

Online Learning Methods

Students either receive assignments via e-mail or access them through a designated online learning portal - which is commonly located on their school's website. Although learners may need to purchase textbooks independently, supplemental reading material is also usually posted online. Students may need to download PDFs or play streaming videos, and some media requires the use of specific software and extensions.

Assignments and tests may be e-mailed to the professor or submitted through the learning portal directly. Some assignments can be turned in at students' discretion, but exams are usually due by a certain date and may even need to be taken live with a remote proctor or at an approved location in the student's area.

Communication Formats

Students communicate not only with instructors but also with their peers. Addressing either an individual or group, they may asynchronously post to discussion boards or send e-mails. In real time, they may send instant messages or participate in scheduled chats. Web cams are also used along with software such as Skype to facilitate live, face-to-face discussions.

Required Technology

Technological requirements vary widely according to field of study; for example, a sound engineer may need to have specific music editing software while an accountant may need to purchase QuickBooks. However, all students must have an up-to-date computer with high-speed Internet connectivity and a current version of a Web browser, such as Internet Explorer or Firefox. Hardware might include Web cams, speakers and microphones.

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