Distance Education -- A Surprisingly Old Tradition
The University of London first offered correspondence courses in 1858, a time when most people did not have access to higher education. The program was soon a great success, and during World War I, many British soldiers even pursued the University's distance-learning courses while imprisoned in German POW camps. Later, other schools, including the Open University in the UK and many institutions throughout the U.S., joined the University of London in offering courses via mail.
Today, schools from Harvard University to the DeVry Institute offer entire degree programs through distance education packages. Generally, courses and programs are offered online or via other electronic or audio/video media, and students are responsible for turning in assignments at regular intervals. Technology has changed, but the general concept of distance learning has remained the same: get an education without physically going to school.
The Pros and Cons of Distance Learning
Taking university or college courses online or through other distance-learning media is an accepted method of earning a degree. As with anything, though, there are advantages and disadvantages. Here are some of the pros and cons of getting your degree from the comfort of home.
- Convenience - Students can listen to lectures and read materials at any time.
- Cost - Distance education is usually cheaper than a traditional university.
- Professional flexibility - Students almost never need to quit their day jobs to take distance courses.
- Flexibility for disabled students - Distance ed offers students with disabilities expanded options.
- Pacing - Students in distance-ed programs learn at their own speed.
- Credibility - Some employers or graduate schools might balk at accepting online degrees or extension diplomas.
- Lack of personal contact - The instructor won't be the room with you to answer questions.
- Cheating - Some students cheat on homework and exams, raising questions about accountability for distance courses.
- Lack of student interaction - Group projects are impossible to conduct face to face when all the group members live in different states or countries.
Types of Distance Learning
Many community colleges and four-year universities allow students to take portions of some courses outside the classroom. Distance learning programs might include some element of classroom participation or might be available entirely online or through other media; the University of Wisconsin, for example, offers more than one thousand courses and programs, several dozen of which can be completed entirely at home.
Some schools post materials to message boards on their web sites, while others send DVDs or CD-ROMs to students via snail mail. Lectures may be downloaded as video or audio files, assignments can be emailed or uploaded, and class sessions might be conducted in chat rooms. Most distance learning programs incorporate several of these methods, allowing students to take advantage of a full range of educational opportunities. Some institutions are especially proactive in fitting cutting-edge technology into their distance education programs. These include the University of California at Berkeley, which has begun offering online podcasts of professors' lectures to students and nonstudents alike.
Special Issues in Distance Education
UC-Berkeley might let anybody download podcasts, but that doesn't mean they'll give you a degree for listening. In order to attain a degree or certificate that will be recognized by employers and graduate schools, you'll have to be enrolled in and complete a fully-accredited program. It can't hurt to check out your institution's accreditation status -- you don't want to get taken in by a scam school. If you're in doubt, a list of authorized accrediting bodies for online schools can be found here.
Distance education is best for certain students: those who work full-time, are returning to school after a long absence, are disabled or live far from metropolitan centers. A point to consider carefully is that most students in such programs are pursuing general education or professional degrees; if you want to major in Siberian folklore, distance or online ed might not be for you. If you're looking for a decent professional or general education in a flexible setting, though, fire up your computer and get ready to learn. Your couch is waiting.