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Learner-Controlled Distance Learning: How Does IT Work?

The amount of control that a student has over his or her studies while enrolled in a distance-education program depends on the school and even the professor teaching a class. Some options are almost entirely learner-controlled, while others are more like a traditional college program in terms of their pacing and requirements.

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Online learner-controlled course options may be offered in asynchronous or synchronous formats, and programs may be provided fully online or in hybrid formats. When choosing a learner-controlled distance program, it is important to consider how communication and technological requirements are different from online programs.

Overview of Learner-Controlled Distance Learning Programs

A number of public and private colleges offer some of their programs via distance learning; online programs are becoming increasingly common. Learner-controlled distance learning programs are appropriate for people who are busy with work and/or family obligations and need some flexibility when it comes to class attendance and assignment completion.

Some schools offer their programs completely online, while others are available in hybrid formats. Coursework may be synchronous or asynchronous. Before enrolling, prospective students should make sure that an academic program they sign up for is accredited.

Asynchronous vs. Synchronous Coursework

'Asynchronous' is the term used to describe coursework that is completed whenever the student decides, while 'synchronous' refers to courses where the students log on to class in real time and complete assignments on a set schedule, much like an on-campus course. Many courses fall somewhere along the spectrum between the two. For example, in some courses, students must turn in assignments by a certain date, while the rest of the program is flexible.

Asynchronous classes allow for more control by the learner, and some classes leave it up to the student to complete the entire course. When enrolling in learner-controlled courses like this, it is important to remember the importance of self-motivated learning. Students may need to set a schedule for themselves in order to make sure that they ultimately fulfill all course requirements.

Fully Online Distance Learning

Fully online courses are often more learner-controlled than their hybrid counterparts, because students can work on their own time. Most classes and programs have a fixed start and end date corresponding to the school's regular, on-campus schedule. Lectures and class discussions may be conducted in real-time. However, in asynchronous courses, lectures may be recorded, and students can view course materials and turn in their assignments at any time of day.

Hybrid Distance Learning

Hybrid programs are those that contain distance-learning elements but also require some participation on campus, to varying degrees. In some science-based programs, for example, coursework is submitted online, but students come to campus for labs, workshops and exams. Other programs allow students to complete all elements online except for an internship or practicum.

Communication and Interaction

Many schools use course management systems like Moodle and Blackboard to access course content. Students may interact with each other and with instructors through a variety of platforms, including:

  • Email
  • Instant messaging
  • Message boards
  • Video chatting

Technology Requirements

An average level of competence with computers is typically all schools require for distance-learning enrollment, and technical requirements vary by program. Prospective students should be able to type, browse the web, download attachments and use standard software like Microsoft Office Suite. Hardware commonly includes a personal computer with internet access, speakers and a microphone. Some academic programs, such as those in filmmaking or the graphic arts that use specific industry software, require participants to invest in certain software packages.

Learner-controlled distance learning programs give students a greater degree of freedom in terms of scheduling. They may be completed partially or entirely online.

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