There can be no debate that the computer and the Internet have forever changed the way people learn, and perhaps there is no better evidence of this than the new opportunities being afforded students through distance learning. Distance learning is an educational model in which instructor and student, separated by physical distance, communicate instead through the use of various technologies. These types of programs allow students, who would otherwise be excluded from these educational opportunities—excluded due to constraints of time, distance, transportation or disability—the opportunity to continue their education from a distance. And while many colleges and universities have implemented distance learning programs as part of their overall curriculum, most admit that in addition to the numerous advantages these programs offer students, there are also a few disadvantages that must be noted. These advantages and disadvantages are presented below.
Distance Learning: The Advantages
- Limited travel. In a time when gas prices have now soared above $4 a gallon in many regions, limited travel is definitely a plus. Aside from the occasional face-to-face interaction that is necessary in distance learning, typically, students in these types of programs will not have to commute.
- Convenience. Studies show that the majority of students who opt for the distance learning model are working adults, most with families. For these students, distance learning affords them the freedom to study during hours most convenient for them, such as nights or weekends—hours that traditional in-class courses are not typically offered.
- Self-Paced. One of the indisputable facts regarding education is that different students learn at different paces. Distance learning allows students to work at their own pace, without being hampered by classroom time restrictions that are either too short or too long.
- Course Availability. These days, when budget cuts to higher education seem to be the norm, finding the one or two courses to complete a particular course of study can be difficult, if not impossible. Distance learning allows colleges and universities to offer a wider range of courses, which in turn can help students finish their degree or occupational program in the shortest amount of time.
Distance Learning: The Disadvantages
- Technology requirements and knowledge. Prerequisites for participating in distance learning programs almost always include the possession or acquisition of the suitable technology (computer, web cam, Internet service, etc) and at least a basic knowledge of working with this type of technology. Consequently, those who cannot afford a computer, or those who lack the appropriate computer skills may be excluded from participating in distance learning.
- Isolation and Motivation. While some distance learning programs include some student interaction—interaction which enhances the educational experience—the majority of the coursework will be completed independently. Thus, those who lack the motivation and/or organizational skills to work in this self-paced style manner may do poorly with this type of delivery model.
- Lacks Immediate Feedback. Classroom discussions and assignments allow for immediate instructor feedback, whereas distance learning does not. Students who require this type of immediate feedback and/or recognition may have the tendency to fall behind in a distance learning environment.
While research statistics have consistently shown no significant difference between distance learning and traditional classroom instruction, it must be noted that those statistics assume a well-constructed program, one that utilizes appropriate and relevant materials and includes opportunities for both student and teacher feedback.