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Is distance learning the future of education?

Distance learning has seen a huge increase in uptake in recent years, with advances in technology and accessibility of the internet, and its flexibility and efficiency meaning that it has been seen by many as a better option for their learning. 


To some degree this is true. With an increased variety of subjects and courses for people to choose from, as well as more flexibility and affordability, there are a great deal of advantages to distance learning.


But while distance learning is gaining momentum, it begs the question: is it really the future of education? Even with its perceived advantages, will it ever supersede the more traditional methods of education? 


You might be wondering what distance learning is, or what the benefits really are. In this article we will cover all of that, and more.


What is distance learning?


Trying to define distance learning can be difficult. There are a variety of different types of learning that fit within the term, and for this reason, it’s important to not only look at a definition, but also explore some of the concepts within it.


A basic definition of distance learning is, a method of study where teachers and students do not meet in a physical classroom, but use other methods to communicate with each other, such as the internet, e-mail and mail.


It is also useful to look at some of the characteristics of distance learning. There are four key characteristics that are thought to separate formal distance learning from the people choosing to learn in their spare time with ad hoc methods. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, these are:


  • Carried out by institutions, as opposed to non-academic self-study.

  • Characterised by the creation of a learning group, consisting of teachers, students, and resources.

  • Features an inherent geographic separation between learners and teachers.

  • Individuals within the learning group stay connected via telecommunications, including traditional mail-based methods.


While these characteristics are fundamentals, they are not the only aspects of distance learning. It is also important to recognise that while distance learning does incorporate education provided by mail, described as correspondence courses, more recently much of distance learning has moved online. 


What are the benefits of distance learning?

While there will always be distinct advantages to face to face teaching, especially in building relationships and understanding between student and teacher, it seems that there are significant benefits to distance learning too. Here are a few:


Accessibility


Distance learning gives every student the opportunity to learn in the way they find works best for them. It also gives access to education for those who might otherwise find it difficult to access traditional methods, whether because of location or otherwise. Distance learning also opens up opportunities to study at institutions across the world, with more and more major universities and colleges offering degrees and other professional qualifications online. 


Financial


Due to much of distance learning moving online, the cost of education is being significantly reduced. Students can often find the same degrees and courses offered with traditional methods online, at drastically different costs. This is, in part, because of the removal of the costly infrastructure required in traditional methods. There is also the removal of additional living costs that come with going to traditional universities and colleges.


Flexibility 


Considered one of the key benefits of distance learning, the flexibility of choosing when, where and how they learn can be extremely appealing. For those who still want the experience of face to face teaching, many courses offer video conferencing options for lectures and seminars. But for students who want to try and fit their studies around jobs or other responsibilities, the option of a more flexible schedule may be more suitable. There is also the huge increase in subject and course options, as well as the variety in course structures.


Promotes Additional Skills


While your chosen subject is important some of the other skills you learn while studying, often referred to as soft skills and transferable to many areas of life, are equally as important. Things like time management, technological abilities, responsibility and remote teamwork are all things that will help a student long after their studies are completed.


Common types of distance learning

There are lots of distance learning options available, many of them online, some using more traditional communication methods.


  • Synchronous learning is when students learn together, and sometimes in the same place, but with the teacher in another place. This often utilises video or teleconferencing to connect the student and teacher.


  • Asynchronous learning is more of a self study model of learning. Students will be given tasks and assignments with certain deadlines. It is a less connected form of learning, but also comes with less restraints.


  • Hybrid learning is a type of blended learning in which learners study the same lesson at the same time, with some students physically present and some learning remotely.


  • Video conferencing is often used as a way for teachers to communicate with students in live lectures. This could be one-on-one, or in a class like situation.


  • Open schedule courses are much like an asynchronous set up, except there are no deadlines for tasks and assignments. This is popular with professionals, or other people with high demands on their time.


  • Fixed time courses are a version of synchronous courses that require students to go to a virtual location at a specific time. While it is structured it does allow for students to access from anywhere and still interact.


  • Computer based distance learning is fixed time, synchronous study on a computer. This is common in existing institutions that have access to the necessary equipment.


The important thing to remember when looking at the different types of distance learning is to choose the method that best suits you. 


Why distance learning is here to stay


Despite some obvious drawbacks to distance learning, including things like the need for greater self-motivation and the lack of physical networking, it seems that the benefits outway the negatives for many. With many people opting to learn later into life, either to change career or expand their opportunities within their existing career, distance learning is often the obvious choice. But it’s not only these people for whom distance learning is appealing. Many more students considering university study at the more traditional age are turning to distance learning because of the accessibility, flexibility and reduced cost.


For this reason, and to meet the demands of students worldwide, companies are putting their heads together to provide the systems and solutions necessary to support distance learning.


Some of these solutions include digital learning-management systems, mobile learning services, apps that offer self-directed learning content and other skill-building content, and collaboration platforms with integrated live video communication.


While traditional learning methods are unlikely to disappear any time soon there is no doubt that distance learning is here to stay, and it looks as if it will continue to expand rapidly around the world.

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