Distance learning or online learning is not a new concept, but until the COVID-19 crisis, it comprised only a small share of education. Covid-19, the black swan, has been not only enormously disruptive but also paradigm-changing. Education is one of the most affected sectors; with schools and higher education institutions closed, students and teachers explore and experiment with various technology-enabled learning forms.
However, today it has become a common interest across societies, dominating the public sphere. Conversations about it have rapidly scaled up. The number of students registered in an online course skyrocketed to 400 million in 2020 from 5.6 million in 2009.
Google Trends demonstrates that the search frequency for the phrase ‘distance learning’ has multiplied dozens of times in the aftermath of the coronavirus crisis. This phrase (and its accompanying terms and concepts) are being normalized in communities and homes, driving debates and discussions on formal, informal, online, and offline platforms.
So what is distance learning?
According to the oxford dictionary, the basic definition of distance learning is “a method of studying in which lectures are broadcast or lessons are conducted by correspondence, without the student needing to attend a school or college.”
The Encyclopedia Britannica identifies four critical characteristics of distance learning (regardless of distance learning model) that help separate formal distance learning from practices like people voluntarily learning or exploring knowledge in their spare time in an unstructured way. These are that Distance learning is:
- Carried by institutions, as opposed to non-academic self-study.
- Characterized 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.
Distance learning traditionally has focused on nontraditional students, such as full-time workers, military personnel, and nonresidents or individuals in remote regions who cannot attend classroom lectures.
Distance learning initially took place mainly through correspondence. Students worked through the study material, usually received via post, at their own pace. The process was slow as it would take several days for a response from the instructor.
However, recent developments in technology have led to an increase in the variety of distance learning resources. What was once considered a special education form using nontraditional delivery systems has now become a key concept in mainstream education.
Distance Learning, Online Learning, and Traditional Learning
Difference between Distance Learning, Online Learning, and Traditional Learning are as follows:
Traditional learning takes place in a classroom setting, with face-to-face interactions between the students and teachers. There is an instructor/trainer who is the primary source of information and moderates /regulates the flow of information and knowledge. Then, the instructor expects the students to deepen their understanding through written exercises at home.
Distance learning is a study method where teachers and students do not meet in a classroom but use the internet, email, mail, etc., to interact.
Online learning or E-learning is one of the various modes of distance learning. It is precisely what it sounds like: it takes place over the internet. Students and teachers can interact via video conferencing or virtual classroom, set up using the internet.
Online learning and distance learning are both viable and effective teaching strategies. They are considered a full-fledged alternative for classroom training, but one can’t deduce that online learning is more effective than traditional learning, or vice versa. It certainly depends on the learning topic and how its effectiveness is measured.
Types of distance learning
There are multiple classifications available for the various modes of distance learning around the world. Some of the common distance learning types are:
With correspondence learning, students receive textbooks, study guides, assignments, and other study materials via the post. They are allowed to work through these materials at their own pace. Students might have access to an instructor or tutor, identified by the institution, via email, telephone, instant messaging, or post.
Electronic learning, often referred to as e-learning, enables one to access course material on a computer. CDs, DVDs, and computer-based applications deliver e-learning courses.
Online learning is a form of electronic learning that requires students and teachers to access the internet. Online learning is often more interactive than the other types of distance learning, as it allows participants to communicate with each other in real-time.
With online learning, you might also be able to download your study material from the internet, submit your assignments via an online student portal, complete assessments online, attend webinars, and participate in virtual classes.
Synchronous & Asynchronous Distance Learning
Another type is synchronous versus asynchronous learning when it comes to the different types of distance learning.
Synchronous means “at the same time,” while asynchronous means “not at the same time.” Synchronous distance learning involves live communication either through sitting in a classroom, chatting online, or teleconferencing.
Synchronous learning is less flexible. However, it is the most popular form of college distance learning, as it facilitates a more generous amount of interaction between students and professors.
On the other hand, asynchronous distance learning usually has weekly deadlines but allows students to work at their own pace.
Students have more interaction with their peers and deliver correspondence through online bulletin boards. Some asynchronous classes involve video or audio supplements. This type of learning might get monotonous for some because they are usually only receiving the information.
Degree programs that highlight communication, such as general psychology, nursing, general education, and counseling psychology, do well in a synchronous format.
Those programs that weigh more heavily on projects and assignments thrive in an asynchronous format because they allow students to focus on their work. A few degrees that work well in this format include marketing, healthcare administration, legal assistant or paralegal, educational/instructional media design, and advertising.
Fixed Time Online Courses/ Distance Learning
The most common type of distance learning today is fixed time courses. As the title states, these courses are strictly online, but students must log-in to their online learning site at a specific time. Although they are entirely online, the format remains synchronous because mandatory live chats are often required.
Open Schedule Online Courses/ Distance Learning
They belong to the asynchronous form of distance learning. This type of education is excellent for students who work well independently and those who do not procrastinate.
Students are provided with Internet-based textbooks, mailing lists, email, and bulletin boards to complete their coursework. Students schedule the submission deadlines for assignments and assessments. Students can freely choose their work schedule and study at their own pace as long as they meet the deadlines.
The open-online-course format had been used early on by some universities. Still, it did not become widely popular until the emergence of MOOC providers such as Coursera, edX, Khan Academy, and Udacity.
(MOOCs – Massive Open Online Courses are characterized by substantial enrollment rates, in the tens of thousands, where the students learn from videotaped lectures and peer assessments)
Hybrid Distance Learning
Hybrid courses combine synchronous and asynchronous learning to create a structure in which the student meets at a specific time in a classroom or Internet chat room. In most instances, hybrid distance learning allows professors to share content with students sitting in the classroom and with students sitting online in a remote location.
Advantages of Distance Learning
There are several advantages of Distance Learning. A few of them are:
Convenient / Accessible: Online education has unlocked training opportunities for many traditionally bounded by certain obstacles. Remote access to the classroom has opened avenues for students balancing many duties; learners with children or full-time jobs can study when their children are at day-cares, asleep, or after completing job shifts. As everything is available via the internet, retrieving classroom material and submitting work is convenient and straightforward.
Lower Costs: With the online learning option, students only pay for course tuition and can save money by avoiding many typical expenses, including lab fees, commuting costs, parking, hostels, etc.
Flexibility: Online courses give you the flexibility to spend time with work, family, friends, or any other activity you like. This mode of education offers students the opportunity to study whenever it fits into their schedule.
Effectiveness: This course delivery method makes learning more effective. It leads to greater emotional well-being and less stress for people who make frequent business trips, parents with small children, or whose health prevents them from making it to campus regularly.
The field of distance education is in the midst of dynamic growth and change. The directions that distance education takes will depend on the development of new media and computing technologies, different methods of group learning and information gathering, and the development of government telecommunications policies.
While the phenomenal growth of electronic networks (exemplified by recent public attention to the internet) has provided the primary technological thrust, several other emerging technologies also promise to change the landscape of education.