To Distance Learn or not to Distance Learn That is the Question - by Lyndi Lawson

Something that we eMarketers often forget is that it is not only marketing that's been revolutionised by the Web. The Internet has changed many things for many people and has caused a fundamental shift in many industries. Education is one of them.

Distance Learning and the Internet

While there's no doubt that the World Wide Web impacts every aspect of teaching and learning, the greatest impression is that which has been made on distance learning. Yes, it existed before the Internet was as widely adopted as it is in the present day, but it relied on snail mail, the archaic fax machine and other methods of communication that are reminiscent of the dinosaur era.

With the rise in technological capacity, there is an ease with which distance learning courses can be offered and undertaken and this has caused an explosion of them on the Web. Every Tom, Dick and Harry is offering training of some sort - whether it's on effective strategies for shoelace-tying or mechanical engineering. These developments raise a number of questions. One of these is around the impact that this has had on the standard of global education generally. Another asks how distance learning compares to traditional learning models in terms of the quality of the teaching and learning that is on offer.

How Does Distance Learning Compare With the Traditional Model?

Addressing the initial issue first: how has the explosion of distance learning courses affected the global standard of education?

Admittedly, this is a difficult question, the results of which are virtually impossible to measure. However, it is reasonable to acknowledge that there are a number of factors in play. Plausibly, one might argue that there is no way to control what courses are offered online - which means that a diminishing standard is likely.

However, the converse can also be argued. The nature of the Web is such that it is almost completely controlled by consumers. Content, products and services that are substandard or lack interest-value swiftly find themselves at the bottom of the Alexa rankings, while ‘good' content spreads virally. Surely the same pattern would be true for educational offerings? While inferior courses might be offered, they are unlikely to have many candidates enrolling if only because when people buy products online, they seek validation in their decisions from people whom they trust; people like themselves.

This raises another issue though: are the masses informed enough to distinguish good educational offerings from bad ones? In a society that cares more about whether Brangelina is pregnant again than the fact that Zimbabwe is run by a dictator and its people are starving, can we really trust our friends to make decisions around how we are educated? And herein lies the necessity for extensive research into the course you are interested in and who's offering it, rather than a reason to dismiss the learning model entirely.

And of course, there are benefits to the ubiquity of distance learning. Access is one of these. People, who previously had no access to education in any shape or form, now have the option of learning from international educators. While traditional Web access might not yet be universal, poor nations have quickly adopted mobile phones which have the potential to be excellent learning tools. If the argument that ‘some education is better that none' holds, then those who are cynical about distance learning and its efficacy must surely be silenced in this regard?

That said, it is not for everyone and it is a distinctly different learning model from the one that most of us are used to. The question remains... is it as good or as effective as traditional contact learning? The answer... it depends on your perspective and on your approach.

The Pros and Cons of Distance Learning

Challenges to the distance learning model

Distance learning, like anything, offers pros and cons and there's no doubt that it can be challenging for the student and for the teacher. Firstly, communication is always a concern. Without face-to-face contact, there is no easy relationship between students and their educators and, for many people, these relationships are important. Without this, students can feel unsupported and like they have nowhere to turn when they are facing difficulties.

Added to this is the inherent unreliability of technology, which is the foundation on which successful distance learning is built and the realistic fear that it might fail you is one which might put you off the idea all together. Without the tools you need to communicate and learn, passing your courses can be nearly impossible. Fortunately, with a wealth of communication mediums, it is a fear that while not wholly unfounded (if you've been watching too much Jericho), is unlikely to ever come to fruition.

Communication issues aside, the global nature of distance learning can be a challenge as well as a benefit - with issues such as time differences and a lack of formal classes, there's no synchronicity in the learning process. This may contribute to a feeling of isolation on the part of the students - no one is experiencing the same things that they are, which can contribute to apathy and a lack of motivation, making the exercise of learning a pointless one.

Fortunately, unlike the more abstract concerns around this type of education, this is one which is easily overcome simply by enrolling for the course with another person you know or work with. This will provide you with a brain to pick as well as some support should you need it. It also introduces a valuable element of competition which might motivate you to work harder and get more out of your experience.

But the benefits outweigh the challenges

With most course offerings, students have the opportunity to learn from wherever they are in the world. This of course refers back to access, but also to a number of other factors. We are no longer limited by geography and can pick courses based on quality and reputation rather than picking them based on our proximity to a school.

Of course, one can't discuss the benefits of distance learning over traditional tertiary schooling without mentioning the flexibility that it offers. Distance learning allows students to work in their own time, allowing for the possibility that they have families to take care of, businesses to run or full time jobs to go to. Further education for these people would simply not be an option without the ability to work in their own time.

As the course content is not reliant on lectures, the quality of the notes and materials that students have access to is often of a higher standard than those distributed in lecture based courses. When creating course notes, lecturers are aware that these are a large component of the information that the students will have access to. This also ensures that all students have access to the same calibre of resources (removing the subjectivity of self-taken notes) while also guaranteeing that because they are so comprehensive, students have materials that can be used again in their professional lives.

For those of us who are greenies (and I don't mean the smoking kind), distance learning takes away almost everything about education that threatens the environment. We no longer need to drive to class or commute to visit the family during holidays. There is no need to print assignments (they are all emailed) or file reams of notes printed on dead trees. Universities are resource guzzlers, however magnificent they are. They have carbon footprints the size of Antarctica. With distance learning, all of the resources you need are in your home or office.

To conclude, distance learning is certainly not for everyone. If you're one of those students who put their hands up every 5 seconds and stayed behind to speak to the professor after every lecture, then it probably isn't for you. For those of us who have learnt to use Google all by ourselves, it is a viable learning option. Yes, you need to choose your courses carefully. If they're not offered by universities, make sure they're offered by companies who know what they're doing and who have experience in training and education. Find a friend to do the course with and open your mind up to a different experience - you are likely to emerge not only better educated and more skilled, but richer for the experience.

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