Published: Sept. 29, 2022

distance learning photo

What is Distance Education?

“Distance education is teaching and planned learning in which teaching normally occurs in a different place from learning, requiring communication through technologies as well as special institutional organization.” (Michael G. Moore and Greg Kearsley. (2012). Distance Education, A Systems View. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth)

Distance photoWill Distance Education Work for Me?

You may have decided that going to graduate school to earn a master’s degree or certificate is a necessity but the logistics of fitting formal education into your busy life is proving to be a challenge. Traveling to and from a campus classroom is time consuming and costly, even more so when you add in time away from family and work. Fortunately, for many with this balancing act, distance education is a viable option.

Ever increasing numbers of schools from community colleges to research universities offer varying forms of distance education. From paper correspondence to synchronous delivery mechanisms, distance education has come a long way and offers many benefits. For the educational institution, distance education provides a way to extend its resources to the community, industry, and beyond, increase its student base and revenue, and pioneer new teaching and learning methods. For the student, distance education enables those who are unable to attend a traditional brick and mortar institution for whatever reason (work/family, distance, disability) to have access to education they may not have had before. Whether full-time student or part-time working professional, distance education presents an opportunity for individuals to realize their educational goals.

The flexibility of distance education allows for scheduling lecture and study time according to your schedule and you can study wherever it’s convenient for you at home, on the plane or bus, or at work during lunch. There are also various options for viewing lectures: laptop, iPod, iPad, iPhone, etc.

Only you can decide if distance education will work for you. With the flexibility and benefits it offers, this learning option is certainly worthy of your consideration.

Are all Distance Education Programs the Same?

Not all distance education programs are the same. Some offer more than one kind of program, delivery method, or time period.

Distance education began with correspondence coursework sent through the postal mail services and continues today. Most modern distance education uses technological means such as computers, the Internet, and videoconference. Some institutions offer a combination of distance education with some component of campus presence—hybrid program. Others offer programs that are created specifically for the Internet—“canned” courses—while still others record course lectures as they are happening in the classroom and post those lectures on a portal to be accessed by the student.

There are generally two modes of delivery: synchronous and asynchronous. Programs that are synchronous require the student to be present—online or videoconference—at a specific day and time. Asynchronous delivery allows for the student to access the recorded lectures at any time.

Some distance education programs differ from others in that some allow the student to complete a course on their own time—there’s no deadline to finish. Usually programs will require that you enroll at a specific time, for example at the beginning of the semester or quarter. One final difference to consider is whether or not the institution indicates on the transcript or diploma that the course was completed via distance education. Some people and companies considered an education outside of the physical classroom to be inferior, but especially post-covid, perceptions have been much more positive.

What to Consider When Selecting a Distance Program

Before beginning the search for a distance education program, make a list of all the “must haves” and “would like to haves” similar to when preparing to purchase a home. Be sure of your priorities and what’s negotiable and what isn’t.

The college or school of the educational institution that offers the distance program must be regionally accredited. In the last few years other organizations such as the U.S. News and World Report have begun to rank distance education programs, however the ranking methods are still in flux.

  • Kind of Program. Investigate the kinds of programs offered by the institution. Do you want a synchronous or asynchronous program? Do you need an entirely distance program—no on-campus requirement, even for things such as a thesis defense? Perhaps a hybrid program—online at a certain time one day a week, come to campus one day per week, or come to campus only for the thesis defense—appeals to you.

  • Length of Program and Deadline. Part of your planning process should be to find out how much time you will need to invest. Is the complete certificate or degree program two or three years? Is it longer, shorter, or the same for distance students? Are the courses open-ended—complete when you want—or are they term-based—semester, quarter, block—with a defined begin and end date? Are there provisions for if you suddenly and unexpectedly need to put your studies on hold (travel for work, military deployment, acts of God)?
  • Technical Requirements. Do you have everything necessary to participate in the program: computer, smart device, connectivity, browser, videoconference room, software, webcam, etc.? Will you need to purchase some items? If you run into problems are there people you can contact for assistance? When are they available? How responsive is the student support staff?
  • Faculty. If you’ve selected a distance program from a particular institution because of the reputation of the faculty, you’ll want to make sure that those same people will teach the distance courses.
  • Student Status. As a distance student, will you have the same rights and privileges as the on-campus students? Will you have access, to the same services such as the library and career services? Does the institution mention on the transcript or diploma that the certificate or degree was earned via a distance education program or not?
  • Tuition and Financial Assistance. Some institutions charge a different tuition rate for distance education programs. Are distance students eligible for financial assistance—loans, grants, scholarships—through the institution?
  • Administrative Support. Is there staff available to assist you if you have questions or difficulties? What are the support hours?
  • Turn Around for Assignments and Exams. If, for example, you are receiving lectures on CD/DVD or exams via the postal service due to a lack of connectivity or other reason, how much time is allowed for transport? Will you be expected to finish assignments and complete exams at the same time as the main campus students?
  • Reviews & Recommendations. Lastly, do you know anyone who has completed a certificate or degree through this distance education program? Seek out someone that you know and trust to give you honest feedback about the pros and cons of the program.

Are there Best Practices for being a Distance Student?

Being a distance education student demands a measure of commitment and responsibility beyond what is required to make and act on the decision to go to graduate school. Depending on the type of program selected, each of these best practices may be more or less important but nonetheless they are all keys to success.

  • High Motivation. Being a graduate student takes a high degree of motivation; being a graduate distance student takes even more due to the separation from and lack of immediacy to classmates and professors. Many graduate distance students have families and/or are working professionals. If this situation applies to you, you must be willing to make the time to fit coursework and communication into your schedule, and allow time for relaxation and recreation.
  • Support. It’s important that your family, boss, and friends know that you have set a master’s degree or certificate as an educational goal. Those closest to you can offer encouragement and share some of the burdens or tasks for those times when it all seems too much. Moments of doubt and feeling overwhelmed are inevitable. Having supporters in your corner to cheer you on is invaluable.
  • Get to Know the instructor and Your Classmates. Just because you are a distance student doesn’t mean that you should be invisible. You don’t want the adage “out of sight, out of mind” to apply to you. Make a concerted effort to introduce yourself to the instructor—a seasoned distance education instructor may beat you to this! Be sure to talk with the instructor about your goals and what you want out of the course. Find out what tools the instructor uses for classmates to communicate with each other and share as much information about themselves as they feel comfortable. It’s very likely that you will collaborate with other distance and even on-campus students on various types of projects. Make yourself known.
  • Organization and Structure. These two nouns are key to success. Set aside a specific space and scheduled time to study. Don’t let yourself become distracted or deviate from your routine. Establish a study routine and submit assignments promptly. Be sure that you understand the functionality of the technology that is used, what is expected from you, the syllabus, the honor code, and the procedures for taking quizzes and exams.
  • Asking Questions and Office Hours. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Use email, phone, and chat if available. Chances are someone else has the same question. Ask the instructor if he or she will share questions from other distance students as well—perhaps answer them in class. Discuss with the instructor the office hours for distance students to ask questions and discuss class topics.
  • Communication. Educational institutions that offer distance education options should conscientiously communicate with distance students about how the particular program the student is enrolled in works—everything from enrollment confirmation to how to access lectures or dial into the class to where to go if you are experiencing technical difficulties. It’s very important that you read and respond, if appropriate, to everything that is emailed (or otherwise communicated) to you. Some universities may require that you use an institution-issued email account such as for communication rather than your Gmail or other personal email. If it’s a hassle to have multiple email accounts try forwarding one account to another so you’ll only have to keep track of one. Using the required institution-issued email account will ensure that you receive information that could be crucial to success in your program.