The traditional image of college education features students in a classroom with a professor lecturing them. But lately, more and more students are opting to take college courses online from home. Instead of a classroom, students engage with their coursework, classmates, and instructors from remote locations using digital technology. This is called Distance Education (DE). Other terms used synonymously include distance learning, distributed learning, remote education, e-learning, mobile learning, online learning, and virtual classroom.

DE makes it possible for students to earn college credits and degrees without leaving home. There are students who, due to life circumstances, require maximum flexibility to obtain an education. DE is ideally suited to serve these individuals. Many other undergraduates, however, enroll in DE programs because of their low cost. The reduction in the cost of college can be substantial, especially when tuition, room and board, transportation, and the time needed to complete a degree are all considered.

Rapid Growth of DE

DE is not new. In 2013, about a third of American college students had taken at least one accredited course online. By that time, the majority of colleges, both public and private, offered some courses online. But it took the COVID-19 public health emergency to give DE the boost it needed to become a significant factor in American college education.

The pandemic caused the closure of colleges nationwide. The majority of them shifted overnight from classroom learning to ED using technology designed primarily for web conferencing such as Cisco Webex, Google Classroom, Google Meet, Microsoft Teams, Zoom, and similar platforms.

Concerns quickly arose over the poor educational product being delivered by colleges as a result of the abrupt transition. These concerns have been addressed by colleges, many of which now offer extensive curricula and degrees via DE. DE systems are much more comprehensive and functional today than they were during the rushed transition of 2020.

DE Technology

Web-conferencing became popular in business and industry prior to the pandemic, but colleges were slow to adopt the technology for education. Then came the pandemic, requiring colleges to adopt this type of technology rapidly and customize it for DE. Web-conferencing tools matured and improved over several decades, so the software that became the basis for DE was already user-friendly and intuitive. This allows non-technical students to obtain the full benefits of DE with little specialized training.

DE employs a range of advanced communication technologies, including modems and routers, two-way television using fiber optics, microwave, digital telephone lines, satellites, radio, text, DVD’s, e-documents, and email.

DE courses are designed to be either synchronous or asynchronous. Synchronous DE courses hold classes that must be remotely “attended” by students on pre-set days and times just like a traditional class. Asynchronous DE courses are designed so that the student can view a class session that’s been recorded at a time that’s convenient for them. Most DE degree programs function asynchronously.

Benefits of DE for College Students

Currently, an estimated 5.8 million students, or 23%, are enrolled in a DE program. As more students recognize the benefits of DE, enrollment rises. Benefits are described below:

  1. College Cost Savings

The most important benefit of DE is that it makes college much more affordable. DE degree programs can cut the cost of college by as much as half, mainly because DE doesn’t involve the expenses of living on campus. In a survey conducted before the pandemic, over half of DE students said that affordability was the “most important factor” in their decision to enroll in a DE degree program.

  1. Flexibility and Convenience

Another appealing benefit of DE is the flexibility and convenience it offers to students. Students don’t need to commute to campus nor do they need to take a hiatus from work in order to take a full course load. DE enables students to continue their education without sacrificing other priorities in their lives.

  1. Self-Directed Learning

DE is self-directed by necessity. Self-direction is what encourages students to view recorded lectures repeatedly until they’re confident that they thoroughly understand the material. The capability to enhance learning by communicating with professors and classmates is integral to the DE experience. It allows students to ask questions, discuss course material, and exchange ideas. In fact, such activities are easier to conduct in DE than in the 3-D world.

The self-direction necessary for DE develops two highly valued skills: time management and self-motivation. DE students learn how to manage their time carefully in order to balance coursework with their other essential activities and they learn to motivate themselves in order to stay current with course work.

  1. Strong Virtual Collaboration Skills

Post-secondary education is not the only industry that’s moving online. The rapid growth in remote jobs was another unanticipated outcome of the pandemic. It’s estimated that 25% of all professional jobs are now conducted remotely. More than 15% of the highest paying jobs are remote, up from only 4% in 2019. As DE graduates advance into the workforce, remote job opportunities will still be available. The “return to the office” movement has been met strong resistance from employees and employers have found that remote jobs are both viable and economic. Students who have developed strong skills in virtual collaboration and remote education will be attractive candidates for these jobs.

  1. Advanced Technical Skills

Compared to previous generations, today’s students are adept at digital technology when they begin college. DE helps students advance their technical expertise even further. This makes sense, given that they’re totally dependent on technology for their education. Students become familiar with a broad range of technologies including online discussion boards, shared development and collaboration platforms, project management tools, presentation software, and content management systems. They are often introduced to software applications that are widely used by employers in their major field. Students also become familiar with general business-oriented software tools that are commonly used in the workplace. This specialized knowledge helps DE students stand out to potential employers.

Drawbacks of DE

Not everyone is suited for the unconventionality of DE. It works best for internally driven students who can manage their time effectively. DE students are constantly tempted to neglect their coursework due to the demands of their circumstances. They need to be more self-disciplined than most students.

DE has a number of drawbacks, as described below:

  1. No Social Interaction

When campuses closed due to the pandemic, on-campus undergraduates were sent home and compelled to finish the spring semester and begin the fall semester of 2020 in DE mode. What they complained about most was that DE made them miss “the college experience”, which is to say, the social aspects of college. There is no substitute for this in the DE environment. This is a more serious drawback for younger students. A large percentage of DE students are adults who are older than typical undergraduates, so limited opportunities for socializing is not considered a major disadvantage. All the same, potential DE students should take the lack of person-to-person social interactions into account before deciding that DE is right for them. Virtual social interactions just aren’t the same.

  1. No Extracurricular Activities

This extends beyond the lack of social interaction in the sense that DE students are, for the most part, unable to pursue an avocation, learn a craft, join a club, or play a sport in college like their on-campus counterparts.

  1. Technology Training Can Be Inadequate

Students must be provided by the college with training on the DE technology platform and the tools used in the program. Lack of adequate training can lead to unsuccessful DE experiences. Colleges have a responsibility to adopt a proactive policy to determine what training is needed by students and to provide it.