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 classes online rather than in classrooms. Students engage with their coursework, classmates, and faculty from remote locations using digital technology. This is known as Distance Education (DE). There are several other terms used to describe this practice, including Distance Learning, Distributed Learning, Remote Education, e-Learning, Mobile Learning, Online Learning, and Virtual Classroom.

DE makes it possible for students to earn credits and degrees at a great many colleges without leaving home, making it similar to commuting to college in many respects. But DE lowers ancillary costs even further and it widens the choice of colleges.

There are students who, due to life circumstances, require maximum flexibility to obtain a college education. DE is ideally suited to serve these individuals. Many students who are not in such circumstances also choose DE programs because of their low cost and convenience. The reduction in costs can be substantial, especially when all costs of attendance are considered.

The information in this post does not address those colleges that operate online on a for-profit basis, even if they are accredited. The profit motive causes conflicting operational dynamics and outcomes between this segment and nonprofit colleges, which comprise the great majority of postsecondary institutions in the U.S.

Rapid Growth of DE

DE is not new. By 2013, the majority of American colleges, both public and private, offered some courses online. About a third of American college students had taken at least one accredited course via DE. But it took the COVID-19 public health emergency to give DE the boost it needed to become a significant factor in postsecondary education. There are now 1,586 public and 2,342 private colleges, including some of the top schools in the country, that grant bachelor’s degrees to students who have taken all of their credits via DE.

When the pandemic caused the closure of colleges nationwide, they were forced to shift almost overnight from classroom learning to DE. Initially, they used versions of technology products that had been in use by businesses for web conferencing and training, including Cisco Webex, Google Classroom, Google Meet, Microsoft Teams, Zoom, and others.

Concerns quickly arose over the poor educational quality delivered by colleges after the abrupt transition to DE. These problems were gradually remedied 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 Development

Web-conferencing became popular as a business tool in the early 2000’s, but colleges were slow to adopt the technology for education. Web-conferencing tools matured and improved over two decades, so the software that became the basis for DE was already user-friendly, bug-free, and intuitive. As noted, the pandemic forced colleges to adopt the technology rapidly and then to transition to more suitable software designed specifically for DE. This allows students who are not specializing in digital technology to obtain the benefits of DE after a few training sessions.

DE employs a range of advanced communication technologies, including modems with copper and fiber optic lines, microwave communications, satellites, the hypertext communications protocol, DVD’s, e-documents, e-videos, and email. The hardware used by students includes tablets, laptops, and desktop computers of virtually all types and brands along with digital modems and, usually, routers.

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 traditional classes. Asynchronous DE courses are designed so that the student can view a pre-recorded class session at a time that’s convenient for them. Most DE degree programs operate on an asynchronous basis.

 Benefits of DE for Students 

Currently, about 5.8 million students, or 23% of undergraduates, participate in a DE or DE-hybrid program. Enrollment rises as more and more students recognize DE’s benefit, which are described below: 

  1. College Cost Savings

The most significant benefit of DE is that it makes college much more affordable. DE degree programs can cut the cost of college substantially, mainly because DE doesn’t necessarily involve the expense of living independently on or near campus. In a survey conducted after the pandemic, over half of DE students identified cost as the most important factor in their decision to enroll in a DE  program. 

  1. Flexibility and Convenience 

Another appealing aspect of DE is the flexibility and convenience it provides 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 daytime course load. DE enables students to continue their education without sacrificing other priorities in their lives. Asynchronous programs in particular offer students the ultimate in time flexibility by enabling them to choose which days and times to view pre-recorded classes. The DE framework encourages students to view recorded lectures over and over until they’re confident that they thoroughly understand the material.

  1. Self-Directed Learning

DE is self-directed by necessity. The capability of enhancing learning by being able to communicate 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 communications are often easier to conduct in DE than in the real 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 effectively in order to balance coursework with their other activities. 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 has been moving online. The 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 move into the workforce, remote job opportunities will continue to be available. Employers have found that remote jobs are both viable and economically efficient. Students who have developed strong skills in virtual collaboration and remote education will be the most attractive candidates for these jobs.

  1. Advanced Technical Skills

Compared to previous generations, almost all of today’s students are somewhat adept at digital technology when they begin college. DE helps students advance their technical expertise even further. This makes sense, given that they’re 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, spreadsheets, and content management systems. They often use software applications that are widely used by employers in their major field. Students also become familiar with general business-oriented software that is commonly used in the workplace. This expertise helps DE students stand out among other job seekers.

Drawbacks of DE

Not everyone is suited for the unconventional aspects 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 other aspects of their life circumstances. They need to be more self-disciplined than most college students.

Three of DE’s drawbacks are described below: 

  1. Lack of Real 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 it made them miss out on “the college experience”, which is to say, the social aspects of campus life. There is no substitute for this in the DE environment.

This is a more serious drawback for younger students. Many DE students are adults who are older than typical undergraduates, so limited opportunities for socializing is not perceived as a major disadvantage. All the same, prospective DE students should consider dearth of opportunities for person-to-person social interaction  before deciding that DE is right for them.

  1. No Extracurricular Activities

This extends beyond the lack of social interaction in the sense that DE students are, for the most part, limited in their ability 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 their college with training on its DE technology platform and other tools used in the program because insufficient training can lead to an unsuccessful DE experience. Colleges have a responsibility to adopt a proactive policy to determine what training is needed by each student and to provide it.