Distance Education: Breaking Barriers

Screen Shot 2016-04-12 at 4.50.10 PMToday, distance education is thriving worldwide – with a wide range of courses being offered in both developed and developing countries. A 2011 study from the Babson Survey Research Group’s annual Survey of Online Learning showed that almost a third of American post-secondary students had registered in an online accredited course.

Students have the ability to pursue degrees in physical therapy, engineering, and now one can even complete or supplement their seminary education online!

While most people tend to think of distance education as a relatively new concept, various modes of distance education have been in place for almost two centuries. In the 1840s, the first formal distance education course was offered by Sir Isaac Pitman, who enlisted mail correspondence to teach the symbolic writing method of shorthand. Students who participated in his course would mail in their answers and receive corrections back from Pitman.

In our time, distance education methods are classified into three categories:

  • Synchronous learning, which requires that all participants be tuned in live at the same time (for example, through web conferencing)
  • Asynchronous learning which allows students to learn at their convenience (for example, by watching class DVDs)
  • A combination of both synchronous and asynchronous learning

While it is obvious that, in many cases, distance education courses are less expensive than traditional courses, a number of academic studies on distance education and its methods have shown other positive, statistically significant outcomes.

As stated by Tuan Nguyen of Vanderbilt University, studies have demonstrated that distance learning has facilitated “improved learning as measured by test scores, student engagement with the class material, improved perception of learning and of the online format, stronger sense of community among students, and reduction in withdrawal or failure.”

A 2000 study from Navarro and Shoemaker compared the results of students learning online versus students learning in a regular classroom. They found that, background features aside, students learning online performed as well or better than students in a regular classroom. Moreover, online students were pleased with the format available to them.

Additionally, a 1999 case study of three Canadian universities attempted to discover why academic institutions were investing in developing distance learning courses and whether the investment was justifiable. While they outlined some potential hurdles, mostly for the institutions involved, they uncovered a number of favourable outcomes. The primary positive outcome was the ability to attract learners who would otherwise be prohibited from attending due to geographic restrictions. An educational technology course being offered online at the University of British Columbia had 30 out of 40 students enrolled residing in 17 different countries. Moreover, they found that lifelong learners and those who may be juggling multiple responsibilities (work, family and learning) had an opportunity to connect with experts in the field on their own time. Lastly, the ability to work on projects together or have discussions about the course material with students from around the world provided participants with rich and new perspectives. In a world of increased globalization, this is an important skill.

In summary, institutions worldwide are expanding their repertoire of distance education courses. In addition to providing access for individuals who may have financial barriers, distance education also opens up learning opportunities to those who have geographical or personal limitations.