Distance education is a term that refers to learning undertaken by students who are physically distant from the instructor. Today, the term has come to connote long-distance instruction carried out with the help of technology. Web-based learning is still in its infancy but has emerged as a practical alternative to the traditional classroom environment.
Distance education was originally developed as a means by which students who were unable to attend school could receive an education. Prior to the advent of the digital age, distance learning took the form of correspondence courses. This type of learning was convenient for those who had no access to schools due to financial, medical, social or geographical reasons. Web-based learning, on the other hand, allows instructors to reach out to a large number of students and to offer them greater flexibility in scheduling and in available courses.
Instructors have had to adapt to keep up with changing technology in order to remain competitive and competent in the field. Online education has changed the whole framework of instruction and what can be offered to students by the instructor. These advances in both teaching and learning have brought challenges, confusion, curiosity and excitement to teachers and students alike.
Challenges notwithstanding, online learning has grown at an astonishing pace. College enrollment in distance education courses skyrocketed from 754,000 in 1998 to over 3 million for the 2000 - 2001 academic year. By the fall of 2007, 3.9 million students were enrolled in a minimum of one online course each. Many experts see online education as a revolution in higher education.
Distance education is popular. It is also diverse, since students can work at courses online no matter what their academic discipline or demographic backgrounds. But while there are numerous benefits to distance education, there are also drawbacks. One of the most significant benefits of online learning is that time and space have been removed as constraints to receiving an education thanks to networking capabilities. Meantime, the main disadvantage of online courses is that they have failed to improve standards of student learning. This failure is attributed to a lack of face-to-face time between students and instructors, a high dropout rate, and a lack of student accountability.
Despite these drawbacks, educational institutions have embraced the possibilities that are inherent in distance learning. Online courses allow schools to maximize their resources and direct them toward meeting the needs of their students. Students from all over the world have the ability to attend courses sponsored by the most prestigious institutions in foreign countries. Disabled or isolated students or those with busy work schedules can all enjoy a high quality education through distance learning.
A close examination of how online courses maximize resources yields several compelling arguments for distance learning. Online courses reduce overcrowding in classrooms. Web-based learning allows institutions and the faculties associated with them to offer a larger number of classes during peak hours/dates of demand, allowing greater flexibility for scheduling classes. A student who might otherwise have to skip a desired course, because of a scheduling conflict with a second class, may choose to enroll in an online course, so that both classes can be taken.
Online courses are seen as cost-effective too, since these courses cut down the amount of paper needed and reduce photocopying costs. Instead of the need for printing bulletins, advertisements, upcoming events or activities, and class schedules, all of these details can be transmitted to students via e-mail or Internet sites. In addition to being cost-effective, these online solutions to information transmission are considered "green."
On the other hand, institutions must invest in computer hardware and software in order to offer distance coursework. There may be some difficulty in convincing cash-strapped institutions that they should invest in such equipment. However, any cost-benefit analysis is likely to show that the value of distance education outweighs any initial cash outlay.
Some of the added costs of online technology will be passed on to students each time they register for an online course. There may be some resistance to trying online courses, since it may take students (and instructors) some time to become conversant with the new technology. Both student and teacher will approach the start of distance learning and instruction as being somewhat outside of their comfort zones. However, it is clear that online courses come with the potential of providing students with an enriched learning experience, while offering them the chance to become proficient in using cutting-edge technology.