Comparing Distance Learning vs. Traditional Learning

If you’re an adult considering going back to school to increase your salary potential, benefit from a professional certificate program, or just take a few courses for your own personal fulfillment, chances are, you’ve looked into enrolling in a distance learning program. The options for pursuing a degree or taking a class through distance learning, have increased significantly thanks to new Web-based settings, applications and capabilities that allow distinguished universities like Notre Dame, George Washington University and Vanderbilt University to offer students around the world the same academic resources and access to faculty as traditional students on campus. But is the experience really the same?

An online education affords the student many unique benefits like flexibility, convenience and accessibility. Depending on the specific program, a student is able to complete assignments and even participate in lectures and class discussions on his or her own time. The Distance Learning College Guide also notes that students requiring certain disabilities or mobility problems benefit from a home setting, where they don’t have to "worry about gaining access to a classroom or sitting [at] uncomfortable desks." Students learning in an online format also don’t have to worry about spending time and money on a long commute to and from class, like they would if they chose to attend class on campus like traditional students.

Depending on the particular program that distance learners choose to complete, distance degrees can be just as valuable as traditional degrees. Often, students studying online have the same access to the respected faculty and course materials as students online. For example, Syracuse University’s online Master’s degrees offered by The School of Information Studies awards online learners "the same curriculum, academic calendar, faculty, and tuition as their respective campus program. Distance students receive the same degree as their campus counterparts." Depending on the school and program, the online students’ degree or certificate may not even mention that it was earned through distance learning.

Traditional students, however, sometimes can gain access to on-campus resources and departments more easily than online learners. Students on campus may find it easier to get immediate feedback from a professor in class or by dropping by a professor’s office, club meeting, or off-campus location during unofficial office hours. While many distance education universities encourage student-to-student collaboration online, student feedback can also be more valuable and gratifying coming from classroom settings, after hours study groups, spontaneous debates and general discussions fueled by a campus community. In addition to receiving extra academic-focused attention and feedback, traditional, on campus students benefit from non-academic social interaction, from athletic programs to clubs to Greek life to community service to dorm life. While distance learning students may have an active social life of their own, extracurricular activities, like the online learning, must be pursued individually. Finding a social club or volunteering opportunity that satisfies your particular social, professional and physical needs can be done on your own, but it is more overwhelming than going through a student affairs, career development, or student activities office devoted to providing these outlets just for students.

While distance learning programs can offer pay-as-you-go classes, and students benefit from remote learning that cuts down on gasoline costs, student housing and student dining costs, the online learner must be able to invest in appropriate technology and accessories that make online learning possible. Computers, speakers, video accessories and even mail-in course materials can add up. Also, certain required courses may not be offered online, especially if the school does not sponsor the entire degree package or curriculum online. If a student has to commute to campus just for one extra class, it may not be worth it to pursue distance learning at all.

Colleges and universities that expect smart, ambitious, self-driven students to complete online and traditional degree programs need to continuously monitor and evolve their quality assurance strategies. Many universities understand that nontraditional students, especially adult students, have different learning styles and varying levels of technology experience from traditional college-aged students. These differences contribute to their distance learning choices and ability to complete distance learning programs. A student who benefits the most from face-to-face learning, for example, will find that a distance learning program is more difficult, even if it provides interactive lecture discussions and personalized career services support. On the other hand, a student who works well independently and with minimal help from other students or advisors, may perform better through an online program.


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