Distance education is either great or over-rated, depending on who you talk to. In truth, studying online is effective for many students; while other students are looking for things only campus life offers.
- Some of the opinion differences are due to misconceptions about how online study works.
- People also have different expectations about what online education can or should do.
To sort things out and make it all clear, here’s what you need to know about distance education today.
1. Distance education is here to stay
Distance education has been around for many decades in the form of correspondence study. Digital learning started to grow rapidly in the late 1980s with the expansion of home computing. Today, more than 300,000 university students in Australia do some form of online study. That’s close to 1 in 4 Australian students completing at least some university units from the comfort of home or work (or even a cafe). Participation is only likely to increase as technology and software further develop.
2. Online study is widely available
Australia has a well developed system of university distance education. Just about any course that can be studied online is offered in that format. Not all universities are into distance education in a big way, but plenty are. Even for niche courses, you generally have multiple universities to choose from.
Even for courses where you cannot avoid on-campus sessions, there are distance learning options. Online universities organise intensive residential schools for subjects such as nursing, engineering and science. The idea is that you study the academic parts of a unit online. The bits that require face-to-face instruction are done all at once in a multi-day session on campus.
3. Learning platforms vary
Learning platforms range from simple to sophisticated. At the bottom end, you have text-only courses that are essentially just electronic correspondence. At the top end, online programs use multiple media technologies and are highly interactive. They give you access to external information resources, animations, simulations, student forums and social media networks.
While it’s nice to have high-tech features, the quality of teaching is still vital. A good distance education instructor will stimulate your imagination and make it easy to enjoy learning. A bad one might give you great slabs of text to read without context, purpose and interactivity. They put the onus on you to structure your studies.
4. Learning outcomes are just as good
Studies of learning outcomes indicate that, if anything, distance education is more effective than face-to-face classes.
- Some topics, particularly those centred on theory or reading, can be more efficiently learned online.
- Others are better suited to traditional classes, such as where social interaction or hands-on learning is particularly relevant.
The balance is shifting towards online study in the sense that occupations are becoming more digital. When the job you are training for is computer based, online learning seems more appropriate. Nowadays, fields such as design, journalism, marketing and engineering (and the list goes on) rely heavily on information technology.
There are perceptions that online study is easier (i.e. standards are lower) than campus-based classes. However, this is clearly not true for Australian universities. Most online courses are run alongside campus classes, with students able to choose whether to attend campus or study at home. Online and on-campus students sit the same exams.
5. Mature students do better
Although it is difficult to prove, there are strong indications that older students are better distance education students. Certainly, mature students dominate online course enrolments.
- Close to half of external university students in Australia already have a degree.
- Many others are experienced workers who have decided to have a go at university.
- Almost three-quarters of external students study part time only, balancing study with work and family.
You wouldn’t expect the average person in their late teens or early 20s to be entirely happy gaining a degree just through online study. That is an important age for learning about life through interaction with peers. Attending a campus is a nice way to gain both life experience and a qualification. Young university students who study online need to balance that with other activities, such as sports, clubs and being with friends.
6. It’s cheaper, but not because of fees
You will save money by studying online, but not because of low fees. The savings that universities make by delivering courses online are actually quite small. The only large savings for universities are in not having to provide classroom facilities and on-campus services. Universities still need to pay teachers and manage enrolments. And there are greater demands in terms of IT support.
Everyday cost savings is where students benefit. Studying online means no commuting costs, no special childcare costs, and you can much more easily keep working. Here, the financial benefits can be great.
Online study is highly accessible because you can study from home. There are no living cost impacts. Plus, as with on-campus courses, Australians can pay tuition fees using study now, pay later student loans.
7. Free university courses are not that great
Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are good because they’re free or nearly free. MOOCs are also assumed to be high quality because of associations with elite brands such as Stanford, Harvard and MIT.
But MOOCs aren’t higher quality than other online courses. Compromises are made to deliver online education to a mass audience. There is limited instructor interaction, personal attention and teaching flexibility. Attrition rates are high, in part because you don’t get a degree at the end. MOOCs still have a long way to go in terms of quality development.
8. Distance ed isn’t a threat
Despite the many advantages of online learning, it isn’t about to make campus learning obsolete. There will always be high demand for the total university experience where you get to mix with other young adults and learn about more than academics. University campuses, which are intensive research institutions, will always provide a natural place for learning.
Ultimately, distance education just provides another option for people who want to study with minimal life disruption.