What is distance learning? Is it the educational revolution that some people proclaim, or is it just overblown hype of another learning method? Perhaps a good place to answer this question is with a dictionary definition. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language defines distance learning as "Education in which students take academic courses by accessing information and communicating with the instructor asynchronously over a computer network. Also called distance education."
O.K. that's a good start, but what exactly does it mean? How does "communicating with the instructor asynchronously" have anything to do with an educational revolution? To answer that, let's examine distance learning a little more closely.
Asynchronous is a word that means "out of sync" or "something that does not occur at regular or predetermined intervals." Applied to education, it simply means that teaching and learning do not happen at the same time. Therefore communicating "asynchronously" over a computer network does not require the simultaneous participation of instructors and students. With distance learning, teacher and students are separated by time and space-literally, "at a distance."
This is certainly a revolutionary departure from traditional education. Since students do not need to meet together with the instructor in the same location at the same time, they are not bound by the constraints of rigid class times and meeting places. Asynchronous e-learning communication gives students greater flexibility to study at a time and place that best fits into their schedules.
Although the term distance learning is often used interchangeably with distance education, there is a subtle but distinct difference between the two. It could be said that they are really opposite sides of the same coin. The difference between the two is emphasis. Distance learning is student-centered instruction, with emphasis placed on the learner and the learning process. Distance education on the other hand, is teacher-centered instruction, with emphasis placed more on the teacher and instructional process.
The massive increase in popularity of distance e-learning is due at least in part to the unparalleled flexibility and convenience it affords students. With distance learning, a student no longer needs to be held back from educational goals by job, family responsibilities, or any number of other obstacles that may have prevented continuing education in the past.
Distance learning courses can supplement or even replace traditional education programs. For example, if a desired course is not offered locally, it's likely the student can enroll in the course online, even if the course is offered by a school far removed from where the student lives. For people who live in remote locations, are incarcerated, or have physical disabilities or other limitations that prevent attendance at a traditional school campus, distance learning may be the only viable option for continuing education.
While differences in delivery methods, timing, and location of instruction may be revolutionary, there is little or no difference between the curriculum in distance learning and traditional education. Distance learning outcomes generally equal that of traditional campus-based education. Although instruction is asynchronous, the overall time frame for instruction closely mirrors that of the traditional classroom setting. E-learning students often use the same textbooks and other materials as the traditional classroom. Upon graduation there is no distinction made on college transcripts as to whether the course is traditional or online.
Is distance learning an educational revolution, or is it just a way to hype another learning method? The answer may not be so obvious to the casual observer, but for online students the answer is crystal clear. With just a computer and internet access, millions of students around the world who might not otherwise be able to continue their education can do so with distance learning programs. For these students, distance learning is indeed an educational opportunity of revolutionary proportions.