“Going to college” is an expensive and time-consuming process for the student who chooses to enroll in a school where attendance is mandatory on campus. Tuition fees buy semester hours of classroom time, but paying tuition does not guarantee that all courses listed for a semester will be available. Starting with registration, students often race to sign up for necessary degree courses, only to discover that all the classes are full or have been cancelled—which results in rescheduling, substituting a less important class, or waiting another semester.
Whether a student lives in a dormitory or commutes to class, the need to be in class on time means a stressful day ahead. (Unfortunately, even prompt attendance does not ensure good grades.) Then there is the daily rush to and from different classrooms, sometimes across campus, in all kinds of weather. Yet for all the hurry involved, graduation still usually takes four years. The traditional attitude that higher education resides within the halls of colleges and universities is challenged by information technology and educational needs that demand attention now and in the future. Colleges and universities that limit themselves to on-campus learning will be left behind.
- The alternative to the hectic campus experience is distance learning—an educational system that frees the student from the classroom while providing unlimited access to curriculum materials and study resources.
- Distance learning transmits knowledge through information technology, which includes interactive video, Web sites, and computer programs. (Textbooks are used less often in distance learning courses.)
- Distance learning is flexible over time and place, which means classes can be coordinated with other life activities.
- Distance learning is convenient because the digital curriculum delivers instruction and study through computers, audio and video players, printers, or other accessible electronic devices.
As the world becomes more interconnected through communications technology, a versatile education that can be upgraded to keep pace with rapid or unexpected career developments is essential for quality job performance. A person who needs certification for a specific skill at work, and needs it now, probably does not have spare time to spend in a classroom. The global scope of commerce and industry requires learning other languages, understanding how other countries do business, and being prepared for sudden changes in the way companies operate at home and abroad. Distance learning offers continuous education with immediate access, so that anyone who seeks knowledge can acquire it through the most advanced instructional methods available and without unnecessary travel and time constraints.
The following chapters cover various aspects of distance learning, including its advantages and disadvantages compared with an on-campus college environment. The important benefits of distance learning are discussed in detail, particularly those features involving lower cost, flexible study time, convenience, and the ability to customize an education according to individual circumstances. Other topics covered include funding, scam awareness, different levels of online degree and certificate programs, and the most popular distance learning courses. Finally, a brief history of distance learning explains when, why, and how information technology changed education and the advances that made “college knowledge” available, convenient, and affordable for more people than ever.
Vocation and Technical Programs
A vocation is the practice of a skill, trade, or craft that produces a practical or material outcome. A vocational school, or vocational education and training (VET), gives instruction on how to use the tools of a trade, learn work techniques, and develop abilities necessary to succeed at a particular occupation. Vocational education follows a regimen of procedures and guidelines rather than a study of theories and ideals. In the past, many trade skills known as vocations were taught by way of apprenticeship.
- Distance learning originated as a vehicle for vocational education.
- Technical programs are modern extensions of the vocational education system.
- Distance learning study for computer programmers has replaced old-fashioned training for stenographers, just as information technology gradually takes over from the printing press.
Vocational and technical
instruction expands as new machines and devices come into use. Job descriptions that didn't exist 50
years ago form an extensive labor market today. As the need for skilled workers expands, so do
educational demands for the work being performed. Four-year distance learning degree programs came about
to fill knowledge gaps in vocational occupations. Still, vocations involve hands-on tasks. Distance
learning instruction in auto repair, plumbing, electronics, cosmetology, welding, and hundreds of other
trades remains in high demand because plenty of jobs await skilled workers. Distance learning started out
as a method to extend vocational training to people who otherwise had no access to education. The jobs
have changed over the years, but distance learning has adapted to deliver occupational instruction to
those who seek it.
Cost of Distance Learning
Whether online or on campus, tuition imposes a major financial obligation on anyone pursuing higher education. Much has been written already about the cost advantages of distance learning, but with the exception of CLEP and DSST credit exams, online courses are not cheap. In some cases, a distance learning program is more expensive than attending a local university.
- For very busy people—and who is not these days—jumping aboard an aggressively advertised online university program carries a hefty price for brand recognition. Unfortunately, high-profile online institutes are not necessarily a good value for the money.
- Some fully accredited, college- affiliated distance learning programs are a genuine bargain but do not always offer the biggest selection of online subjects or degree programs.
Big-name online distance learning providers like The University of Phoenix, DeVry, and Capella charge $250 to $650 per hour for course credits. These rates are comparable to those at a local four-year college or state university, so what justifies the extra cost? The super-sized distance learning corporations have an edge over smaller competitors because of satellite campus locations. Students who are more comfortable in a classroom setting find the mini-campus environment more conducive to learning. In big cities, online institutes operate multiple campus sites, usually located in an office building or shopping center. However, for a pure distance learning program, better deals can be found at nonprofit institutions that also have excellent credentials.
Liberty University, a nonprofit Christian organization, and the University of South Dakota serve as positive examples for affordable distance learning served through accredited and reputable establishments. Moreover, both these institutions offer an extensive selection of courses and undergraduate degree programs. Currently, a full-time, four-year tuition at Liberty is less than $5,000. The University of South Dakota tuition is about twice that of Liberty, but still a third of what most online distance learning programs cost. The possible advantage of a University of South Dakota degree is the perception that a state-affiliated diploma carries more weight than one obtained from a private, nonprofit religious school. In addition, grants and scholarships might be more abundant and easier to obtain when enrolling in a distance learning program administered by a state-funded university.
Several factors affect distance learning tuition besides name recognition or value for the dollar.
- One such variable is specialized course content. For someone seeking certification in a special field or profession, the selection of a distance learning program is limited to those institutions that offer the necessary courses. Programs that provide exclusive training do so at a premium to ensure that minimal enrollment is cost effective.
- Other factors that affect tuition costs are methodology and instructional techniques. Courses that rely on extravagant multimedia events and close interactive attention from instructors tend to be more expensive than programs that put most of the responsibility for studying on students.
So what is the cost of a distance learning undergraduate degree?
- Among accredited schools that list similar degree programs and courses, the average tuition over four years is close to $20,000—a hefty sum.
- To save some money, an increasing number of
distance learners enroll in one or more programs based on the cost of transferable credit hours. When
enough bargain credits have accumulated, the student then transfers those credits over to a single degree
Textbooks and Course Materials
Web sites, downloads, software programs, and other digital resources make up the bulk of online distance learning. The word processor has replaced paper and pencil as the preferred instrument for scholastic exercises, recording knowledge, and writing essays. Computer printers roll out spell-checked, flawless copy. Full-color charts and graphs flow out unblemished by leaky markers. Despite welcome progress towards paperless term papers, total abandonment of expensive, glossy textbooks has not yet come to pass.
While online distance learning programs have moved away from textbooks and other hard-copy manuscripts, many courses still rely on the printed word. Unfortunately, textbooks are generally costly and used editions, though cheaper, can be hard to find. Buying textbooks and materials for distance learning programs represents a substantial investment, though making these purchases online is convenient, quicker, and can be cheaper. Some distance learning providers have online bookstores that carry all the titles needed for the courses offered.
little patience and perseverance when browsing online book vendors, you can find used textbook bargains, but
they don’t last long. Here’s some advice on buying textbooks online:
- Start with the most expensive book on your list and hunt for available copies, new and used, online. (Visit CompareTextbook.com to begin the search.) Take note of the highest and lowest prices to determine an average cost.
- When considering books offered by online bookstores, investigate the vendor’s shipping and handling rates, return policy, and customer satisfaction rating. Find out if the vendor offers additional discounts or free shipping if multiple purchases are made.
- Read the description of the book thoroughly to make sure it is the correct edition required for the course. Check any notes on the condition of the book. Look for mention of missing or damaged pages.
- If the book and vendor are satisfactory, be prepared to make the purchase right away. Most online vendors have only a few books in stock, and sometimes cannot reorder them.
To find individuals selling textbooks, check to see if the distance learning Web site offering the course has a message board. Many students post the books they have for sale and contact information for making the transaction. (Be cautious when dealing with individuals. Agree to meet only in a public place and at a prearranged time during the day.) Private textbook sellers can also be found on eBay and other open-market sites.
If no online search turns up a textbook, a nearby college bookstore may carry the same copy for courses on campus. Besides the campus bookstore, check bulletin boards in the department where the course is taught. Students who took the course in a prior semester may have posted used textbooks for sale there.
Rather than buying a textbook, consider renting. Barnes & Noble, among other online stores, offers textbook rentals at a fraction of the purchase price. The rental period can be extended if necessary or changed over to a purchase. Rented books should be treated with care to prevent penalties for damage and condition issues. Failure to return a rented book means being charged the purchase price for it.
Information technology, once again, is replacing old tools with new ones. Thousands of printed textbooks have been converted to digital e-book format. Downloaded from a Web site to a computer, an e- book transforms textbook material from a flat, two-dimensional surface into a virtual reality. The main reason to choose e-books over textbooks comes down to money. On average, e-books cost much less than textbooks.
The popularity and affordability of e-books led to portable, economical devices
specifically designed to store and display digital media. In 2007, Amazon.com introduced the Kindle
digital reader for e-book downloads. A handheld device priced under $200, the Kindle downloads e-books
through a wireless network, including cell phone and Wi-Fi connections. The Kindle DX version is favored
Distance Learning Course Methods
The needs of students determine the methods used to deliver a distance learning program, which often involve a combination of technologies and techniques. To effectively educate distance learning participants, methods have been developed to meet certain criteria pertaining to the subject content. For instance, a science course may require instructional methods for lab work, whereas a literature course may include essays. The selected methods being used then enter a communications network, typically a digital medium that transmits study material, tests, lectures, grades, etc., to the recipient. This information is not always directed one way, but more frequently involves interactive exchanges between individuals, student groups, and instructors.The oldest and simplest method for distance learning is printed text delivered by computer file, e-mail, fax, or the post office.
Text in some tangible form has not been entirely replaced by digital means. Reading assignments, student catalogs, course outlines, and other documents ensure that the printed word will remain a component of distance learning for a long time to come.
Written text is an old instructional method, but speaking is much older.
- For some distance learning programs, audible speech—especially when learning a foreign language—is essential to understanding a subject. Here again, communications technology supplies the components that allow modern distance learning methods to function.
- Audio tapes, CDs, computer software and downloads, telephone, and live online conferences provide the verbal content to a comprehensive distance learning program. Passive audio methods include tapes, CDs, prerecorded lectures delivered over the Internet, or remote live broadcasts made to multiple audiences either by computer link or over a closed communications network.
- An active audio method is interactive and allows real-time vocal dialogue between instructors and students. The main advantages to an interactive method include immediate response to questions and the benefit of participating in a stimulating, constructive discussion.
- Like audio, video learning methods can be active or passive, and are available through a variety of information technologies dating all the way back to the old-fashioned slide show and overhead projector. Obviously, video incorporates both visual and verbal elements to deliver study material. Graphics, animation, illustrations, film clips, and other visual media can be combined in a single distance learning presentation, which gives the subject material greater depth and scope, and makes the course more interesting.
Computers add a third dimension to distance learning methods by not only speeding up the process but also allowing students to select, receive, organize, coordinate, prioritize, and communicate learning events. Computers give the individual more control over how, when, and where education takes place. Information stored in a computer is flexible and readily obtainable, and course content can be upgraded or modified according to circumstances.
The advantages of computer-based methods also apply to distance learning staff and instructors, especially when putting together course content. Selected course components, assembled from diverse visual, auditory, and textual resources, produce a composite learning package that transforms information into knowledge through multiple perceptual experiences. Whereas the individual student collects and assimilates information from a distance learning program, distance learning providers categorize and distribute information to a dispersed audience.
Although computers dominate distance
learning methodology, distance learning programs integrate various methods to provide the best
educational mode to the widest range of student needs. The objective of any educational program is to
transfer knowledge in the most effective way possible.