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Distance Education

Distance education, also called distance learning, is a broad term that applies to any educational endeavor that does not take place between people who are meeting in the same room. And this means that it’s a very wide field with many different possibilities and incarnations. This article explores the growing field of distance education.

Who Can Benefit from Distance Education?

Distance education can be beneficial to a number of different types of learners in different situations:

  • People who are homebound for any number of reasons find that distance education allows them to overcome some of the obstacles of their confinement.
  • Workers who cannot meet at the times when a local class is scheduled may be able to participate at times when it works for them through distance education.
  • Would-be students who do not live near an institution of learning or those whose local institution(s) do not offer the particular course of study they’re interested in may be able to “commute” to a class offered elsewhere.
  • Home schoolers and gifted students who are enrolled in a school may be able to amplify their local opportunities with additional classes through distance education.
  • Prisoners in Federal or state prisons may be able to participate in educational opportunities beyond the prison through various forms of distance education.
  • Would-be students who cannot afford face-to-face courses at a local institution may be able to afford a distance learning version, because there is less overhead in many distance learning situations.
  • Students who don’t need a whole course but refreshers on particular elements of a subject (or a similar small “dose” of learning) may be able to find - or arrange - something targeted for their needs.

What Are Some Types of Distance Education?

One way to categorize types of distance education is by whether teaching and learning are taking place at the same time. When the teacher and learner are interacting simultaneously, it is referred to as a “synchronous” situation. Synchronous means “at the same time.” When the teacher and learner each participate in the time that suits them, it is referred to as an “asynchronous” situation. Asynchronous means “not at the same time.”

The term “hybrid course” refers to a course that involves a combination of distance learning and face-to-face meeting. There are also combination courses in which asynchronous instruction may be combined with the teacher offering “office hours” in which he or she is available for email, telephone, instant message, or video chat.

Synchronous distance education includes classes on a set schedule for which teacher and students gather through the use of a technology such as:

Interactive Television This may be facilitated by the teacher and students going to their closest facility and participating as a group using television connections that link them.

Web Conferencing This technology allows people to connect to each other using their computers fitted with a web camera and a microphone. Besides speaking to one another and seeing one another, participants in a web conference can share documents, see the leader’s desktop, etc. A variety of proprietary systems make web conferencing possible, including:

  • Blackboard
  • WebCT
  • Adobe Connect
  • OnSync

Video calling or videochat This technology has fewer features than full web conferencing technology


Asynchronous distance education includes classes that an instructor prepares in his or her own time and students participate in when it fits their schedules (sometimes within a time period specified by the offering entity or party. This can be done by:

Online Learning Platforms such as Ed2go offer lessons that students complete and sometimes are able to self-assess. Instructors are available through Ed2go, but may not be through all systems.

Correspondence Courses Today, these may be done through email and FAX as well as through the postal service, but the idea is the same: you complete work on your own time and send it in for the instructor’s personal reponse.

As with any schooling that you are considering, if you are taking a course for credit or professional development rather than personal enhancement, be sure that the course will meet the requirements of the body to whom you will be submitting your credits and make sure that the instructor and institution offering the material are properly accredited. (see the article on “School Accreditation” for more information). Also check to make sure that the business is legitimate before offering payment, through a credit card or otherwise.