Distance learning has been the go-to solution for students and teachers under stay at home orders during the COVID-19 pandemic. And while distance learning isn’t exactly new, the question you may have is how effective a learning experience is it actually?
Distance learning, in contrast to the traditional model, has little to no on-campus requirement for students, who instead access course material online. There are three main types of distance learning: synchronous, asynchronous, and hybrid distance learning [link to previous article “What is distance learning”]. And even before stay-at-home orders made distance learning the new norm, students were increasingly turning to this option.
In a 2019 Forbes article, “Online Education: From Good To Better To Best?,” distance learning was praised for levelling the playing field for students who couldn’t access on-campus courses. And, according to the article, which cites several studies, distance learning was actually going above and beyond that goal and outperforming traditional education.
And students are taking notice. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), 50.4% of students were enrolled exclusively in distance learning programs during the 2018-2019 school year.
Access and course engagement
These numbers aren’t all that shocking considering that students can get the same quality of education, if not a better quality in some cases, without ever leaving their homes. According to the above Forbes article, students expressed that having control over their learning experience and being able to work at their own pace made the experience better for them.
Students also found that multimedia content was more engaging and that technology gave them better access to their peers and their instructor. They also had fewer scheduling conflicts, since many online courses allow a degree of flexibility not found in in-person courses.
And despite the long-held belief that distance learning programs are inferior, we’re beginning to learn that is no longer the case. A recent study conducted by Gallup and U2, an education technology company, found that when done correctly, online programs can actually surpass the traditional education experience.
The study found that 77% of U2 program alumni strongly agree that they had at least one professor who made them excited about learning. In contrast, only 71% of alumni who completed their degree in-person, or mostly in-person felt the same. Graduates who completed their coursework online reported higher levels of engagement than their in-person counterparts.
The study also found that the work completed online was just as academically challenging as in-person course work. Distance education can deliver an education experience that is both interesting and academically sound.
A better model
As technology advances, it only makes sense that educators increasingly take advantage of those resources to improve their programs. Right now, students and educators have no choice but to engage in distance learning — in some states, students will not be allowed to return to the classroom at all for the remainder of the academic year, and the timing of the reopening of the nation is uncertain.
But, the data shows that not only can distance learning be just as effective as in-person learning, but can actually be better — a better way to learn, with fewer barriers to access and higher engagement. It might be worth the effort to lean into this new educational norm.