Distance Learning Degrees: The Next Big Thing?
No longer considered the 'poor relative' of campus-based courses, distance learning degrees have rapidly evolved to become a major player in the higher education world. Ross Geraghty examines the evolution and current state of the sector.
Distance learning, the catch-all term used to describe any of a number of educational courses offered off-campus, from the recent innovations in web-based education to videos, DVDs, correspondence courses by snail-mail and by TV, has entered an advanced phase.
The education style, which started off principally through snail-mail correspondence courses, has been going on for a long time. The pioneering Open University in the UK opened its doors in 1969 and, since then, a number of very advanced courses with a good deal of integrity have enabled people to earn life-changing or career-enhancing degree courses from the convenience of their own home.
The distance learning method suits a variety of people, those with families, who don't wish to relocate, those perhaps with disabilities, people for whom it is simply not affordable to attend full-time classroom degree courses or for any number of other reasons.
One respondent says: "It also depends on which industry you are looking at. For example for hiring an auditor, it would not make much of a difference if the candidate has completed an online or on-campus postgrad degree."
As with any kind of education, distance learning has its pros and cons, its supporters and its detractors, especially among the crucial ingredient at the end of the line in most education, the opinion of employers.
During its early stages, according to Richard Wheatcroft, Master's Program Director at the Open University in the UK, employers didn't take distance learning seriously.
"When we started in 1969 there was a lot of scepticism because employers didn't have access to information about the courses. But through the 70s and 80s it became demonstrable that graduates were as well educated as those from face-to-face universities."
Recruitment expert Damir Latte, of global-workplace.com, agrees: "In the past, distance learning courses didn't achieve high recognition. The courses were seen as the poorer cousins of the on-campus method and, in some cases, perhaps they were.
"The overall experience of attending university was seen by employers, who probably went through the on-campus education system themselves, to provide a rounded experience of networking and communication that distance learning courses couldn't provide."
Is distance learning for you?
With more recent technological advancements such as the Internet, audio-visual technology such as CDs and DVDs and telephony, distance learning has developed into a viable alternative to the quality face-to-face learning universities have to offer.
It is as far from the realm of reams of dusty correspondence-courses packages landing on your doorstep as modern universities are from Dickens.
Richard Wheatcroft says, "We call it 'structured open learning' as it's a complete package of carefully produced materials away from a base, with provision of all the support that would be expected from a face-to-face course. There are some great advantages.
"There is only a 15:1 ratio student:faculty ratio on master's programs. There are face-to-face seminars every few weeks, a large electronic backup and electronic support from the library. You need a very strong infrastructure for distance learning and it's hard to do it well on a small scale to enable students to be self-directed learners."
This self-motivation, or the lack of it, is what keeps some students from considering a distance-learning course.
Some doubt their ability to get up and actually do the work, to force themselves to the books or the computer when TV or other distractions seem far more appealing. Those people may function better with external motivators, such as lecturers or peers and if they are honest self-assessors, distance learning may not be for them.
For the self-motivated student - and it is important that you assess yourself and be realistic about this because it is definitely not an easier option over on-campus degrees - taking a distance learning course and balancing this with the rigours of work, life and family can work to your advantage in an employer's eyes.
One respondent says: "Employees can prove to employers that doing an online degree is just as intensive as doing an on-campus one. They should use it as a tool to explain to employers how dealing with current personal or professional obligations while doing a course online has honed them into a more capable, agile and dynamic professional."
Richard Wheatcroft agrees. "From an employer's point of view, not only did the student get an education, they got it in their own time and proved the work and lifestyle balance. They have demonstrated their self-motivation. The concerns about distance learning these days have genuinely been dispelled."
Perhaps the greatest danger in the distance-learning arena is the problem of accreditation. In recent years, and here is the Internet at its worst, there has been a boom in the number of 'diploma mills' available. These seem to offer all kinds of amazing degrees for little or no work and quite a lot of hard-earned cash. Luckily, savvy employers will not buy it.
All correspondents counsel against handing money to any organisations, be it distance or on-campus learning, without thorough research. Look out for and research your prospective course's accrediting bodies. Are they the same bodies that accredit on-campus universities? Do they accredit some of the bigger universities worldwide?
The three main accreditors are AMBA (UK based and which only accredits MBAs), plus Brussels-based EFMD, which has an accreditation called EQUIS, and the AACSB in the US. The last two accredit undergraduate degree courses and business schools in general.
One respondent says: "The booming, fake, 'online universities' have done nothing but damage their respectable counterparts' reputation. The downslide in reputation is being sliced off by new-age and well recognized multi-program schools. The only factor weighing on online programs is the lack of universal and recognised accreditation and official rankings.
"Students need to go to a school with accreditation," says Richard Wheatcroft, "as it's an external comment on what is provided to them and gives them the best chance of achieving success. It is also evidence to employers that the course has been adjudged to be a quality, worthy product."
Recent trends now indicate that businesses are encouraging more and more employees onto distance learning courses. They have noted the need for a better-educated workforce and are prepared to assist capable employees to improve their skills while still retaining them in the workplace.
Much of this is employee-driven. If you are in that position, suggest it to your boss, showing how it will benefit you and the organization in general.
What to consider
If you have an option and are considering distance learning, the main tips you should bear in mind are:
- Think carefully about your obligations. How much work is involved in the course? Can you realistically take it on?
- Does missing out on the social aspects of on-campus education matter much to you?
- What kind of person are you? Are you genuinely self-motivated or do you respond better to external guidance?
- What kind of career are you interested in? It's unlikely that a distance learning course in Medicine will work out but Accountancy would.
- Do employers in your chosen field value your qualification? How to find out? Ask them and research on the internet. If not, are they the right kind of forward-thinking company for you anyway?
- More about distance learning programs >
This article was originally published in November 2012 . It was last updated in January 2020