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Online Degrees

Part of Western Governors University

October 28, 2022

Student Success

Distance Learning vs. Traditional Learning: Pros and Cons

Distance learning, often called “distance education,” is the process by which students use the internet to attend classes and complete courses to earn their degrees without having to physically attend school. Even prior to COVID-19, distance learning was experiencing steady growth, but those numbers grew exponentially during the global shutdown of schools. Many educational institutions had to design and improve online education plans while bringing teachers and students up-to-speed on distance learning technologies.

In addition to pandemic-related shifts to online education, there are many reasons students may want to pursue distance education as opposed to traditional schooling. As distance learning becomes more common, it’s important to research and decide which education model is the best fit for you. 

What Is Long-Distance Learning?

Long-distance learning—also called “remote learning”—takes place in a digital classroom setting. Traditionally, academic instruction is administered on –a college or school campus. Distance learning is a distributed learning model that allows students to learn from anywhere, sometimes even on their own time.

Virtual lectures over video, emails, instant chat messages, file-sharing systems, mailed media, and prerecorded content are some of the most common means of delivery between teachers and their remote pupils.  

Distance learning shouldn’t be mistaken for online learning, sometimes called e-learning. The latter will usually involve some element of in-person instruction, supplemented by the flexibility of a virtual classroom. Distance learning, meanwhile, is completely remote—special events like graduation or final exams may warrant an in-person gathering, but students and faculty will usually be separated physically for the entirety of the semester.

What Is Traditional Learning?

Since COVID-19 and the ensuing educational overhaul, there has been much debate regarding which type of learning environment is superior. Even in-person classrooms have unquestionably been changed by the pandemic; many believe these reforms are for the better, too.

New technology, new belief systems, and a brand-new attitude regarding what makes for a valuable learning experience have all had their influence over teachers and college professors nationwide, but the most devout among them still believe strongly in what a physical classroom has to offer students, especially at the college and post-grad level. Absence, as they say, may make the heart grow fonder, which is why many educators are proud to protect a traditional experience, at least for their own learners. 

Traditional learning, in a general, pre-pandemic sense, describes the scenario of an instructor leading a classroom of students in person, moderating the discourse and regulating the flow of knowledge. While remote learners certainly existed before the recent digital revolution, a traditional experience was the norm before 2019.

Long-Distance Learning vs. Traditional Learning

To many, the most important factor to consider will be the fact that remote learners do not have immediate access to a real person teaching in front of them. Live lectures bridge this gap significantly, but, for some, this consideration alone is enough to tip the scale in a traditional classroom’s favor.

A few key differences between these education styles include:

  • Where the lessons occur
  • When the lessons occur
  • The pace at which the lessons are administered
  • The environment in which the student is immersed 
  • The independence and autonomy required on the part of the student
  • The firsthand sources of information received by the student
  • The level of candid interaction and attention the student receives
  • Sometimes, even the cost of matriculation will vary here significantly

In-person interaction and socializing with other students is considered by many to be paramount to a comprehensive, truly enriching academic experience. For this reason, many schools have adopted a blended approach, combining the best of both worlds where and when each would be most appropriate.

There are, however, many scenarios in which an in-person classroom just isn’t ideal, safe, or even possible. The pandemic is one obvious example; the majority of parents and instructors appear to prefer this approach, as opposed to simply having every student withdraw in quarantine.

Nontraditional students are another demographic who have found a lot of success through a flexible, online education. Working mothers, those pursuing advanced degrees after hours, and even young people hoping to catch up after a period of personal turmoil or illness may all be able to benefit from the freedom of a virtual learning experience.

Ultimately, the efficacy of the program depends greatly upon the student in question. Either approach can result in an educated individual, ready to graduate and take on the world.

What Are the Pros and Cons of Distance Learning?

Technical Elements

Online or distance learning often has technology involved to help you do your coursework.

Pros:

There are many pros to the technological elements of distance learning. Many students are able to quickly learn new tech and excel in it, even listing their skills with learning programs and platforms on their résumé. Another huge pro of distance learning technology is that you can pursue your education from anywhere with internet access. The rise of virtual tools like Zoom, Slack, Blackboard, and Google Classroom have made it even easier for students and teachers to share information and to connect.

Cons:

Sometimes, students will encounter technical difficulties with online learning. There may be days when their internet doesn’t work, when programs and software fail, or they’re unable to access their courses. This can be frustrating, though often these bugs are fixed quickly, and students are able to continue with their work.

Credibility

Every student wants to know that their work will be valuable to a potential employer. Are online colleges credible? Is online learning effective? These may be questions students ask when considering distance learning. 

Pros:

More employers than ever before recognize that online learning is credible and legitimate. According to CNN, 83% of executives say that an online degree is as credible as one earned through a traditional program. The fact that more than half of all American adults believe that believe that an online education will often be just as good as an in-person experience has many long-standing institutions rethinking their stances. This number of is growing, too—those who assert that remote learning may be superior in some cases more than doubled between 2021 and 2022.

What’s important to employers is that your school is accredited. Universities work hard to achieve and maintain accreditation, which ensures that students earn degrees that are valuable to them and to employers. Additionally, employers may respect you more for having received an online education; they’ll recognize the time and discipline it takes to pursue distance learning and may be more impressed by it.  

Cons:

Some employers and companies may still rank online education as lower than a degree from a traditional college. When employers don’t understand the rigor and quality of an online education, they may be hesitant to hire someone with an online degree. Additionally, for-profit or non-accredited online schools are often a huge issue for credibility. When it comes to pursuing an online degree, make sure that the online program is accredited and offers marketable credentials. Communicating these factors typically validates a program to potential employers. 

Flexibility

Flexibility is the main reason many people choose online education. But there are pros and cons involved with the flexibility of distance learning. 

Pros:

If you have a full-time job or family responsibilities, then the flexibility of online education would allow you a better work-life balance. With distance learning, you don’t have to worry about commuting to and from school, coordinating childcare, or leaving work to attend class. You can continue with your job and family needs, completing your schooling when the timing is right for you. And at institutions like WGU, you can complete coursework and take exams according to your schedule. With competency-based education, you can move more quickly through material you understand well, and spend more time on material you need help with. This flexibility means that you’re in charge of your schedule.

Cons:

Some distance learning options don’t offer as much flexibility as you need, requiring you to log in to class at a set time or view discussions live. While it still may be more convenient than driving to a campus, this scheduled online learning may lack the flexibility you need. WGU, on the other hand, doesn’t require you to log in at a certain time to view lectures or have discussions. But the flexibility of online learning can be difficult for those who are not self-motivated. Since you’re not expected to show up at a certain time, you need the discipline to make time for your education.

Social Interactions

Some students are concerned that distance learning will mean that they’re entirely alone, but that is rarely the case.

Pros:

Online learning often offers many opportunities for students to interact with others. For example, WGU students often work with their Program Mentor over the phone or email, giving them an important lifeline to someone invested in their success. Students can also interact with Course Instructors if they have questions or concerns. Additionally, student networking allows WGU students to socialize, compare thoughts on courses, and offer help. And a large alumni network means you can continue to make connections throughout your career. 

Cons:

For students who want to speak to others face-to-face or participate in in-person clubs or events, distance learning may not be the best option. While you can still be social with online education, most interactions occur over the phone or on online platforms.

Is Distance Learning Right for Me?

If you’re thinking about an online degree program, it’s important to ask yourself: 

  • Do I have the self-discipline and motivation to do distance learning? 
  • Do I have the time to commit to online education? Or can I find an online program that fits into my life?
  • Do I feel comfortable asking for help? 

While online learning may not be for everyone, many of the questions students have about pursuing distance education can be answered. Some students will find that for them, the pros greatly outweigh the cons. If you’re ready to pursue higher education in the way that works best for you, consider long-distance learning and online programs at WGU.

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