Is Distance Learning Right for You?

By: Marie Gerber

A look at some of the benefits and drawbacks of distance learning and online education.

Is Distance Learning Right for You?

Advances in technology over the past few decades have made it possible to get a college education via the Internet. Many universities now offer a good portion of their courses online. While there are many benefits to distance learning, there are also some disadvantages.

A Number of Advantages

The most obvious advantage of distance learning is convenience. Not having to travel to an actual classroom means you can avoid a long, expensive commute and can even study in your pajamas! Not having to attend actual class sessions also allows you to work around your busy schedule. Distance learning makes it possible for someone working full-time and/or raising children to earn a degree.

Another benefit of distance learning is the fact that many online classes are self-paced, which means you have more flexibility. Often times, the majority of the class assignments or exams are posted at the beginning of the course, and you can complete them at your leisure. Unlike a regular course, which typically has definitive deadlines, you are in control of your own schedule.

If you are very busy during the week with work and personal responsibilities, you might not have much time to focus on your studies. However, you may have the time to commit to your schoolwork on the weekend. I have taken several distance education classes and in one instance I was able to complete all of the class work in one weekend, leaving me with more time to concentrate on my other classes that I actually had to attend. However, if you complete most of your work very early on in the course, you cannot expect your instructor to grade it all immediately. He/she may still be operating on a schedule, even if you aren’t. Also, not all distance learning classes are self-paced — some will have deadlines just like any other course.

Some Disadvantages

Before you decide whether distance learning is right for you, consider some of the disadvantages of taking online courses. The main benefits of distance education are actually problematic as well. When a course is self-paced, as many online classes are, it is up to you to create a schedule for yourself and learn to manage your time wisely. Many students think that taking online classes will be easier, but then procrastinate until the final deadline and end up doing poorly in the class. Distance education requires self-discipline and motivation. If you have trouble staying on task in your regular classes and tend to procrastinate, distance education classes probably aren’t a good idea for you.

While not having to go to a physical classroom on a daily basis is one of the perks of distance learning, it also poses some possible problems. Some students learn better through one-on-one interaction and have a hard time working independently. For example, if you are struggling with a particular subject, it is often much more difficult to try to get help via email or discussion boards. Sometimes meeting with your professor in person is necessary in order for you both to understand your questions and each other.

The lack of interaction with other students can also be a drawback, as some students learn better by working in groups or having group discussions. Granted, most online classes now have discussion boards, which students can use to communicate with each other, ask questions and engage in debates. However, in my opinion, participating in discussion boards doesn’t usually measure up to the interaction provided in the physical classroom.

Another disadvantage of distance learning is that it requires you to rely so heavily on technology. If your internet service happens to be interrupted or your computer bites the dust, completing your work becomes more of a hassle than if you actually had to physically attend the class. Some websites that you are required to use can be very slow or otherwise non user-friendly and technological glitches can keep you from submitting your work on time or cause you to loose hours of hard work. If you don’t have a personal computer or a high-speed internet connection, I would discourage you from taking distance education courses. You should also save all the work you do for online courses and back it up frequently, in case of file submission errors or other technical problems.

Of course, not all courses can be offered online. Certain art and design courses, like those that require laboratory work or the use of specific equipment, are basically impossible to teach online. If your university offers both on-site and distance learning classes, I recommend taking some of your general education requirements online. For example, you might consider taking math, literature, history or psychology courses online. If you anticipate that you might struggle with the content of a course, I suggest you attend it on-site, as you will benefit from the guidance of your instructor and from the help of your classmates.

Finally, this might sound strange, but I would discourage you from taking distance education courses when it comes to the subjects that you really enjoy. In these instances, you almost always benefit more from the actual classroom experience. Save the online courses for subjects that don’t interest you as much.

Give Distance Education Some Serious Thought

As you can see, deciding whether or not distance education is right for you requires some thought. There is a common misconception that distance learning classes are always easier than on-site classes, however, this is not always the case. As I’ve already mentioned, online classes don’t have the benefit of physical interaction with your instructor and other students. Also, many instructors will assign double the workload in their online courses seeing as you don’t have to actually attend class. Not only that, but many of the concepts could actually be learned much more quickly and understood more fully in a classroom setting.

Distance education does have its benefits, most obviously that it allows non-traditional students or people with full-time jobs or family responsibilities to get a college education. Even the average student can benefit from taking distance education courses, as they can work at their own pace and set their own schedule. However, on-line classes are not merely a way to breeze through college. You should consider all of these factors and do your research before you decide on a distance education.

By Marie Gerber, a writer at