The independent, trusted guide to online education for over 24 years!

What is Distance Learning? A Guide to Online Higher Education

Student engaged in distance learning.

We must first define distance learning/education to understand distance higher education. In simple terms, distance learning is any learning that occurs with the teacher and student being physically apart. Therefore, distance higher education is when a person studies for and obtains a degree from an institution remotely. There are various ways to learn remotely: mail, television, videotapes, etc. But in today’s world, the internet has eclipsed most of them.

A completely online format is only one form of distance learning. However, in America and other parts of the world, online learning is often used to refer to distance learning because of how much the internet has impacted education. According to a 2007 study by the National Center for Education Statistics, in the United States, 77% of higher education distance learning courses are delivered through the internet.

Are you considering getting a degree online? If yes, then keep reading. This guide will provide the information to make an informed decision about your online degree path. We’ll cover everything, from the pros and cons of distance learning to the most affordable online universities.

But we proceed; let’s take a brief look at the history of distance learning.

Brief History of Distance Learning

Distance learning started thousands of years ago. In the first century, A.D. St. Paul wrote epistles (letters of instruction) to early Christian churches to guide them. These letters are some of the earliest records of distance learning.

In 1840, Sir Isaac Pitman offered the first formal distance course. He taught shorthand using the bible. He did this by transcribing the text into shorthand and mailing them to his students. His students, in turn, would send him shorthand transcriptions for correction.

The first distance degree in Britain was awarded by the University of London in 1850. The United Kingdom’s Open University started offering college lectures via television in the 1960s. This way of learning continued until 2007 when the university ditched television in favor of the internet.

Just like distance learning is synonymous with online education today, in the 1900s, the synonym used was “correspondence learning” because communication between teachers and students was carried out primarily by mail.

Pros and Cons of Distance Learning

People often approach new ways of doing things with apprehension, and distance higher learning is no exception. Before pursuing a degree online, it’s a good idea to understand the pros and cons of doing so. Distance learning is not the best choice for everyone but can be the best choice for many.

Is distance learning right for you? Only you can answer that. However, we have provided the necessary information to help you answer that all-important question.

Pros of Distance Learning

1. Flexibility

Distance learning offers students the freedom of studying from anywhere, at any time. The only things students need are a computer and a good internet connection. Flexibility makes distance learning especially attractive to working-class people who may find it hard to combine work and school. They can study during the weekends or at night after work which wouldn’t have been possible with traditional education.

2. Saves Time

Distance learning eliminates the inconvenience and stress of commuting to and from school. Students can study conveniently in their homes using their computers or smartphones. The time wasted during transit can be channeled into other useful things.

3. Saves Money

Generally, distance learning is often cheaper than the traditional mode of learning. Besides being more affordable, students also don’t need to spend money on transport, accommodation, and meals. If you’re looking for an economical means to acquire a degree, distance learning scores a big point with this one.

4. Self-Paced Learning

All college and university students come from different walks of life. Many online learners are “nontraditional” because they are older than the average college student, hold down a current job, or have a family life. Self-paced learning environments are a pro for nontraditional students who need more time to grasp college concepts, work on coursework, and work with their professors. Self-paced learning can take longer than a traditional program might. Still, it fits the busy lives of working adult students better.

Distance learning also empowers shy students to be more expressive. Shy students may be more comfortable asking questions in online forums than in physical classrooms—another central point in favor of online learning.

Cons of Distance Learning

1. Distraction

Because there are no teachers or fellow students to help people enrolled in distance education to keep track of things, it’s easier to lose focus. Discipline and self-motivation are necessary if you must succeed at distance learning. Distance learning is probably not for you if you’re a procrastinator, lack self-motivation, or can’t meet deadlines.

2. Lack of Social Interaction

Learning the traditional way offers students the opportunity to interact and develop interpersonal skills. Although chat rooms and discussion forums mitigate this drawback, they still can’t be compared with face-to-face interaction.

3. Additional Costs

Students might incur unexpected costs while pursuing an online degree other than the money paid to their institution. Items like a webcam, a printer, and a scanner may need to be purchased. Servicing and maintaining these items is also a recurrent expense.

4. Complicated Technology

Since distance learning primarily takes place over the internet, it requires a wide range of equipment and software. Any software or hardware malfunction can abruptly end an ongoing class. Also, the complicated technology used in distance learning means that students who aren’t tech-savvy are excluded or have an impaired learning experience.

5. Questionable degrees

Some employers might look upon online degrees with suspicion and refuse to accept them, believing that distance learning is inferior to traditional education. Another major concern employers have is that their prospective employees earned an online degree through cheating. While this stigma still exists, it is less common after so much education, from K-12 to university, has transitioned to a distance learning model. Students can best avoid this stigma by ensuring their online degree comes from an accredited university.

Categories of Distance Learning

Distance learning has two main categories: synchronous and asynchronous. The various types of distance learning all fall into one or both categories.

Synchronous Distance Learning

Synchronous is a singular word for the phrase “at the same time.” It is a distance learning method where all the students learn together in real-time. Classes take place through video conferencing software like Zoom, Google Meet, Skype, etc.

Though still more convenient than traditional learning, synchronous distance learning is not very flexible. Students have to meet with their teachers at stipulated times. This drawback also limits the ability of students to study at their own pace.

Asynchronous Distance Learning

As you may have guessed, asynchronous means “NOT at the same time.” Under this category of distance learning, students get the flexibility they crave. Coursework and assignments are assigned, and deadlines are usually week-long.

Asynchronous learning offers students the ability to learn at their own pace. This learning method also eliminates the inconvenience students in different time zones may face logging in to live classes at specific times.

Types of Distance Learning

Under synchronous and asynchronous categories, there are different types of distance learning. There’s even a type of distance learning that falls under both categories. Types of distance learning include:

  • Open schedule online courses
  • Fixed schedule online courses
  • Hybrid or blended distance education

Open Schedule Online Courses

This type of learning falls under the asynchronous category. Students do not have to follow a schedule in open schedule online learning. They only have to meet deadlines. They’re provided with soft copies of textbooks and other learning materials to study at their pace.

This type of learning is excellent for self-driven students and students who love to work independently. However, students who lack these skills may find it hard to keep up. They may become overwhelmed with the work they have to do or become distracted.

Fixed Schedule Online Courses

Fixed schedule online courses fall under the synchronous category. Students must meet virtually with their teachers and possibly other students at specific times. Fixed scheduling is the most common type of online learning today.

This type of learning significantly limits flexibility and self-pacing. But it’s not without some benefits. It helps students who lack self-motivation to stay focused and fosters more interaction between teachers and students.

Hybrid or Blended Distance Learning

Hybrid distance learning combines distance learning and traditional learning. Students learn online most of the time but still have to come to campus occasionally.

The online learning format used in hybrid distance learning can be synchronous or asynchronous. Sometimes, it involves both categories. Students are often allowed to work on assignments or tests at their own pace but must submit them by designated deadlines.

What Does Distance Learning Entail?

Many distance higher education programs offer the same thing as traditional higher education. In their research for an online degree, aspiring students may find “the same as on-campus programs” or “the same faculty who teach on-campus.” The only exception is that everything takes place online. Plus, online students might have the option to fast-track their program.

Teachers provide the learning materials for each week: recorded lectures, videos, and presentation slides. They also give assignments and set deadlines for submission. When necessary, they schedule video calls with their students.

On their part, students consume the materials the teachers provide, do their assignments, and then submit them for grading. Sometimes, students are assigned discussion topics to research, write, and present to the class.

Embracing Distance Learning

Though it has its cons, more students, teachers, and employers embrace distance learning, and many have described it as the future of education. Studies show that distance learning is just as effective as traditional learning. In addition to the flexibility and convenience it offers, distance learning has become irresistibly appealing.

Students studying online for a degree grew from 3.8% in 2008 to 10.8% in 2016. In 2018 alone, over 6,000,000 students enrolled in America’s degree-awarding institutions. The fact that prestigious universities adopt distance learning also makes it more popular.

A survey carried out in 2019 on 1,500 distance learning students revealed that the affordability of a program and the reputation of the school offering the course are the top reasons students consider when choosing an online program.

Most Affordable Online “Distance Learning” Universities

Cost is a significant factor that influences people’s decisions. And for that reason, we have put together a list of the most affordable online universities. In compiling this list, we considered other factors aside from prices, such as accreditation, the quality of the programs, and the number of programs available at each institution.

1. University of the People

Speaking of affordable, how does no tuition sound for a start? That’s right, students of the University of the People do not pay tuition. They only pay assessment fees after the completion of each course. The cost is $100 for undergraduate students and $200 for graduate students.

You might be wondering, how come this university is free? The university runs on donations and partnerships. Companies like Intel and Microsoft have made donations to the school. The university also partners with industry giants like Hewlett Packard, Facebook, and Google to provide a mentorship program for its students.

The university offers eight distance learning programs under three categories – Business Administration, Computer Science, and Health Science.

View More about University of the People

2. Great Basin College

Consider Great Basin College of Nevada. In-state students pay $108 per credit hour for low division courses, while students who live outside the state pay $160. It’s important to mention that while this college is affordable, it offers only bachelor’s programs.

Great Basin College has campuses spread out across the state. The university offers seven bachelor’s degree programs spread across various disciplines, from art to science. If you’re looking to enroll for an associate degree, the school has 17 options from which you can choose.

View More about Great Basin College

3. American Public University

American Public University was founded by a former Marine Corps officer in 1991. The standard fee per credit hour for undergraduate studies is $285, but service members pay only $250. Another perk service members get to enjoy is $0 textbook fees for all levels of study. Even spouses and dependents of service members can enjoy these benefits.

The university offers both distance learning degrees for all stages of learning. Courses for degree programs run for eight or sixteen weeks and start monthly. If you’re a service member searching for affordable online higher education, you can’t go wrong with American Public University. To find out other benefits service members enjoy at this university, check out their website.

View More about American Public University

4. Valdosta State University

Valdosta State University in Georgia offers undergraduate and postgraduate degree programs with no out-of-state tuition.

An undergraduate credit hour costs only $202. Students can also further minimize the costs by taking advantage of eCore— a program offered by the University System of Georgia. Students who enroll for eCore can complete the first two years of their degree through eCore’s online general education courses and pay $159 per credit hour.

View More about Valdosta State University

5. Brigham Young University

This private university boasts over 30,000+ enrolled students. The university ranks number six on the U.S. News & World Report list of Best Value Schools. To see a comprehensive list of programs offered by this university, visit their website.

Brigham Young University partners with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, incorporating gospel learning into the courses. Members of the Church pay $125 per credit hour for undergraduate degrees, while non-members pay $156.

Brigham Young University students can take advantage of the PathwayConnect initiative to pay even less for their education. For degrees completed through the PathwayConnect program, students pay only $65 per credit hour instead of $125.

6. Minot State University

North Dakota, home to Minot State University, has continued to expand its distance learning curriculum. It now offers online criminal justice, business, and human services degrees. With a little over 3,000 students, the school has a small student-to-faculty ratio of 12:1.

Each credit hour costs $316 with no out-of-state charges. The school has three start dates per year and allows students to customize their major. On the university’s website, prospective students can reach out to advisors or coordinators of programs they’re interested in with their questions.

View More about Minot State University

7. Eastern New Mexico University

Eastern New Mexico University is the largest public university in New Mexico. The university offers bachelor’s and master’s degrees in various fields.

Online students pay $339 per credit hour regardless of location. Prospective students are encouraged to look at the degrees available on the school’s website to decide whether it has what they want.

The university provides plenty of support for online students. There’s an online writing lab dedicated to distance students. Mediasite and Blackboard are also used to enhance online learning. Students can access information like their syllabi and assignments through Blackboard. At the same time, Mediasite is used to watch real-time or recorded lectures.

View More about Eastern New Mexico University

8. Western Governors University

Western Governors University is a private university operating exclusively online, founded by a group of U.S governors who wanted to reduce the cost of higher learning in the U.S. According to a school report, WGU students had a loan debt of less than half of the national average.

Western Governors University doesn’t charge students per credit hour, unlike other universities mentioned in this list. Instead, students pay $3,255 for a term that lasts six months.

Western Governors University has four colleges: information technology, health professions, business, and teaching. Each college offers bachelor’s and master’s programs in both full-time and part-time modes. Application is relatively easy, and students don’t need test scores to apply.

View More about Western Governors University

9. University of Texas, Permian Basin

University of Texas, Permian Basin, offers high-quality programs at an affordable cost. U.S. News & World Report describes the university as providing the “Best Online Bachelor’s Degree Programs among Texas Public Universities.”

The school is the smallest in the University of Texas system, with about 6,000 students. An undergraduate online program at the school costs $303 per credit hour, while postgraduate students pay $326. The school uses Canvas LMS for its online learning.

View More about University of Texas - Permian Basin

10. Thomas Edison State University

Thomas Edison State University, a public university located in Trenton, New Jersey, offers students over one hundred course options. Residents of New Jersey pay $399 per credit hour, and non-residents pay $519. Students also have the option to pay a flat-rate tuition per term.

The flat-rate tuition option is a blessing for students willing to put in the time. In-state students who can take up to 18 credit hours per term pay only $3,963— saving $3,219! Who says hard work doesn’t pay?

View More about Thomas Edison State University

Financial Aid Available For Distance Higher Education Students

Yes. As long as you enroll at an accredited online university, you can apply for federal student aid. In addition to federal aid, many institutions award scholarships and grants to students based on several criteria. Some scholarships are even exclusive to online students. You can check out our list of online college grants to see financial aids available for distance learning students.

Suppose you want detailed information about the financial aid options available at a particular university. In that case, it’s best to reach out to them.

Will My Certificate Show That I Studied Online?

The answer is no. Universities do not discriminate between distance and traditional learners. As we’ve said earlier, distance learning is as effective as conventional learning. The only differences are the delivery method, flexibility, cost, and availability of school to school.

Final Thoughts on Distance Learning

Now that you’ve gone through this guide, it’s time to decide. Do you think distance learning is suitable for you? Before you answer, remember that online education is a learning curve. Some people need the motivation and push that on-campus learning provides. Still, an online degree can provide the benefits nontraditional students require.

Are you undecided about your future career path? Check out the GetEducated.com online resource center and online degree database to understand the different degree and career options available.

Browse Now

Search Over 1,600+ Schools with 30,000+ Degrees