How Distance Learning Works

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Australian students on a distance learning course.Distance learning, distance education, online study, e-learning and cloud study mean similar things. They refer to studying remotely – physically away from the course instructor.

Distance learning is almost always done in an online environment using the internet (though often complemented by paper study materials).

How distance learning works depends on the subject.

  • A key issue is whether some physical attendance is essential. How often you need to turn up determines the possibilities for how a course is organised.
  • Another point of difference is whether a course is self paced or has group classes.

In Australia, the main types of courses which allow remote study are (i) 100% online courses (ii) 100% online, self-paced courses (iii) distance learning courses with residential schools and (iv) blended programs.

100% online courses

A 100% online course can be completed from your home or office without ever setting foot on campus. These can also be considered long-distance programs.

  • You may have to sit exams in a supervised environment.
  • For some courses, you may also need to gain experience in a workplace (usually near to where you live).

Self-paced courses

Fully online courses may also be self-paced. That means you can enroll anytime and work at your own pace. You may also take study holidays whenever you need or want to.

Usually, self-paced courses have been designed for online study from the ground up (with a custom learning platform). In contrast, paced courses (where students work to a common schedule) are more likely to be extensions of on-campus programs.

Self-paced study is common with online business courses.

Distance learning with residential schools

Distance learning student entering a hotel room.

Some types of distance learning courses, such as engineering and nursing programs, involve residential schools. You study online most of the time but occasionally attend campus for hands-on learning. Attendance is confined to occasional on-campus sessions. These might consist of a block of 2-3 days of physical classes per term.

Online courses with residential schools support medium-distance learning. You can’t practically do the program from the other side of Australia. But the course may be available to you if the travel distance is reasonable – say, a short plane trip away or less than a day’s drive.

Blended programs

It can be convenient and a great time-saver to complete parts of a course from your home or office. But if you also have to attend classes in person regularly, you are not really doing distance education and the course is not really online. Blended (or mixed mode) courses combine regular physical classes with online study.

Blended courses are ideal for students who live within daily commuting distance of the classroom. You are essentially doing an on-campus course but with the convenience of taking parts of it online. Teachers of on-campus courses may switch to the blended mode where they see an opportunity to improve the learning experience.