How Distance Learning Works

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The way distance learning works depends on the type of course you're doing. The three main types are 100% online courses, mixed mode programs, and self-paced training.

Distance Learning Course Types

Self-paced training is an option that's generally only available for non-accredited programs. You essentially purchase software and other course materials to use in your own way.

For accredited courses – such as university degrees and TAFE diplomas – you'll almost certainly be part of a group that will start and finish each unit together. In other words, you'll be a member of a class. Accredited distance learning courses can be 100% online or mixed mode (a combination of online and in-person).

Mixed-mode study is commonly used where you certain parts of the course require you to attend in person. Mixed-mode study is the norm for health, welfare and engineering fields.

A. 100% online courses

A 100% online course can be completed from your home or office without ever setting foot on a campus, college or training institute. These can be considered long-distance programs and are often available internationally.

  • You may still have to sit exams in a supervised environment. A representative of the course provider will conduct the exam at a designated location. This is done to prevent cheating.
  • For some professional courses, such as teaching, you may also need to gain experience in a workplace. Ideally, you'll gain a placement near to where you live.

100% online courses are widely available. They are the norm for distance learning in fields such as: communications and social sciences; and business and management.

B. Self-paced courses

Fully online courses may also be self-paced. That means you can enrol anytime and work at your own pace. You may also take breaks 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 generally only available for non-accredited training courses. However, accredited courses may contain parts that are self-paced. For example, you may work through a module in your own time, finishing with an assignment or online quiz.

C. Mixed-mode study (with residential schools)

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.

Interacting with Classmates

Interaction with classmates and instructors is encouraged in distance learning courses.

If you're part of a class, you may be asked to do group assignments. You may also participate in webinars and organised chatrooms, where you get the chance to ask questions, discussion course content and otherwise engage with classmates and instructors.

Distance learners are also encouraged to interact with fellow students through facilities such as online portals and social media. If you're active online, your distance learning experience can feel like be a very connected one.

Blended Programs

Blended (or mixed mode) courses combine regular physical classes with online study. It's not distance learning as such but takes advantage of online study capabilities.

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.