The Complete Guide to Distance Learning

In this article, we’ll cover what distance learning is, and isn’t, we’ll look at the pros and cons of different approaches and finally, how you can begin to develop a more comprehensive distance learning strategy based on the latest research.

Students of all ages are becoming much more versed in distance learning than they ever expected, as schools, universities, and businesses respond to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic by shifting more of their learning online.

distance learning

What is distance learning?

At first look, it may seem like traditional learning moved into an online venue. And in the past, that may have been the case. Certainly, before widespread adoption of computers, distance learning often consisted of cassettes containing recorded lectures and paper assessments for students to fill out and send in for grading. Hardly the highly visual and interactive distance learning we’re used to seeing today. (Although not all distance learning takes place online, current distance learning does tend to use online tools for at least some of its delivery, so for this purpose, we’re using the terms online learning and distance learning interchangeably.)

As our technological capacity has grown, so has our ability to make the distant learning experience more closely mimic in-person learning.


The three main types of distance learning:

Synchronous distance learning

Students and teachers are working through the course material at the same time. This type of learning is often delivered through videoconferencing. Although currently we’re seeing more of this type of learning happening with students and teachers working from their homes, this type of distance learning can be accomplished with students gathered in one location while learning from an instructor in a distant location, or small groups of distant students gathered in locations easy for them to access, such as local classrooms.

Asynchronous distance learning

Teachers post lessons that students can consume on their own schedule. Students self-study and complete assignments by the deadlines. These lessons can be video, audio, written, or any combination of these delivery methods.

Hybrid distance learning

This type of distance learning blends synchronous and asynchronous components to create a flexible learning structure. For example, a hybrid distance course could include pre-recorded lectures, bulletin boards where students can interact, written assignments to complete on their own time, and periodic live video or audio meetings for students to interact with the instructor and their fellow students.

There are other characteristics you can use to further differentiate types of distance learning, such as fixed-time and open or specific delivery method, but these three types are helpful in deciding what and how your distance learning endeavour will work.

What are the benefits of distance learning?

distance learning

Breaking down geographical barriers

One of the greatest benefits is that distance learning can break down geographic barriers to learning. No longer do students have to travel to another state or country to train in their chosen discipline or to find the most skilled instructor. This can also help smaller universities band together to offer specialized courses that might be cost-prohibitive if they had to hire local full-time faculty to serve a small number of students. It also allows flexibility in times of crisis, allowing learning to continue when people can’t leave their homes.

Open doors for accessible learning

Distance learning can also benefit learners with disabilities. Video recordings can be transcribed for students with hearing impairments. They can also be enhanced with audio descriptions of visual elements for students with visual impairments. Finally, learning from your own home can be beneficial for learners who have trouble accessing physical classrooms.

Autonomy and time management

In the case of asynchronous courses, distance learning also breaks down time barriers. If a student is located in a different time zone, they don’t need to rearrange their schedule to make a class in the middle of the night. Instead, they can consume materials and do assignments during the time that works for them.

Encourage independence and accountability

Students also benefit from learning to manage their time and learning, skills that are prized in the workforce. Without the rigidity of attending classes in person, students must be self-motivated and engaged.

What are the drawbacks of distance learning?

distance learning

Extra training and planning

Teaching at a distance is not as simple as recording what you do in the classroom and sending it off to people to listen to or watch. It requires planning and the ability to make use of a mixture of technologies to make it work. Instructors often need further training to plan instruction that will work online.

Access and quality technology

Distance learning also requires access to technology, both by instructors and students. For learners with lower-incomes or who live in remote areas without high-speed internet access, the digital divide remains a real barrier to learning. Additionally, even learners with access to their devices and broadband internet may have trouble using the technology to the extent needed. Access to technology can be solved by universities providing compatible devices to students as part of their tuition and fees, and skills deficits can be addressed by targeted training.

Intercepting struggling students

For some learners, the face-to-face connection is a vital element of their educational experience, and it can be challenging to mimic that in a remote setting. To help mitigate this drawback, courses can be designed with a mix of live interaction through video conferences and asynchronous interaction tools, such as forums or comments sections.

Hands-on learning vs theory

Many instructors haven’t thought of ways to include important hands-on learning in distance courses, resulting in education focused more on theory than on practice. Instructors can prevent this by ensuring that practical applications of the theory are included throughout their instruction.


Workshop’s recommended reading on distance learning

Here are some resources to help you understand the ins and outs of distance learning.

Turning the Tide on Online Learning

by William G. Durden, Inside Higher Education, April 2020

This article looks at what it takes to make online learning viable and effective in the long term. It was written in response to quick shift to online learning at many colleges and universities in response to the COVID- 19 pandemic. Read more

The Effectiveness of Teaching and Learning Process in Online Education as Perceived by University Faculty and Instructional Technology Professionals

by Raghu Naath Singh and David Hurley, February 2017

The authors of this paper use statistical analysis to determine the effectiveness of different online learning methodologies. Read more

Distance Learning in Adult Basic Education: A Review of the Literature

by Ramazon Gungor and Esther Prins, LINCS Community, Courses, and Resources for Adult Education, August 2011

This article is a comprehensive exploration of different distance learning models used in adult education and the potential access issues educational institutions must plan for when implementing distance learning. Because the focus is on basic education, it takes a long look at the digital divide and various other equity issues. Read more

Promoting Undergraduate Self-Regulation in Online Learning Environments

by J. Brad Wandler and William J. Imbriale, Online Learning Consortium, 2017

As we discuss in this post, self-regulation by learners is a critical component in student success in distance learning settings. This paper explores best practices in course design and instruction that will help students manage their own learning, so they can be more successful. Read more

Graduate Students’ Perceptions of the Benefits and Drawbacks of Online Discussion Tools

by Jessica Decker and Valeria Beltran, the International Journal or Online Pedagogy and Course Design, 2016

If you’re looking to ensure that students have a venue for class discussion, this review of how students react to various options could be helpful. Read more


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