Distance Learning classes are designed to meet the needs of non-traditional students by providing courses in which students have the flexibility to participate at any time, from any location.
Adapting a class for distance learning requires the educational institution to analyze the course, assess its audience, review the advantages and disadvantages of the technology options available and finally, select the technology that best meets the course objectives yet is accessible by the majority of students.
Several different types of distance learning delivery options are now widely available, but the accessibility of the Internet has made on-line learning the most popular method of distance education. Currently, about two-thirds of the accredited four-year colleges and graduate schools in the US compliment their on-campus courses with courses taught via the Internet (Clarke, 1999).
How a course is adapted to the Internet depends on whether the course in question is an entirely new course, or an on-campus course being adapted to the new technology.
If an entirely new course is being developed for use with online technology then it must first follow the standard chain of approval applicable to any new course. Each individual school has its own set of guidelines for course development, usually involving several levels of approval by faculty, department heads and deans.
If an existing course is being adapted to Internet technology, then the school has to ensure that the adapted course is equivalent to the existing course and requires that the students completing the new online version acquire the same skills or knowledge of their on-campus counterparts.
Often the instructor who designs the online course has taught it in the classroom for several semesters, and the online version usually consists of lessons corresponding to the typical 15-week semester. This timeline differs from traditional correspondence courses which can have a rolling time limit of up to 2 years.
While instructors develop on-campus courses on a regular basis, distance learning over the Internet often raises issues of course development that many faculty members haven't considered. As a result, each on-line lesson is usually tested beforehand to ensure programming, navigation and technical features all work properly. This testing also ensures lesson instructions are clear and easy to understand, and that access to assistance works when needed.
On-line courses also provide students with an overview explaining learning objectives, assignments, exercises, and how to communicate with other students. Sites are often password protected, so only registered students have access to course materials and assignments and schools generally have set standards, policies, and procedures regarding distance education. All students of distance learning should be aware of their individual school's policies and procedures to avoid problems further into the course.
Students completing an online version of an on-campus course are evaluated on the same basis as the students of the on-campus course. This ensures an equivalency between the two versions of the course, turning out well-qualified graduates regardless of the delivery method.
Academic integrity of online courses is an important concern for many educational institutions. Exams may be administered in several different ways: embedded in courses, uploaded by email or proctored at regional testing centers. In some cases the instructor will post questions on a bulletin board or other posting center which students are required to answer and return to the instructor as an attachment to a private e-mail message. For courses requiring a proctored exam, the online student is usually responsible for making arrangements with the testing center in their area, or attending an exam date set by the course instructor and given at the educational institution itself.
Evaluating feedback is essential to the success and quality of an online distance learning course. The school depends on participant feedback for its course's effectiveness and development. If you are interested in a particular course, ask the school for feedback from past graduates.
Most distance learning students will agree, the only difference between online distance education courses and other classes is the way the information is delivered. You still need to understand the concepts, read a textbook, turn in assignments, and take exams.