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Is There "Quality" Education From a Distance?

Updated on August 18, 2020
drmiddlebrook profile image

Former university professor of marketing and communications, Sallie is an independent publisher and marketing communications consultant.

Has education in America become “watered down” by the expanding presence of online colleges and universities? Is “distance education and distance learning” diminishing the overall quality of education in our country? Why are there so many online schools, and are they considered as serious competition for traditional universities in the education marketplace?

There are educators at traditional colleges and universities who would say that the quality of education possible, from a distance, could never equal what students can get in traditional classrooms. And there are other people, including educators and successful graduates of online and other “external” degree-granting schools, who will say non-traditional schools can and do produce high-quality graduates.

As someone who attended and earned an undergraduate degree from a traditional university, and graduate/advanced degrees from both traditional and non-traditional institutions of higher learning, I believe a quality education is possible from any good school, traditional or non-traditional. Still, I understand and appreciate the need people have to make sure that their choice of education provider will be a good one. Education is a major investment of money and time, and those seeking degrees or study through external study need assurance that they will see a good return on their investment. And that is why the question of quality is a primary concern.

Online/Distance Learning is Used By All . . .

As more and more traditional universities continue to find new ways of attracting students to online academic study, the image of online education is improving. One of the more recent trends is the increasing number of what is called "massive open online courses." These are classes offered online, free of charge, by schools including Harvard University and MIT, among many other high quality institutions of higher learning. By taking to the Internet to offer these MOOCs, the crème de la crème of higher education are automatically putting their "stamp of approval" on online delivery, thereby helping to improve the image of online education.

As long as you attend a good, regionally accredited college or university, I believe the quality of education possible through online and other modes of distance learning depends largely on the efforts of the student and the quality and efforts of faculty, not entirely on the type of institution. I believe it is possible for those who want a high-quality education to get one—regardless of the mode of delivery (online, correspondence, or classroom), as long as the student is willing to put in the time and effort it takes to get as much from the educational experience as is possible. Make no mistake, it is possible to get a poor or inferior education in traditional and non-traditional educational settings, and simply adding classroom instruction to the mix does not necessarily produce a better quality graduate.

As demographic changes have become realized in the workplace, traditional educational institutions have also had to become more prepared to meet the demands of the work force. Great increases in the education/training needs of older, working, adults, has been a primary driving force ushering in revision in thinking in America with regard to distance education. Many, if not most, traditional schools now have online components. Harvard University, for example, has online and web-based video courses. According to the school’s website, “Most of our distance education courses feature videos of faculty lecturing on campus. You watch each week’s distance education lecture at your convenience, submitting assignments as scheduled.”

The good news is that competition for students is and will continue to be a catalyst for the improvement of distance education services and offerings. The needs of the marketplace will continue to drive enhancements in the delivery and quality of education, and it will ensure the continued upgrading of the quality, and the image, of domestic and international providers and offerings possible through distance education and distance learning. With that said, I still must say that distance learning is not for everyone.

Where to Look First When Considering "Non-Traditional" Education Alternatives

If you are considering study through distance education, the first and most important thing you should do is to look within yourself, before selecting any particular distance education provider.

Of course, if you’re considering distance study, you should look for information that can help you understand what distance education and distance learning is all about, so that you will understand what you might be getting into, and so that you don’t have unrealistic expectations once you enroll in a distance education institution. But knowing what distance education is, how it operates, and even locating the best non-traditional external colleges and universities still does not tell you whether or not it is the right education alternative for you. In other words, it’s up to you to figure out if distance education and distance learning is right for you. No one else can make this determination. And no one will be well served—neither the distance learning student nor the distance education institution—when a student is enrolled who is not suited for this type of learning experience. This admonition is not meant to frighten anyone who might be considering distance education. Rather it is meant to help. If distance education is not suited for the way you want and need to learn, there is a good chance that you won’t like it, that you won’t do well as a student, and that you probably will not stick with it long enough to earn your degree.

On the other hand, if you enjoy independent study, and if distance education is suited for the way you want and need to learn, then there is a good chance that you will like it, and that you will stay with it until you achieve your education or learning goals. Therefore, it’s important to make sure you look within yourself first, before attempting to select a particular distance education provider. Your first major consideration should be making sure that you are choosing distance education for reasons that are right for you.

Distance education providers include schools that allow individualized independent learning programs—those where the pace of course completion is dictated by the learning and time needs and constraints of the independent learner, to programs that are tightly structured in terms of the time required to complete courses. If you enjoy autonomous, self-directed learning, or a program of learning that does not require you to leave home in order to learn, then distance learning might be the right choice for you.

The United States Distance Learning Association, established in 1987, advocates, promotes, and provides information for people interested in distance education. The Association provides leadership for pre-K-12, higher and continuing education, corporate training, military and government training, home schooling and telemedicine.

Is Online or Distance Education Right for You?

Three Major Concerns Cited by Students of Distance Learning


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    • drmiddlebrook profile imageAUTHOR

      Sallie B Middlebrook PhD 

      7 years ago from Texas, USA

      Thank you again, Yadav SK. Again, your visit and your comments have offered enlightenment for those interested in pursuing, or just learning more about, distance education/distance learning. In many ways, what you get from this mode of learning has a lot to do with what you bring to it. When you are a "self-motivated" independent learner, you will do your best to get everything you can from any opportunity to further knowledge or to improve skills/understanding, and that way, technology becomes an important means to a desired end. Good to know more and more traditional universities have come on board and are now helping to transform the image, and the quality, of distance education offerings.

    • drmiddlebrook profile imageAUTHOR

      Sallie B Middlebrook PhD 

      8 years ago from Texas, USA

      Thank you Kelly Underwood. I agree that there is certainly the potential for the courses to be prepared having comparable quality, whether they're offered online or on campus. I think a lot of the difference will be what students do as they take the courses. Those who are committed to having a great learning experience, I believe, can have one online or on campus. Those who don't take learning seriously can toss away a good learning opportunity, online or on campus. Thanks again, so much, for your comments.

    • drmiddlebrook profile imageAUTHOR

      Sallie B Middlebrook PhD 

      8 years ago from Texas, USA

      Leo Walsh, thank you so much for that insightful comment. I agree with you, wholeheartedly, that there are big advantages and big drawbacks to the online mode of teaching and learning, in general. With the MOOCs, I'm not sure I would like peer grading; maybe peer input, but not peer grading. In your example, one person used his or her own like/dislike, to determine what your grade should be. No objectivity, whatsoever. That's not really a grade, it's an opinion disguised as a grade. You're right, the jury is still out, and needs to stay out, until some refinements are implemented. I believe, however, that we're sort of in a "Beta-test" now, and that positive change is on the way. I think there is great potential in online teaching and learning.

    • Leo Walsh profile image

      Leo Walsh 

      8 years ago from North East Ohio

      I went to the Ohio State University for undergrad, and Cleveland State for my Masters. I am currently trying a couple of MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses) at I have been pleasantly surprised by the quality of the content. I have taken classes on Science Fiction and Fantasy, World Music, Data Programming with "R", Data Modeling and Sustainability. And, unlike traditional classes, I get the sense that I am exploring. And when done exploring, get to come back and share what I learned with people.

      But have a couple of issues...

      1) Forums can be confusing to follow, especially as Coursera is now set up. There are too many similarly named topics, so finding follow-ups to your posts is difficult.

      2) Peer grading, especially in the Science Fiction and Fantasy Class, has been uneven. For instance, I mentioned Darwin's "Origin of Species" having caused a stir in the decades before "Dracula" in my essay on the novel. One reviewer said "Darwin was a Godless atheist," argued for intelligent design, and informed me that they were giving me the lowest grade possible. Yikes.

      3) People have the ability to post anonymously. Which means that people often troll, being much more belligerent than they would if they were using their public credentials.

      For me, the jury is still out. I like going to class and interacting with peers. But there is no doubt that it is a lot more resource efficient to log in with my laptop from home.

    • drmiddlebrook profile imageAUTHOR

      Sallie B Middlebrook PhD 

      9 years ago from Texas, USA

      Thanks for the comment! Much appreciated. I'm sure online instructors are pleased to hear as well.

    • darknezz111 profile image

      Maxine Durand 

      9 years ago from Idaho

      First thing we have to lay down here is that most education means nothing other than the paper your degree is printed on. So "quality" is sort of a vague term that's difficult to monitor.

      Second, I've done both online and physical classes in high school and in college, and they each have their perks. Online classes have to be more structured, as their is no face-to-face for the teacher to alter the schedule at the drop of a hat. But, the lack of face-to-face means less one-on-one discussions with the teacher.

      Personally, I like online courses better, because the structure flows better for me. I also think they show a lot of potential, as a purely online curriculum cuts costs in many areas, and makes access to education easier. Maybe it isn't up to par yet, but I think that by the time I have kids, most schooling will have a major online component, if not being completely online in and of itself.

    • Leaderofmany profile image


      9 years ago from Back Home in Indiana

      I have been in both online and traditional in-class college. I believe the only thing I missed the most was the other students when doing online work. I like having my own schedule as an online student and the ease of getting the work done. I would do online faster than in classroom any day.


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