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Is There "Quality" Education From a Distance?

Updated on August 18, 2020
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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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