Understanding the Distance Education Types

Within the broader category of distance learning are a variety of distance education types. Crucially, these different approaches, models, or delivery methods can result in substantially different learning experiences. Each type has its own plus points, downsides, advocates, and detractors. Often, distance learning courses will also make use of a combination of different types, accommodating as many different needs as possible.


Read on to gain a better understanding of the main distance education types.

When exploring the concept of distance education, you are likely to read about a number of different distance education types and some of these terms can be confusing. Yet, once you understand what the different terms are and what they actually mean, it becomes easier to understand how different approaches compare.

Here, we break down distance education types, looking at delivery methods, pacing models and modes of delivery.

Delivery Methods

Delivery methods refer to the broad way in which distance education classes or courses are actually carried out. At present, there are two main delivery methods, which are outlined below, although there can be some cross-over.

Online

The expansion of high-speed internet and the rise of digital technology, including video conferencing software, has helped to make online delivery the primary delivery method for modern distance learning. Essentially, this refers to distance learning that is primarily or exclusively carried out over the internet. There is evidence to show that this method of delivery is actually growing at the expense of more traditional in-person classes too.

Recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics shows that while overall student enrollment declines, enrollment in exclusively online courses has grown, highlighting this shift. In fact, the online approach is so widespread that terms like e-learning are sometimes thought of as being synonymous with distance learning.

Understanding Distance Learning - Online Learning

Correspondence

The main alternative to the online delivery method, correspondence courses tend to be carried out using more traditional methods, such as sending teaching materials, assignments, and examinations through the mail. This was the method that gave birth to the entire concept of distance education. Although it is now sometimes considered to be archaic, it is still in use by some academic institutions, including certain colleges and universities.

Although the use of traditional mail and other traditional methods can make correspondence distance learning a slower process than modern online alternatives, it does provide opportunities to access education, even without a reliable high-speed internet connection. This helps to make distance learning available to a greater number of people.

Pacing Models

Pacing models describe the way in which distance learning is controlled. This means how quickly courses are completed and when students are able to progress. When it comes to pacing, the two main models are:

Paced

Paced distance learning refers to an approach where the speed of progression is controlled by the school, college, university, or provider so that all participating students complete the work at about the same time. This will typically mean that students have a clear start and end date for courses and even the individual modules within those courses. Similarly, deadlines for assignments and the timing of exams will be the same across the board.

The paced approach is favored by many teachers and academic institutions because it allows them to plan lessons, create a clear structure, and keep the learning group progressing at roughly the same speed. This then makes it easier for collaboration to occur, although setting the right pace to suit everyone can be challenging.

Understanding Distance Learning - Paced Model

Self-Paced

By contrast, the self-paced model of distance education works by providing learners with a greater amount of freedom to decide how quickly they progress. Effectively, this means the speed at which a student completes lessons or a course will depend on how much time they are willing and able to invest in their studies and their own level of ability. Therefore, for instance, someone who can dedicate 30 hours per week will progress faster than someone who invests two or three.

The self-paced model counters the problem of holding back certain students, allowing them to progress at the most appropriate speed for them. It is also an ideal model for any student whose available time may vary from week to week or those who have a lot of time to invest. However, the learning group will not stay together, hindering collaboration.

Understanding Distance Learning - Self-Paced Model

Modes of Delivery

Finally, the mode of delivery refers to the way distance education content is actually delivered to students, as well as the way in which they subsequently engage with it. The main modes are as follows:

Synchronous

Synchronous learning is the term used to describe distance education delivery where students and teachers interact with one another from different locations but at the same time. It is a relatively recent phenomenon in terms of e-learning, facilitated by technology like Skype, Google Hangouts, Microsoft Teams and Zoom.

Essentially, synchronous learning takes place ‘live’ or in real-time, similar to in-person instruction, but the learning group is geographically separated. Students may be required to participate in compulsory learning activities – which may include group chats, virtual classroom sessions, and more – at an agreed time. As a result, the learning group interacts, close collaboration becomes much easier, and direct instruction from teachers is possible.

Asynchronous

When distance learning occurs away from live sessions, this is referred to as asynchronous learning. It involves a greater degree of self-study, with students potentially carrying out tasks at completely different times from one another, and accessing learning materials on a more on-demand basis. Audio files, video files, and documents can be made available to stream or download, and the creation of this kind of teaching archive is a major advantage.

With asynchronous learning, a level of structure can still be provided by teachers or institutions, primarily through the setting of clear deadlines. However, the learning group is not required to convene at the same time, resulting in greater flexibility. Until relatively recently, this was by far the most common method for online delivery.

Understanding Distance Learning - Synchronous Vs. Asynchronous

Mixed

As the name suggests, the mixed mode of delivery offers a combination of both synchronous and asynchronous learning. For example, a course could be structured around asynchronous work, but with the learning group required to come together for live sessions on a regular basis, in order to share ideas. Alternatively, it could be that students primarily work independently, but are required to have live one-to-one sessions with the teacher on occasion.

The key advantage of the hybrid model is the potential to benefit from both modes of delivery while mitigating some of the disadvantages associated with them too. Additionally, the hybrid approach provides greater flexibility for teachers, who can make changes as the course progresses, based on the specific needs of students.

Final Thoughts

The number of distance education types available to students and offered by teachers or academic institutions can make the concept seem daunting. However, breaking the types down into categories can help to make it all much easier to understand. It is also worth remembering that, in practice, many of these types, models or approaches can be delivered in combination, meaning a course can offer online and correspondence components, or paced and self-paced modules.