Golden Age for Distance Learning as Tech changes the sector

Prospective students are increasingly opting for distance learning as a first choice, with the sector experiencing strong growth as a result of its harnessing of technological advancements.

“Educational technology has taken the distance and isolation out of distance education and, as a result, the sector is benefitting from the fact that it speaks directly to what modern, self-directed young people seek when furthering their education,” says Peter Kriel, General Manager at The Independent Institute of Education, SA’s largest private higher education provider.

Kriel says in 2017, many people have neither the time nor patience to do things the “traditional” way, and distance learning has sufficiently come of age for it to be viewed as a viable, quality alternative to fulltime, contact study.

He says that distance education has traditionally been the domain of working adults and those who could not afford or gain access to contact institutions.

“However the power of what is possible online has dramatically changed that perception – locally and internationally – and all distance institutions are reporting a massive surge in registrations from school leavers and other non-traditional distance students,” he says.

“Historically, distance education had a reputation of isolation and drop out; of failure and stress and of being a very difficult thing for anyone without superhuman self-discipline to tackle, so it was not an attractive option and not suitable for most school leavers. But that is no longer the case, as when done right there is no more distance in distance – just a great deal of flexibility and self-paced learning without any of the isolation.”

Kriel says that by paying close attention to how people learn, modern distance learning can in fact be significantly more effective than the old crowded lecture room model. That is because distance students can learn by pacing themselves and checking their own progress on the way while getting help when needed; they can develop critical work skills such as the use of online resources and communication and collaboration tools; they can build networks with other students across the world and graduate with a degree that has given them both knowledge and confidence.

“Back in the day, distance institutions sent learning materials to students by snail mail and received assignments back in the same way.  Later, e-mail was used and content was merely dumped in a digital repository for students to access.

“But over the last decade, the convergence of social media tools and interactional technology like blogs, wikis and discussion forums have been used to enrich static presentation of material online, which has turned the modern distance experience into one in which all the interactional possibilities of the web and associated technology are leveraged to engage, support and monitor students and to connect them to each other.”

Kriel says that the result of this harnessing of tech in distance learning is that students are increasingly not seeing the option as a last resort but, just as many students are increasingly electing to go the private higher education route instead of enrolling at public universities, so students are actively choosing distance learning because of the associated benefits.

Rebecca Shimmin, Senior Operations Coordinator for distance education at The Independent Institute of Education warns however that prospective students should interrogate the quality of the institution and course on offer just as they would with any contact institution.

“Questions to ask before signing up include the obvious ones about registration and accreditation, but also questions about the support structures in place for students who are struggling or not keeping up. If the answers you get are vague or complicated, this should be a clear signal not to enrol. If the institution isn’t able to make a connection with you in the initial stages, they are very unlikely to do so when you need them further down the line.”

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