How Distance Learning Works

For the first-time student, an online course can be a disconcerting experience, especially if they have no idea what to expect beforehand. It's helpful to have an idea of how most distance learning classes are structured before jumping in head-first. (Be sure to also check out our article, "Is Distance Learning Right For You?" for strategies to help you become a more successful online student.)

Asynchronous Communication

There are almost as many software packages for online education as there are online education programs. Some schools have created their own system, while others use commercial packages like WebCT or Blackboard. Most of these solutions, whether they're a million-dollar software package or just a web site and a message board, are built around asynchronous communication. Instead of a traditional classroom where information and communication occurs in real-time (synchronously), online course discussions and information take place asynchronously -- students and teachers participate at different times.

At University of Phoenix Online, for example, online classes usually last between five and six weeks and each week typically begins with the instructor sending out an email describing the week's topic and assignments. Then the instructor often posts a short lecture and discussion topics. Throughout the week, students work on their reading and assignments and can participate in the class conference system to participate in discussions, get help, or answer other student's questions. When assignments are due, students email them to the instructor, who grades them and returns them with comments.

Chat, Video, and More

While most programs are based around asynchronous communication, some also incorporate other technologies in their courses. Regularly-scheduled chats with the instructor and other students can bring a class together for real-time discussions. Some colleges (such as Stanford University) broadcast certain online classes via streaming video over the Internet. Imagine watching your business lecture while sitting in front of your iMac and wearing your PJ's!

Internet-based learning is still relatively new, so delivery methods will undoubtedly change greatly as technology advances. As students get higher bandwidth connections at home, it isn't unthinkable that you could have full-blown videoconferencing from your house and engage in a discussion with a teacher across the country and students from around the globe!

Find the distance learning program that's right for you! Browse our lists of schools offering bachelors, masters, and even MBA degrees online today.