The advantages of online distance learning

Distance learning advantages

The technological component of learning is constantly growing. More and more classes are taking place online – yet rather than simply being a substitute for classroom courses, they can be blended with a classroom-based approach. This often offers students a more engaging and motivating experience.

In a series of four blog posts, Mike Rost will let us in on how we can use online distance learning in our teaching to motivate our students. This first post talks about the advantages of online learning, why teachers find it useful and why students enjoy it.

Distance learning versus classroom courses

Typically, there are two sets of teachers interested in experimenting with online teaching:

  • Those who are considering using distance learning courses for students who can’t attend classes.
  • Those who are looking to supplement their classroom teaching with more interactive, or personalized online components.

Yet regardless of the category they fall into, they’ll both often ask me the question: “What can distance learning courses provide that classroom courses can’t?”  

And this is the right question to ask. Looking at the relative advantages of online courses helps us discern what is the best use of classroom time for learning and what is the best use of online time for learning.

Knowing this allows us to make better decisions about how and when to use online learning. Instead of simply adopting an online course, adding online components just because they look attractive, or using great technology just because it alleviates scheduling problems, we can choose them for the added value they provide.

The strengths of classroom-based learning versus online learning

To respond to the initial question, the strengths of a classroom-based course are:

  1. Easier community building
  2. Direct access to a live teacher for inspiration, guidance and feedback
  3. More “live” opportunities for communicative practice with other students
  4. Provision of a structured schedule

As for the strengths of a distance learning course, the following come to mind. They:

  1. Provide easier access to course resources
  2. Offer greater convenience for the teacher and learner, and offer flexibility in scheduling
  3. Can be personalized – that is, teachers can cater to each student’s proficiency level and learning goals by delivering different online resources (including videos, readings, and listenings) to individual students so they can work on them in their own time.

However, distance learning courses have some less obvious advantages, too. In my experience using distance learning courses, I have noticed the following trends, which have completely changed the way I see and use online learning:

Increased Engagement

Number one is the rise in engagement. A well-designed distance course is aimed directly at the individual learner: there is much more practice time and immediate feedback, particularly for listening and speaking tasks. In fact, we often find that shy students and those who feel unable to participate in a classroom environment are more willing to engage with the teacher and other students in online courses.

Improved Concentration

Secondly, online courses seem to improve concentration, which, as all teachers know, is a continual problem in classrooms. Rather than being directed what to do, students working online can select what activities to engage in, for how long, and in what sequence – and this helps them stay focused.

Easier assessment

The third advantage that I’ve noticed, which is vital for me as a teacher, is the ease and fluidity of tracking progress. In classrooms, it’s hard to keep track of how students are progressing over the course of a whole semester, much less in each class. In online distance learning, you get constant monitoring of how well students are doing on individual tasks and progress checks, no matter what learning management system you’re using.

Why learners choose online courses

We’ve seen the potential reasons why teachers may opt for incorporating distance learning materials. But why do learners choose online courses over classroom ones?

In the course of my teaching career, starting as a novice high school teacher in West Africa and moving on to teaching graduate courses in education in an American university, I have found that it is essential to give students choices.

Choice is an important aspect of engagement and motivation – and the only way that students are going to learn is if they feel engaged. I give them choices in activities, homework, schedules, tests and even grading.

For example, If I’m teaching a class on human rights, in which students watch a short video and write a text, I’ll give students a choice of two videos, rather than directing them to watch a particular video. And in an exam, I may offer a choice of different reading materials or essay topics to write on.

What’s more, giving students a choice of a distance learning course over a classroom course, a choice of a blended classroom-online course, or even a choice of activities, can really improve motivation and increase engagement. Just make sure not to overwhelm them with too many choices!

What learners say

When I ask learners about their reasons for choosing a distance learning course, the most common answers I hear are convenience and cost.

However, I know that personal preferences also play a role. For example, students who are more oriented towards and more engaged by written communication or technology tend to learn more efficiently online. The self-direction opportunity that distance learning provides also appeals to many students.

As a teacher, I like to give my students the option to choose the learning method that suits them best, and for some students, being able to include an online element in their studies can make a huge difference.

Next time Mike will be looking at the challenges of online distance learning, so stay tuned!

Pearson English Interactive
To find out more about how you can use distance learning in your own teaching practice, check out Pearson English Interactive, an online course designed for adult learners that incorporates technology with the latest teaching methodologies.

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