Self-Paced Distance Learning: How Does IT Work?

Some distance-learning classes allow students to work fully at their own pace, completing tests and assignments on their own schedule and submitting them when they're complete. However, many operate on a semester format and have an end date when all work is due. Exams may also need to be taken live or completed on specific dates.

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Types of Distance-Learning Classes

Colleges and universities increasingly offer distance-learning opportunities in all fields of study to accommodate Web-savvy students who find it more convenient to complete coursework from home. These are sometimes available as part of fully online certificate or degree programs. They may also be components of on-campus program; this format is known as a hybrid option. Individuals can also take online classes independent of an overarching program, and these are less likely to follow a traditional semester format. Though some universities dedicate an entire school to distance learning, online classes are often available through a college's continuing or adult education division for college credit or personal enrichment.

How Coursework Is Completed

Students either receive assignments via e-mail or access them through a designated online learning portal - which is commonly located on their school's website. Although learners may need to purchase textbooks independently, supplemental reading material is also usually posted online. Students may need to download PDFs or play streaming videos, and some media requires the use of specific software and extensions. Assignments and tests may be e-mailed to the professor or submitted through the learning portal directly. Some assignments can be turned in at students' discretion, but exams are usually due by a certain date and may even need to be taken live with a remote proctor.

Communication Formats

Students communicate not only with instructors but also with their peers. Addressing either an individual or group, they may asynchronously post to discussion boards or send e-mails. In real time, they may send instant messages or participate in scheduled chats. Web cams are also used along with software such as Skype to facilitate live, face-to-face discussions.

Required Technology

Technological requirements vary widely according to field of study; for example, a sound engineer may need to have specific music editing software while an accountant may need to purchase QuickBooks. However, all students must have an up-to-date computer with high-speed Internet connectivity and a current version of a Web browser, such as Internet Explorer or Firefox. Hardware might include Web cams, speakers and microphones.

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