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Distance learning is here to stay

The duration and spread of the COVID-19 pandemic have affected us in many aspects, one of them being education. As a result of the unique context we are experiencing on a global scale, one of the hottest topics on education right now is distance learning, which is showing a big boost.  In this article we discuss distance learning as a game changer, we take a look at its positive and negative aspects, and finally we evaluate some of the most important platforms offering distance and online learning (Udemy, Codeacademy, Coursera, Skillshare and Everyday Mathematics).

What is distance learning? 

Distance learning is remote learning and it uses the tools of online learning. While online learning can sometimes take place in school, the library, within the university, etc., distance learning by definition cannot: It takes place remotely from the teaching institution.

Despite its current pivotal presence in the general conversation about education, we will likely see more of it in the coming weeks when more educators than ever before will start the new academic year in their virtual/online classrooms.

As the starting line regarding distance learning resources and contexts are different among institutions and regions, the outcome of this new education normal might prove difficult to evaluate.

In addition to the above, online learning quality standards differ from one institution to another* despite the fact that quality standard organizations have updated their frameworks in recent years**. Thus, this raises questions regarding the quality of such distance learning that teachers and students will find in the new normal.  

How long will distance learning last? 

Despite the above, distance learning has become a reality that is here to stay. Maybe not as big as it is becoming during the 2020 pandemic. But as some institutions will hope to get back to a pre-pandemic normal, others will already see in the ability to attract geographically remote students one way to avoid the coming student crisis of 2025-2026:

Since the 2008-2011 crisis gave low birth rates, some estimate that the volume of higher education students will see a significant drop in the above mentioned years –some sources say 15%.

One way to cope with this drop could very well be to attract foreign global students into the virtual classroom. Another way could be to facilitate and promote cross-institution enrollment, for example offering shorter courses that provide a real added market value. This way more domestic and foreign students would enroll in more than one institution. 

Evolution of the search volume of “distance learning” in the US in the past 12 months (up to date):

Advantages of Distance Learning

There are various reasons why distance learning has become a popular form of education today. Not only has it offered opportunities to people who otherwise would have limited access to education, but it also provides educators a new paradigm to develop courses of the highest quality. The following are some strengths of distance learning: 

1. Anywhere, Anytime

Flexibility is one of the main advantages of online learning. One gets the ability to participate from anywhere in the world. Instead of having to go-to-class physically, one can access the class from the comfort of their home. In addition to this, online learning offered by ed-tech platforms allows students to take lessons at any time and at their own pace. Furthermore, students can also access course materials and lectures repeatedly if they want to reflect on them before moving ahead.

2. Centered On Learning    

In an online learning environment, there is a high degree of anonymity among learners. Discriminating factors such as age, gender, race, and appearance are almost absent. Instead, the focus is centered on learning rather than anything else. It also provides everyone with an opportunity to respond and contribute thoughtfully to the material at hand. 

3. Availability of resources

Distance learning allows teachers to compile resources including scholarly articles that are relevant to the topic of discussion and share them with students for in-depth analysis. Moreover, students also get the ability to access other study materials which otherwise are located in a physical location somewhere on the other side of the world. 

4. Interactive, feedback-rich 

Online education has been gradually including more and better interaction between the students and the instructor. The introduction and popularity of new communication tools like group chat or group video calls facilitates sharing feedback, ideas and points of view, creating a multi-way learning environment: Like in a classroom, everyone gets to hear and learn from the questions of others. However, not all the courses show or have the same degree of interaction, so this is an aspect to take into account when looking for quality distance learning.

Not all the grass is greener on the other side – Weaknesses of distance learning

Although distance learning benefits of all the advantages of online learning, which are significant, there are also disadvantages, or weaknesses, to it:

1. Anywhere, anytime… for those who have the right equipment

Before distance learning can hope to succeed, there must be students who can have access to the online environment. Lack of access to technology will exclude an otherwise eligible student from the course. This issue is most pertinent concerning students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.  Thus, in a way, distance learning could further enlarge the education gap between students of different backgrounds.

2. Centered on learning…provided you already are internet savvy

To be able to function successfully on the internet, both the instructor and the students must possess a certain degree of computer knowledge. They should be comfortable in using and navigating the internet and must be familiar with emails and other procedures involved with online learning. Without knowing the know-how of the computer and the internet, it is hard to succeed in the online environment. 

3. Dependent Students

Distance learning is an effective medium of education for organized, disciplined, and mature learners. However, it might not be a suitable option for more dependent students. The printed textbook can only be used for academic purposes. However, a computer with an internet connection is a different world altogether. Therefore, students must take responsibility for their education and become more focused. If the student is not disciplined and self-motivated to learn, online education is as good as no education. 

5 Best Distance Learning Platforms

Now that you know the different pros and cons of distance learning, the following are the 5 best platforms that you can choose from depending upon what you aspire to learn. Whether you are a kid or a college-going student looking to develop and improve your skills, there is a choice for everyone. 

1. Udemy

When it comes to online learning, Udemy separates itself from the rest of the platforms available on the internet. No other digital platform offers as many courses on as many subjects as that of Udemy. You can find courses on software, business, accounting, finance, marketing, and data analysis to name a few. 

You can learn absolutely everything and anything on the platform. That said, the online learning platform is suited for people of all age groups including kids and adults. The courses are well crafted and divided based on modules. In addition to the free courses, you can also find paid courses that start as low as $20. 

2. Codecademy

Codecademy is an online learning platform that is dedicated to people who wish to learn to code. The platform delivers IT-oriented online classes with a focus on programming, data science, and web development. It has a simple user interface with easy navigation. More than 45 million people have used Codecademy to learn and improve their coding skills. 

Recently, the platform also launched a new interactive VR (Virtual Reality). It allows users to take the entire course inside the VR headset and preview their coding in a 3D environment. The use of Virtual Reality allows instructors to better engage with their students through an immersive experience which is more effective, practical, and enjoyable. 

Whether you are a beginner or an experienced professional, Codecademy offers courses for everyone and all age groups. Apart from the free plan, they also offer paid subscriptions which provide you hands-on experience with real-world projects and a certificate of completion at the end of the course.

3. Coursera

Coursera is one of the best online platforms available for professionals. It offers many different courses from major universities and companies, including a crash course on Python by Google. Having said that, some of the top universities offering courses on the platform include Duke University, Imperial College of London, Stanford, Penn University, and the University of Michigan. 

The courses are available in the field of humanities, computer science, social science, personal development, and much more. Having said that, the prices of these courses vary depending upon the institution that is offering it. 

The platform is accessible to everyone including professionals who are looking for online certification courses from major institutions around the world. This is one of the reasons why Coursera continues to grow in popularity every year. The platform grew from having 37 million registered users in 2018 to having 45 million registered users in 2019. 

4. Skillshare

Skillshare is an excellent online learning platform for artists and creatives. The platform provides video-based courses in several different subjects including photography, animation, design, illustration, creative writing, and much more. The online learning platform offers a plethora of free courses, but these are usually short lessons as compared to paid ones. 

You can also use the 7-day free trial before becoming a paid member of Skillshare. The platform is suitable for all ages including kids and adults who are looking to improve their creativity in the above-discussed areas. 

5. Everyday Mathematics

Everyday Mathematics is an online learning platform that makes use of real-world examples to teach kids complex math concepts. To ensure a long-term understanding of mathematical theories, the curriculum is well-researched and field-tested. The platform is developed by the University of Chicago to teach Math to kids from Pre-K to 6th Grade. 

The online virtual classroom teaches mathematics in a fun way to kids, which makes their understanding of abstract math concepts more clear and easy to remember. For each class, the topics are divided using units and can be accessed for completely free. 

* “Perceptions of quality in online learning are as complex as the various models and delivery methods available” Dr.Mickey Slimp, “Trends in distance education: What college leaders should consider” (p.8).
** The National Standards for Quality Online Learning and ISO (International Standard Organization), to cite just two of them, have updated their frameworks of standards for online learning in the past recent years (2019 and 2017 respectively).
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