How Distance Learning Improves Access and Flexibility in Higher Education


Colleges and universities are under constant pressure to meet and maintain enrollment objectives while addressing evolving student demands. More students and parents are taking a consumer approach to higher education. What’s the ROI? Is the school delivering the best possible student experience and academic outcomes? If not, today’s students are more likely to transfer to find what they’re looking for. Also, not every new student is a recent high school graduate. People from all walks of life are going to college, and they need a flexible learning environment that accommodates their family, job and schedule.

More schools are using distance learning to meet the demands of today’s students and address their own enrollment challenges. Distance learning enables students to take online courses or attend classes remotely using interactive videoconferencing. According to a recent Online Learning Consortium study, 28 percent of students use a school’s distance learning offerings for at least one course. Many schools have also implemented hybrid programs that allow students to attend a class either in person or online.

In addition to providing more flexibility for students who are unable to physically attend classes, distance learning removes geographic limitations from higher education. Schools in urban areas can use distance learning to recruit students from rural areas and foreign countries. On the other end of the spectrum, distance learning allows schools in rural areas, which typically have fewer local resources and transportation options, to level the playing field by reaching more students.

Distance learning can also minimize disruptions to education caused by unforeseen natural and political events. For example, the uncertainty surrounding proposed federal policies on international travel to the U.S. have caused concern in the higher education community. Wildfires and hurricanes can temporarily shut down a college or university. In past years, a health scare caused by an H1N1 infection affected operations at some schools. Distance learning helps higher education overcome these challenges and minimize disruptions to the learning process.

Interactive videoconferencing is critical to successful distance learning programs. If students are simply watching a prerecorded video or live feed, there is minimal engagement. Students also miss out on casual conversations with educators and fellow students before and after the class. Robotic telepresence is a new concept that makes it possible for students to be actively involved in the classroom experience and have personal interactions with classmates. Essentially, a robot stands in for students who attend a class remotely.

Distance learning requires robust IT and telecommunications infrastructure to succeed. High-speed Wi-Fi connectivity and significant bandwidth are needed to support interactive videoconferencing, robotic telepresence and other advanced features. A web portal is often used to allow students to access the school’s learning management system and information system, as well as specific classes, learning applications and online educational materials.

Many colleges and universities that have effectively implemented distance learning have seen increased enrollment and revenues from their undergraduate and graduate programs. With the right technological foundation and strategy, schools can use distance learning to offer greater flexibility to students and expand access to learning virtually anywhere in the world.