Student Voice: Is Distance Learning Effective for Undergrads?

Suchita Chadha is a junior at Emerson College and the author of our weekly “Student Voice” column.

Long before technology came into play, educators sought to create an educational relationship via correspondence in order to facilitate distance learning, wherein the student would rarely, if ever, meet the teacher in person. Going as far back as 1728, one of the earliest recorded attempts at distance learning appeared in the Boston Gazette, where Caleb Phillips advertised a correspondence shorthand course. He’d would send postcards in shorthand to his students, who would then transcribe it and send it back for marking and feedback. Fast forward a few centuries, and distance learning found a new avenue, one that is faster, more convenient, and more customizable than postcards in the mail.

Distance-learning methods, over time, have made use of every technological advancement, including the telephone, radio, and film. Not all were successful, but it created a framework for an adaptive education method—one that changed with the times.

Today, access to personal devices connected to the internet have made distance learning an increasingly viable choice for students of all types. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) allow an unlimited number of participants to access lectures, study materials, discussion boards, and teacher feedback. Each student approaches online courses with different goals and reasons. Some take advantage of the lack of time restriction to learn the material when they are free—often at night, after work—while others use it to maintain the benefits of a good education despite being geographically unable to attend a class.

However, an unfortunate drawback to online courses is the lack of responsibility put on students. In a recent article for The Atlantic, Derek Newton wrote about the organizations and businesses that enable cheating by offering services to impersonate a student and get the grades in their place.

Newton’s observations are spot on. According to one anonymous Emerson College student, “If there’s an online quiz and I have an ebook, sometimes I will not do the reading and instead search for the key terms in the ebook.”

It’s not ethical, but most students, undergrad or below, take online courses because they have the reputation of being easier. They act as a replacement of “boring courses no one likes” allowing students to slack off and work at their own—very procrastinated—pace.

It’s not all bad, though. “I prefer online quizzes partially because I don’t have to erase my answer. On paper tests I do, which takes more time, which makes me more nervous,” says another Emerson student. There’s also something very permanent about the written word, whereas an online test enables students to focus solely on the content, rather than their handwriting and the fear of not having time to go back and edit through.

Apart from strictly online courses, in which no physical contact or presence is required, blended learning—methods combining online and offline education—can be a way to enhance teaching and better engage students.

One writing, literature, and publishing student at Emerson College thinks the integration of mediums could be very effective. “Student discussion boards or simulated lab experiments should be implemented into classrooms, so that not every single class is a lecture, discussion, and/or screening.” In this case, many students enjoy the e-learning aspect of the course because it breaks the monotony of learning.

There are undeniable advantages for MOOCs, many of which can and will enable everyone in the world to have access to quality education and valuable teacher-student correspondence. For college students though, blended learning may be the better method to ensure students actually learn the material, unless they are able to take responsibility for self-guided online courses.

Read other articles from our Student Voice column here. 

Suchita Chadha

Suchita Chadha

Suchita is a student at Emerson College, where she is pursuing a BFA in Writing, Literature, & Publishing for poetry with a Global & Post-Colonial Studies minor. She has been published in Verge Magazine (Canada) and Affairs Today (UK).