Many students have trouble fitting their studies into an already hectic schedule. Others, such as those who live in rural or remote areas, may not be able to study the course of their choosing due to the institution's location. Luckily, getting a qualification doesn't have to mean changing your lifestyle or where you live. If you can't get to the classroom every day, you still have plenty of options to complete your course through online and distance education.
In this section we discuss:
What is online and distance education?
Online and distance education (also called external mode) allows you to study wherever and whenever it is convenient — there are no regular classes to attend and all the information you need is delivered through the post or online. For those who prefer a little face-to-face contact, or for hands-on courses with practical components, mixed mode or flexible enrolment combines some on-campus classes with distance delivery.
Where and how are online and distance courses offered?
Whether you're finishing school this year, returning to study as a mature age student or beginning a postgraduate course, most institutions will be able to cater to your needs.
A wide range of courses can be studied by distance through universities, TAFE institutes and private tertiary education providers. While many of these courses can be completed entirely by distance, the practical nature of the learning process in some fields (such as nursing) means that you should be prepared to commit to some time on campus.
Trades and certain professional fields (such as architecture, creative arts, dentistry, medicine and veterinary science) demand a significant amount of hands-on training. In these cases, institutions will advise which subjects or course specialisations are available through distance education and which components are strictly delivered on campus.
Different online and distance options
The broad heading of "external study" includes both online and distance education programs. Distance study has also traditionally been known as study "by correspondence" and most course materials and assessment tasks are still sent to distance students in the post or via email. Online study, by contrast, uses online or multimedia formats to replace and even to simulate face-to-face classes. This means that lecture notes and other course information can be delivered by email, on the university website and even through subject blogs. Some universities may allow students to download the lectures themselves as sound or video recordings or stream the lecture live through "virtual classrooms". The only catch is the need for good, fast internet access, so students in rural areas should consider this if their chosen course relies heavily on online materials.
The course materials usually contain a subject guide, written versions of the lectures or classes that on-campus students attend, as well as any further reading material suggested in class. Distance students can use the subject guide to find out what course materials or other resources they must read each week, as well as any additional information required to complete assessments. As with on-campus study, there will usually be one or more assignments (or exams) to complete during the semester.
In some distance courses — especially those with a strong hands-on learning element — parts of the course may be delivered in large class blocks on campus. This is often called "block mode" or "intensive study" because students can get all of these classes out of the way in one hit. The only drawback with this method is the sheer volume of information that you are required to absorb at once. Mixed-mode study is common among postgraduate and mature age students, who may need greater flexibility due to work schedules or childcare arrangements.
Flexible study options
One of the main drawcards of online and distance study is the flexibility they offer to students, allowing them to tailor study around their lifestyle. Some institutions offer a number of study sessions per year (often as trimester or term systems), allowing students to commence their studies at a time of year that suits their lifestyle, accelerate their studies or spread their course out. Many online and distance students enjoy having the freedom to stop and start their studies as they please, resuming at a time that is convenient to them. Some institutions also offer students the ability to enrol in single subject study, allowing them to trial a particular institution or area or study before they commit to a full course.
Interactivity and support
The differences between on-campus and external study modes are not as pronounced these days. As new technologies have emerged, students completing their course by distance and online have been able to learn course material by downloading lectures to their laptop or tablet and participating in virtual classrooms. They are also able to interact with other students in their cohort, share their work and opinions, and consult tutors in much the same way as on-campus students through resources such as chatrooms, blogs and wikis. If support is needed, student advisers, counsellors and technical support staff are usually just a phone call or email away.
As with on-campus study, there will usually be assignments and exams to complete throughout the course. Gone are the days when external study still required countless library visits, thanks to online journals and databases. Resources that are not available remotely, such as library books, can often be ordered online and posted directly to students. Some libraries even offer services that photocopy and send particular pages of books or journals, either through the post or by email.