Distance Learning in the USA

What is Distance Learning? Distance learning, also known as correspondence study or independent study, is any non-traditional educational process which exists outside a classroom setting. Courses are taken by students in their own homes using a variety of means, from traditional pen and paper correspondence, to lectures delivered by videos or by computer.

Distance Learning in the USA

In the past, education was largely confined to the classroom. As technology has changed over time, so has the process of learning. No longer do students and professors have to be in the same place at the same time. In some rare cases, the instructor has been replaced altogether by that of a computer programme. Many individuals, who in the past were excluded from education, have another opportunity or option to pursue education.

The demographics of individuals who use distance learning are changing. In the past, this education process was used by individuals who were immobile or had a disability. Currently, this form of education has expanded to include individuals of all backgrounds. However, the typical distance learning student is older in comparison to students of the same education level and often has additional commitments to a job or family.

What Types Of Qualifications Are Offered? Individual courses can take from as little as a few hours to one traditional 12-15 week semester to complete. Courses may be taken on a credit basis, which can be applied towards degree programmes, or on a non-credit basis for personal satisfaction.

Undergraduate degrees: Associate degree programmes require students to complete approximately 60 credits-worth of courses and traditionally take two years of full-time study to complete. Community Colleges and Vocational and Technical Schools traditionally offer Associate degree programmes.

Bachelor degree programmes require students to complete approximately 120 credits worth of courses and are normally offered at four-year colleges and universities. Bachelor degrees are traditionally completed in four years of full-time study but may take approximately six years of part-time study by the distance learning method.

Postgraduate degrees: Master’s degree programmes require students to complete 30-35 credits worth of postgraduate level courses and are normally completed in 18 months to two years of full-time study or two - three years by part time distance learning. PhD programmes usually take between four to eight years of study.

Certificate programmes: These are usually vocational or professional courses that can last from a few days to one year of study depending on programme and topic.

Which Universities Offer The Programme I Want? Nearly 2,000 US universities and other institutions offer some form of distance learning programme. The Educational Advisory Service (EAS) is not able to compile a comprehensive list and only limited information can be sent out through the mail. However the EAS reference library holds directories on distance education which visitors are very welcome to consult. You can also find a wealth of information on the World Wide Web, especially as more and more universities are going on-line.

What Factors Should I Consider When Choosing a Distance Learning Programme? Many universities and colleges are still in the trial phases with this new form of education. When researching, make sure you will be able to take all the necessary classes for a qualification through distance learning. Some universities may not have the capability to offer all required courses for distance learning. This is changing as more universities are competing against each other but there are still some limitations. Some universities may limit the distance from which you can study to a predetermined region or area. Depending on the requirement of each class, you might be required to travel to the institution on some occasions for labs, lectures, etc. Likewise, time zones have a large effect on those classes which require video/audio-conferencing. These demands may not be realistic for students outside the United States. Other factors to consider when choosing a distance learning programme include: the accreditation of the institution, the method of instruction, the faculty’s qualifications and experience and the student population - ask to be put in touch with students currently enrolled on the programmes you are considering; the number of students per faculty member (the lower the better); the library and resources available to a distance learning student - the Web is one source of information but beware of programmes that overly rely on one source; the student support and academic advising services available to a distance learning student; any requirements for distance learning students to spend time on the US campus; the completion rate and success rate of graduates; and finally the costs involved in the programme. For a fuller explanation of the above points please consult Virtual College by Pam Dixon, (Peterson’s, 1996), which is held in the EAS reference library via our website on

What Different Media Are Available For Distance Learning? As technology changes, so will the media in which distance learning is taught. Currently, there are four different ways one can use distance learning:

  • Voice - Information is exchanged via the telephone or by audio cassette.
  • Video -The use of video-conferencing, video cassettes or any other visual aid. These instruments may be used to convey one or two-way communication. Lectures are typically given through this medium. International students considering programmes which rely heavily on the use of video are advised to check the compatibility between the US NTSC video system and that of their own country.
  • Computers -The use of e-mail, faxes, and World Wide Web is most common. Computer applications may be used as the proctors of lessons, for monitoring work, or administering tests.
  • Print - In addition to the above mediums, there will be a component of printed material which might include textbooks, guides, course syllabi and/or case studies.

Distance learning typically uses a combined medium approach. For example, a majority of the education might be from printed materials with some e-mail contact with the professor. The administration of tests and grades could be completed by e-mail or by fax but will vary depending on the course instructor and testing procedures of the university.

Which Medium Is Best? Depending on the educational programme which you study, the medium of the distance learning will change. It is important to look at the academics of the programme as well as other aspects which you find important. The medium will then depend on all factors involved and may be adjusted for individual requirements.

Is Accreditation Important And Why? Yes! In order to gain recognition of your hard work, the institution will need to be accredited by one of the six regional accrediting bodies in the United States.When students contemplate study through a non-regionally accredited American institution, they are advised to check with academic institutions in their home country as to the recognition of such a degree. The process of accreditation is a voluntary one that provides for a minimum of standards and includes an intensive self-study by the institution and an inspection by external examiners. The US government plays no role in this process.

Please note that some distance learning institutions are offered by private for-profit organisations rather than the traditional non-profit institutions. Most private non-profit schools, as well as other accrediting bodies, may not recognise those courses which are offered by a for-profit organisation.

What Challenges Can I Expect? Previous studies comparing distance learning with traditional on-campus learning have indicated similar, if not higher, success rates. The distance learning student, however, will have to compete with other distractions such as family and work unlike the “traditional” student. Make sure your schedule will enable you to successfully complete requirements for each class.

Keep in mind that some course work will strictly adhere to pre-established timelines while other programmes are flexible and self-adjusting to the rate of study. All educational institutions have policies concerning refunds, renewals periods, transfers, and withdrawals from course work.

Financial Aid? Unfortunately there is very little funding for distance learning at the present time. Since a majority of individuals who use distance learning are not full-time students, the home institution might not provide as much funding as for campus-based students. Keep your options open and talk to your employer, union you belong to, or any other organisation which supports continuing education about possible funding.

Each university is different in how they charge for distance learning. While some institutions have set prices per credit hour or per semester, others might have a base fee plus special handling fees. These handling fees may include rental charges, course transfers, etc. The institution’s catalogue will usually list all the fees involved in a distance learning course. State universities usually list two costs; one for residents of the state in which the university is located and one for “out-of-state” residents which is usually higher than the “in-state” resident fee. International distance learning students will usually pay the higher fee. As stated earlier, the costs will vary so keep this in mind when looking into programmes.

How Do I Apply? Each university in the US establishes its own admission requirements and procedures. There is no central application clearing house like UCAS in the UK and international students will need to deal directly with the US institution they wish to attend. In general most two-year colleges, vocational and technical schools, and short courses have simple admissions procedures. You should write to the Office for Distance Learning at the institutions you are considering to request information and an application form. Applicants will need to complete the application form and some may ask for a transcript of previous academic work. A transcript lists courses you have attended at a previous institution and the grades you achieved.

The procedure for applying to distance learning degree programmes is similar to traditional degree programmes. You should contact the admissions office at the institutions you are considering and request information about admission requirements for distance learning degree programmes. The application package will usually consist of: a lengthy application form; a transcript; possibly a score from one of the standardised admission tests e.g. the Scholastic Assessment Test for undergraduate degree programmes or the Graduate Record Exam for postgraduate programmes; plus one or two essays. Prospective distance learning degree students should read our Beginner’s Guide to Undergraduate Study and Beginner’s Guide to Postgraduate Study respectively for further information about the application procedures for traditional degree programmes.

Searching For More Information The following distance learning guides may be found in the EAS reference library at The Fulbright Commsion Library or via our website on or contact the Education Advisory Service direct at The Fulbright Commission on: +44 (0) 207 404 6994 62 Doughty Street, London. WC1N 2JZ.

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