Distance learning is a fairly new concept in education today. It is basically the idea that students don't have to physically be in a classroom, in a desk, staring at a blackboard to learn. Technological advances such as broadband have made distance learning more accessible and realistic in recent years.
Distance learning has many avid supporters (myself included). There are also many traditionalists who feel like "true education" can only happen in the classroom with a teacher present.
I worked in the distance education department at my university for a year. This is how I was introduced to the concept. I will also be participating in a masters degree program through the distance ed. program at RIT soon, so I have done much research on the topic. I will share what I have learned (because really, thats why we're all here).
First of all it is important to bear in mind that the vast majority of distance learning is college-level work. I've only ever heard of one high school (ironically, mine) employing these techniques and the results were not encouraging. Some universities do offer undergrad distance ed. classes but they aren't as popular or as sensible as graduate-level courses. So with that in mind lets break it down.
There are two basic varieties of distance learning, synchronous distance learning, and asynchronous distance learning. Each of these types has different particular strategies.
Synchronous distance learning is when the students and the professor are all involved at the same moment in time in either teaching or learning. Just not in the same geographic location. Most of the time teleconferencing equipment is used and the lecture is broadcast out to the students along with images of transparencies in exchange for a blackboard. In turn, there are cameras and microphones (if the class is set up professionally) in the room with the students. The students are broadcast back to the professor's location so that communication can occur between the professor and the students. In this instance, the students are usually expected to travel to particular locations that have been set up with the equipment, as it is unrealistic for the students to set up cameras and microphones in their homes.
These classes are very interesting to observe. I was in charge of the technicalities of a couple of these classes and let me tell you, it's a pain in the ass. The requirements of the professor are compounded greatly. Not only do they have to prepare a lecture and have their materials together, they have to have great verbal skills. In these classes the professor is half teacher, half television journalist. They have to be able to work with microphones and cameras. They have to be twice as interesting because they are just an image on the screen to the students and not a real person. They also have to (or should, as not a single prof ever did this with me) coordinate with the person working the equipment so they can get notes together and in order for smooth transitions, coordinate use of the any additional equipment and other stuff to avoid surprises and technical difficulties. But, as it is the prof usually waits until the middle of the class to ask, "Does this computer have Adobe Acrobat Reader installed? I have a few pdf slides I'd like to show" or something like that. But I digress...
Tests in synchronous classes are usually proctored by someone not taking the class (usually the person working the camera or whatever).
Asynchronous distance learning is what is going on when the teacher and students are all on different schedules. These classes don't actually meet. Sometimes the teacher will tape lectures and make those tapes available to students. Sometimes the teacher will post lectures or notes on the Internet and make assignments for the students to do in their own time.
In these classes, the students are the ones under greater pressure. Instead of the situation being a teacher attempting to push knowledge into the brain of the students, it is a teacher making information available to students and then making him or her herself available to answer questions (office hours, telephone, email, etc). This means it takes much more effort on the part of the students. They actually have to read stuff and not rely on class lectures and class notes. They have to take an active role in their own education. Which, as far as I am concerned is actually a pretty rare thing.
Tests in asynchronous classes are sometimes scheduled and proctored. Or, sometimes the teacher will use one of the online test proctoring sites, which offer a teacher the ability to design tests and allow the students to log in and take tests securely.
In reality, there are hundreds of ways to operate a distance education class. It is still a new practice and standards and best practices are still being developed. From my experience, if skilled professionals operate the class, and all of the technology is in working order, and the professor is trained and open-minded these classes are great.
In my year I saw courses run by world-renowned professors where students all over the nation were given the opportunity to attend, whereas in traditional classes only a handful would have had that opportunity. I saw a class where students in the US were allowed to participate in a class in Sweden for half a semester, after which the professor moved to the US and reversed the roles where the Swedish students were the ones participating remotely. Students with children and busy lives are given the opportunity to pursue education. Distance ed will level the playing field in academia. No longer will it be the rich who don't need to work getting the educations. It is now much easier for the working class to attain higher education.
Many people argue that "true education" requires personal interaction, and face to face communication. The way I see it, if I wakeup not knowing how to solve a differential equation and go to bed that night knowing how to solve a differential equation, then education has occurred. I will support whatever mechanism it is that delivers that education to me in such a way that I dont have to eat ramen and put my career on hold for another two years in order to attain it. I may not get a warm fuzzy or a pat on the back from the professor. But I have a full time job, so I dont really have time for warm fuzzies or back-patting. Just give me the knowledge, thank you.
Sadly, the biggest obstacle standing in the way of the "distance education revolution" is the teachers. This new way of doing things shakes up the traditional roles and requires the teachers to learn new things. They have to learn how to perform well on camera. They have to learn new technology. The distance ed classes require more work and more preparation on the part of the teachers. For whatever reason, the teachers are the ones refusing to learn. A teacher who puts him or herself on the cutting edge of technology and is always open to new channels of spreading information and knowlegde is, in my opinion, the only "true teacher" there is.
But, that's ok. I'll say to them the same thing computer geeks have been saying to naysayers for decades.
"Just wait, it's coming"