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Distance learning sounds like a dream come true for students: no need to go to school, no need to deal with haughty professors, no need to get stressed about submitting requirements or forcing yourself to interact with other students you are uncomfortable with—the list goes on.
But is it truly a perfect learning system? The best way to find out is to weigh the pros and cons of distance learning.
The pros of distance learning
This is number one among the advantages of distance education. Among the hassles of traditional learning is the commute. Traveling can be quite resource-extensive, especially while complying with requirements. Time is the most valuable resource. It might take up to an hour for some students just to travel to school. Couple this with a bag filled with books, and traveling to school is always a nightmare. “Mind over matter,” they say—but carrying around a large, heavy bag on your way to school can negatively impact your academic performance for that day.
With distance learning, these problems are virtually nonexistent. Students who enroll in courses in distance learning institutions bid farewell to long commute times. They can simply stay within the comfort of their own homes. Digital materials most often replace physical books as the student’s main sources of information. The conventional element remains is the tutor who monitors the student’s progress.
Not only does the absence of physical books eradicate all physical hassles; it relieves the student of all worries and makes him more mobile. All a student needs, for the most part, is a computer with a sufficient Wi-Fi connection. If he loses access to a book, all it takes is a few clicks on his mouse to get it back.
Traditional learning requires one to follow a strict schedule imposed by the institution. Sometimes, the assigned schedule is convenient for the students. Most of the time, unfortunately, it is not. This is a logistical nightmare: the institution has to set a schedule where both the instructor and the students can attend. Without this harmony, the class risks falling into dissolvement.
Majority of colleges do allow students to choose particular times for some courses for their convenience. Yet, even this is very limiting, as they can choose only from a given set of choices, with varying different times, venues, professors, and—ultimately—workload. Plus, they have to fight to be the first to get the slots. This is a very stressful ordeal, and the semester has not even started!
This is one of the greatest advantages of distance education. It allows students to avoid this inflexibility by giving them a lot of freedom that they can almost never enjoy from traditional learning. Instead of a fixed set of periods, students are allowed to study the materials and finish assignments at any time and place. There is no need for them to outwork other students for slots, because distance learning does not require slots.
Because of this near-complete freedom—to an extent, of course, since deadlines are still a thing—distance learning students are allowed to deal with other commitments, without the stress of their schedule. For some, this allows them to be more productive. The time that is usually used on matters of preparing and traveling to school, can now be focused on another commitment like a full-time job .
Because students only have to stay at wherever they are comfortable, they have a much wider selection of where they would like to study. Many would opt for the comfort of their bedroom, as students wish for nothing more than to throw themselves into a bed right after school. Some, perhaps, may go to a nearby cafe. In any case, traveling costs no longer have to be a problem.
Same also goes with food and water expenses. Food in schools can get pricey, but with distance learning, students can save up by eating food from good, old home-cooking, instead, free of charge—save, of course, groceries.
Reading materials can also be crossed out of the distance learning student’s list of expenses. Most, if not all, materials are accessible digitally, eliminating books not only as a physical burden but a financial one, too.
With the hassles of traditional learning system out of the way, it lends the distance learning student a state of peace, solace from any unimportant distractions or worries. This is the springboard to concentration. Nothing much else can distract the student from studying and appreciating the material and finishing his requirements.
The cons of distance learning
We have only touched upon the first half of the pros and cons of distance learning. So far, it seems that distance learning really is a dream come true for students who dislike the present traditional learning system. It is far from perfect, however. The pros discussed before are actually double-edged swords—they bring as much good as they do bad. Hence, it is important to discuss the disadvantages of distance education.
While convenience is the biggest among the advantages of distance education, isolation is the biggest among the disadvantages of distance education. This is because since distance learning lets students stay at home, or wherever they are comfortable, there is a very high likelihood of individual students being isolated to themselves.
This is not just isolation of students from each other, but also students from instructors. Human beings are social animals—socializing is an essential need for people. Definitely, distance learning students can talk to other people to fulfill such a need. It would not be as fulfilling, however, as talking to other students who are taking the same course.
This is not to say that distance learning students are not ever able to socialize in a fulfilling manner about their education. Chances are there are students who can cope well with such circumstances. Nevertheless, other students are not capable of doing just as well.
Impaired social learning
Regardless of whether someone is extroverted or introverted, what students of distance learning would definitely miss is the chance of improving soft skills—skills that they are sure they cannot learn on their own. Students would work in their own timeframe, in a place where they are comfortable with the goal of concentrating better in completing their workload for the day. Social interaction is of little concern to them in their studies—even less so are social skills.
This also comes at the detriment of two skills that are monumentally useful in their future lives: teamwork and leadership. Traditional learning allows the possibility of activities assigned to groups of students who work together to accomplish the task. Teamwork is learned in this regard, and leadership in the one who is voted to steer the group to success. Both of these are absent in distance learning, which comes to the disadvantage of students as they enter into the professional world where such skills are vital.
Lack of competition
The spirit of a traditional learning school is to make a unified front in progress, but because it is a meritocratic system, it is consequently an avenue for competition. It is a common sight nowadays: the smartest people in class, competing to get top 1. Some students in class are aiming to be awarded for their excellence in specific subjects. Just as it is a place of teamwork and progress, it is also a land of competition and bragging rights.
This kind of environment may be one of the reasons why some students opt for a distance learning education. They find it toxic that their classmates make fun of those who scored low, or that some of their classmates have to shove their achievements down their throats.
Such a reason is justified: if an environment is too toxic, as in the case of a school with over-competitive students, it is best to leave it in favor for a better environment. Toxicity impedes growth, and growth is the ultimate aim. Switching to a distance learning environment may be a viable solution.
On the other hand, there is such a thing as “healthy competition,” one that allows you to gauge your skills based on those of others and improve from then. The great German philosopher Immanuel Kant himself even endorsed competition as the “engine of history,” without which humanity would not have evolved technologically and socially.
Think of it like this: there is an area, A, and another area, B. A has only one oak tree. Since it stands on its own, it receives all the sunlight that it needs. As for B, there are about 20 oak trees, all standing right next to each other and all fighting for the sunlight. Which area will see the growth of a tall, strong tree?
Surprisingly, not A. Because it had nothing else around it, the lone oak tree in A had no reason to keep growing taller than its current height—stagnation. Staying at a measly, crooked stature, it slowly dies sooner than it should. On the other hand B, though it does see some oak trees lagging behind the others in terms of height, they all grow tremendously tall. Competition is what made them evolve—it is what made them live.
This does not mean that distance learning would not produce excellent students. To be sure, it is very much possible. It simply shows that distance learning may lead to a majority of students stagnating academically. Some students may find true passion within themselves to improve. Unfortunately, others may not.
If there is no competition, the pressure of the instructors, or the student’s own passion for learning, procrastination is extremely likely. The distance learning student falters because of the comfort he has been given.
There is no need to explain what procrastination is. Pretty much everyone knows it, and has most definitely done it. This is one of the worst disadvantages of distance education. Academic performance suffers in exchange for convenience because of the lack of pressure coming from any source to foster growth.
The environment as the engine of growth
By no means is this an attempt to give credit or discredit on distance education. Nor is this an attempt to do the same to the present traditional learning system existing today. A takeaway from here is that there is no perfect education system.
Distance learning is seen by many as perfect because of its convenience, but to see it as such would feed into its halo effect that blinds people to its flaws. The traditional learning system, too, is flawed, yet it is also seen as perfect because it has been in effect for a long time. In the end, it really is imperfect, and the continuing search for alternatives to it is a testament to that.
Both learning systems have their own merits. Ultimately, however, the most important factor that must be considered here is the presence of pressure. A mistake that some people make is that a learning system is perfect if it allows the student to learn in comfort. There is no such thing as “learning in comfort.” There will always be discomfort—there will always be pressure, whether it is in the traditional learning system, in distance education, or in any other learning system.
Without pressure, there cannot be growth. To say otherwise is like saying that a person can grow muscles without exercise. The exercise is there as pressure for the muscles to overcome, and they have to be subjected to it until it can lift the weights without difficulty. The heaviest thing today would become the lightest thing tomorrow. The brain, too, has to undergo continual pressure for it to grow. We speak fluent English now, but we forget that we used to stammer trying to learn it. Now, it is second nature to us.
Lastly, this pressure has to come in a healthy environment that fosters the student’s growth, where a student can grow because of the environment, not in spite of it. If a traditional learning system fosters a student’s growth, he can opt for that. If distance learning is superior for the student, he can choose that instead, too.
An environment is considered healthy based on the needs of a student. In this case, it is why it is important to weigh the pros and cons of distance learning to determine whether it or another learning system is conducive to growth. Once a healthy environment is determined, keep the pressure going!
Of course, it should be the right amount of pressure, just enough to make the student feel uncomfortable and bring out his adaptability. Just remember: coal can turn into diamonds with just the right amount of pressure.
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