Are Online Degree Programs Better than Distance Education?

‘Distance education’ and ‘Online education’ are often confused since both are delivered remotely. However, there is a significant difference between the two concerning certain essential aspects.

While distance education has existed long before the advent of the internet, online education ultimately owes its existence to advanced internet technology. Both forms of learning are designed to lend flexibility to the students. But distance learning provides a much lesser scope of active student participation and accountability than an online one.

In its initial stages, online teaching methods were used along with regular classroom sessions. Yet today, you can pursue complete courses and obtain a degree through online platforms at the comfort of your home. For the very first time, the online portals have started offering UGC-approved programs.

Further pushed by the COVID-19 scenario, the government authorities are encouraging greater digitisation of education. Online education is expected to grow as the digital gap reduces, and internet penetration rises across the country. But how are online courses overcoming these limitations posed by distance learning? Given below is an overview of the prominent differences between distance education and online education:

Regulatory Framework

In India, distance and online learning programs are approved and recognised by the UGC (University Grants Commission). The latest remote education guidelines are cited in UGC (Open and Distance Learning Programmes and Online Programmes) Regulations, 2020.

So, the online/distance courses that fulfil these rules are considered equivalent to the corresponding full-time programs. This recent step has paved the way for a new advanced model of learning in addition to regular and distance modes.

While most approval rules are the same for both the learning modes, they vary relative to the medium of teaching and assessments. For instance, the institutes offering online courses have to opt for a platform like SWAYAM or any other approved by an appropriate statutory authority.

Course Content and Delivery Mode

The study material in distance learning courses is either sent to the students by postal or electronic correspondence. It may be in hard copy or soft copy or both. Students are not bound to attend any scheduled classes in distance education.

They can go through the course material at their own pace and convenience. However, they may participate in a few contact sessions conducted at study centres close to their homes. Besides, they may also communicate with the teacher using digital means. 

On the other hand, the educational content of online courses is entirely delivered in electronic format. The curriculum of online classes is usually developed in consultation with popular recruiters and hiring managers. It allows for a high degree of flexibility in the learning curve. For instance, in Chandigarh University (CU) UGC-recognised online degree programs powered by upGrad, students can choose their personalised learning tracks as per their professional goals.

The course material is available as video lectures, presentations, eBooks, website articles, etc. Students are required to attend live sessions as per their preferred choice of batch timings. Further, the digital content is cost-efficient and easy to update, making it more reliable than the printed hard copy material. While there may be delays in the delivery of distance learning course content, these issues don’t generally occur in online programs.

Learner Engagement

There is a marked difference in the level of student support offered by distance education and online education. In distance education, it is wholly upon the student to monitor and track his/her learning progress throughout the course. Due to the absence of standardised channels for student-student and student-teacher interactions, learners tend to feel isolated.

On the contrary, online courses include a wide range of methods to boost and maintain student engagement. Apart from living classes, teachers can hold quizzes, discussion forums, question-answer rounds, and doubts sessions using online tools.

The virtual model of education comes with opportunities to personalise teaching techniques according to students’ learning styles. Nowadays, online educational portals organise virtual training and mentorship sessions for students. In these workshops, learners can connect with industry experts, experienced professionals, and peers from different parts of the world. 

This two-way communication of online education makes it much more feedback-oriented than distance education.

Assessments and Evaluations

Assessments are conducted periodically in both distance learning and online learning programs. In distance education, students usually have to appear at a designated regional centre for their examinations. While in online education, the learners can take the quiz in virtual mode at any place.

Both kinds of courses include assignments, MCQ-based tests, and projects at regular intervals. Yet, these are generally required to be submitted at specific centres in distance learning programs.

Except for the final examinations, the frequency of assessments is arbitrary in distance education. On the other hand, the entire series of tests, assignments, case studies, and projects are pre-decided and well-planned for the online courses.

The virtual platforms let the teachers conduct live group activities, discussions, feedback sessions, and one-on-one meetings. Apart from the overall final assessment, online programs are equipped with evaluations at every step of the course.

Hence, the online learning structure allows for more versatility and creativity in gauging students’ progress compared to the distance learning methodology.

Quality of Education and Learning

Of course, either type’s quality of education depends upon its course content, delivery, teachers, instructors, and evaluations. Since distance education is more of a self-directed individual effort, the learning process suffers in the long-run.

Even though the course material in distance education meets the quality standards set by regulatory authorities, it may not fulfil the application-based industry requirements. This is mainly because the distance learning programs are formulated to confer the requisite degree or qualification. 

In online courses, the learning goes beyond the theoretical concepts and bookish knowledge. Here, the program curriculum is devised by leading faculty in alliance with the industry leaders. Both the course syllabus and teaching methodology is disposed to inculcating practical abilities and proficiencies in the students.

So, whether you want to prepare for a government job, study abroad, start a business or get into the corporate world, you can customise your learning path accordingly. The online student mentors embrace a facilitatory role to encourage the potential skills of the learners.

Hence, online education’s curricular structure is better placed in preparing students for their future than distance education.

Career Prospects

Although distance learning courses provide necessary qualifications to pursue a career in the relevant field, they generally lack job-seeking support and placement assistance. Besides, if a student wishes to work in a reputed organisation, he/she will probably have to take up a skill-based course after obtaining a distance education degree.

But such job-seeking struggles are rarely encountered after online education. From its very conception, the online learning system has inclined to develop the learners’ professional acumen. Not surprisingly, the last few years have witnessed an enormous rise in the number of students taking the online route for job test preparation.

The virtual world of learning offers a vast variety of specialised courses and training programs, tailored to meet the learner needs. For example, in CU’s Online Programs extended by upGrad, you get to avail career counselling and interview preparation modules for your desired job.

Which affirms the job-focused and outcome-driven features of online courses relative to the distance learning programs.

Course Fee and ROI

It is well-known that both distance education and online education are more affordable than regular programs. However, the cost range of remote learning courses varies widely depending upon the institute, time, credibility, and curricular structure. In India, the top institutes for small education are IGNOU, Symbiosis Centre for Distance Learning, Amity University, NMIMS, Chandigarh University, Bharati Vidyapeeth, etc.

The annual fee for distance learning degree courses lies anywhere between Rs. 3500 to 1.65 lakh. On the corresponding scale, the cost of regulated online courses is slightly on the higher side. For instance, the total fee for CU’s upGrad-enabled online graduate and postgraduate programs ranges from Rs. 1-3 lakh.

The apparent reason behind the fee difference is the valuable support offered in online courses. The students also get to work on live industry-sponsored projects and intern with renowned organisations in these programs. Moreover, the platform maintains a good placement record and propels learners onto better job promotions and career advancement opportunities.

Hence, online programs lend a much more ROI (Return on Investment) than distance learning courses despite the higher fee range.

Conclusion

In this era of digitalisation, online education holds more importance and relevance than ever before. While distance education works well for people looking for affordable options without premium offerings, online education fares better in terms of tangible career outcomes.

Programs such as CU’s online degree programs facilitated by upGrad are most suited to the ones with high career aspirations. Backed by the revised governmental regulations and related initiatives, online courses have the full potential to replace the traditional classrooms in most of the education domains.

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