• A POSTnote on distance learning will look at the ways in which digital technology is currently used in the education sector, the opportunities it offers, and its limitations.
  • It will cover trends in distance learning alongside evidence for effectiveness compared to traditional classroom-based courses.
  • Provisional start date: September 2020. To contribute expertise, literature or an external reviewer please contact Dr Rowena Bermingham. View our guidance for expert contributors.

Distance learning is a way of studying remotely without the need to be physically present in a location with a teacher/lecturer. Advancements in online technology have led to an increased uptake in distance learning courses for school curricula, university degrees, vocational diplomas and professional accreditation.

Data from the Children’s Commissioner for England in 2019 revealed that the number of children being home-schooled had doubled in 4 years, with distance learning increasingly being used for this purpose. Distance learning is also popular with adult learners.

A Universities UK report revealed that in 2018, online learning made up almost 8% of all provision at British higher education institutions. Distance learning improves accessibility to education, as learners can enroll on courses regardless of geographical location and can fit studies around their schedule. This is particularly beneficial for those living in remote areas, those with disabilities that affect mobility, and those with caring responsibilities.

Distance learning can also reduce costs, as online courses are often cheaper than traditional face-to-face courses. They are also often more flexible, allowing people the option to study around their current employment.

However, there are challenges for those completing distance learning courses. For example, employers may be biased towards job applicants that have completed a traditional rather than distance course. Further expansion in the sector is also likely to come up against regulatory and funding systems geared towards traditional forms of higher education learning.

As a result of school closures during the COVID-19 pandemic, there has also been a large scale national effort to utilise technology to support online distance learning. This includes the use of e-learning platforms and online communication tools such as Zoom and Skype.

In 2017, Nesta, a UK innovation charity, reported that some of the barriers to schools using education technology include: poor internet connectivity particularly in rural areas, limited numbers of devices available, limited evidence on the impacts of using technology in teaching, and a lack of technical understanding and training for teachers on how to use it effectively.

A POSTnote in this area would cover trends in distance learning alongside evidence for effectiveness compared to traditional classroom-based courses. It will also consider the ways in which digital technology is currently used in the education sector, the opportunities it offers, and its limitations.