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Educators have, for many years, noticed that some students prefer certain methods of learning. These traits form a student's unique learning preference and aid teachers in the planning of small-group and individualized instruction. If student learning is dependent on learning styles, and these styles vary between distance and equivalent on-campus students, then faculty should be aware of these differences and alter their preparation and instructional methods accordingly.
Colleges and universities that expect smart, ambitious, self-driven students to complete online and traditional degree programs need to continuously monitor and evolve their quality assurance strategies. Many universities understand that nontraditional students, especially adult students, have different learning styles and varying levels of technology experience from traditional college-aged students. These differences contribute to their distance learning choices and ability to complete distance learning programs. A student who benefits the most from face-to-face learning, for example, will find that a distance learning program is more difficult, even if it provides interactive lecture discussions and personalized career services support. On the other hand, a student who works well independently and with minimal help from other students or advisors, may perform better through an online program.
Adult considering going back to school to increase your salary potential, benefits from a professional certificate program, or just take a few courses for your own personal fulfillment, chances are, you've looked into enrolling in a distance learning program. The options for pursuing a degree or taking a class through distance learning, have increased significantly thanks to new Web-based settings, applications and capabilities that allow distinguished universities like Notre Dame, George Washington University and Vanderbilt University to offer students around the world the same academic resources and access to faculty as traditional students on campus. But is the experience really the same?
Some important questions raised by research are:
Are differences in learning styles between students who enroll into a distance education class and their equivalent on-campus counterparts?"
Does an independent student prefer self-study study, self-paced instruction, and would they prefer to do their work alone on course projects than with others?
Do dependent learners look to the teacher and to peers as a source of structure and guidance and prefer an authority figure to tell them what to do?
Do competitive students learn in order to perform better than their peers do and to receive recognition for their academic accomplishments?
Do collaborative learners retain their information by sharing and by cooperating with teacher and peers?
Are avoidant learners enthused about attending class or acquiring class content?
Are participant learners interested in class activities and discussion, and are eager to do as much class work as possible?
Review of the Literature
Student performance may be related to learning preferences, or styles. Students may also self-select into or away from distance learning classes based on their learning preferences. As a result student success in distance learning classes may ultimately depend on understanding the learning style characteristics of the students.
An online education affords the student many unique benefits like flexibility, convenience and accessibility. Depending on the program, a student is able to complete assignments and even participate in lectures and class discussions on their own time. The Distance Learning College Guide also notes that students requiring certain disabilities or mobility problems benefit from a home setting, where they don't have to "worry about gaining access to a classroom or sitting at uncomfortable desks..
This study was conducted of students in a medium-sized (1,000-2,000 enrollment) community college in Utica, Mississippi. The distance education sample included students in two sections of education offered in an online format. The comparison class was selected from four equivalent on-campus sections of education. The online distance students were taught according to the same course outline, used the same textbook, covered the same lecture material, and took the same tests as the equivalent on-campus students. Three main differences between on-campus and online groups were the delivery mode for the lectures, the mode of teacher/student and student/student communication, and the mode for the assignments. The distance classes reviewed multimedia slides and lecture notes online while the traditional classes heard instructor lectures and participated in face-to-face discussion. The distance class made use of a class web site and used a list and e-mail for discussion with other students and the instructor. The assignment for the distance class students consisted almost entirely of internet-based, independent assignments while the equivalent class completed some online assignments but participated most frequently in classroom discussion assignments and other non-internet assignments.
Sscores were found to be quite significant and were not likely due to change. The average scores between the two classrooms on the different learning styles were somewhat small, and a analysis using a t-test showed that they were not as significant. In order to look at the patterns in the relationships among the learning styles within the class, the associations among different combinations of styles were examined.
The distance students more strongly favored independent learning styles. It is not surprising that students who prefer independent, self-paced instruction would select an online class. It may be that the distance education appealed to students with independent learning styles, and that independent learning preferences are well suited to the distance learning environment. This also agrees with James and Gardner (1995) who suggested that distance education students who favored reliance on independent learning skills would be more suited to a distance format.
Depending on the program that distance learners choose to complete, distance degrees can be just as valuable as traditional degrees. Often, students studying online have the same access to the respected faculty and course materials as students online.
Traditional students, however, sometimes have more access to on-campus resources and departments more easily than online learners. Students on campus find it easier to get immediate feedback from a professor in class or by dropping by a professor's office, club meeting, or off-campus location during unofficial office hours. While many distance education universities encourage student-to-student collaboration online, student feedback can also be more valuable coming from classroom settings, after hours study groups, debates and discussions fueled by a campus community. Receiving extra academic-focused attention and feedback, traditional, on campus students benefit from non-academic social interaction.
Therefore I say online students are more independent than the on-campus students. The independence displayed by online learners was not tied to needs for external structure and guidance from their teacher, or for a need to socialize with their classmates. The online students can be described as strongly independent, in that they match the stereotype of the independent learner. Self-direction and independence were placed in the online course by offering students options to explore their learning environment. Students chose their own assignments and completed the assignments by the deadlines posted online at the class web site.
Instructional strategies make a difference in how adults learn online. Instructional methods are supposed to make learning meaningful and interesting for adult learners. We must not compare traditional institution programs, or online, with the general objectives of which are business, profit, and then education.
We still need good standards, good reputations, value, and a competitive spirit that would give students a competitive edge in a global economy. Jennifer Mullein (2005) asked an important question: Who would hire an online grad? She offered important advice for those seeking degrees online: Find out how the online degree will measure up against degrees earned at traditional programs and determine whether it will allow the graduate through the door of the human resources department. What is most interesting here is that a survey by the Distance Education and Training Council (DETC) found, "almost 70 percent of corporate supervisors rated the value of a distance degree as just valuable than resident school degrees.
The results of this study provide evidence for evaluation of the objectives of distance learning education. The evaluation of such adult learners is important to determine evidence that adults are acquiring knowledge and to develop methods to analyze their needs and to appraise solutions to fulfilling them.