How Do Distance Education Programs Work?

Distance education programs allow students to complete courses or earn a degree without attending lectures on campus. Students usually complete homework assignments, review course material, take examinations and communicate with professors by means of mail, e-mail or online chat forums.

Distance Education Programs Enrollment Information

While some schools solely offer online degree programs, most distance education courses are administered by colleges and universities that also have a physical campus. Students pursuing a remote-access certificate or degree usually apply for admission to the school and subsequently enroll in its online courses. Interested parties should contact the admissions department at the school that hosts the distance education program to inquire about application procedures.

Important Facts About Distance Education Programs

Program Levels Associate's, bachelor's, master's and doctorate degrees; undergraduate and graduate certificates
Prerequisites Vary, depending upon program; associate's and bachelor's degree programs typically require a high school diploma or equivalent
Programs of Study History, accounting, English, criminal justice, environmental science, health sciences, information technology, operations management, and many others
Possible Careers Engineer, chemist, financial analyst, loan officer, statistical assistant, graphic designer, credit counselor, among others


Many distance education programs are run through an online portal that houses course materials and grades. This portal is often accessed through a school's main website, either through the homepage or through the distance learning or continuing education division's page. In most cases, students log into the system using a user name and password. The portal contains course material posted by the instructor and spaces for forum discussions and questions; this is organized by class and semester. When it is time for an examination or quiz, a link leading to the questions will also be visible.

Common Course Requirements

Lectures and Notes

Course material is traditionally accessible to students online 24 hours a day and seven days a week. Occasionally, sites may shut down for maintenance, but students are given advance warning, and this does not impact assignment due dates and submissions. Students can log into their school's online portal to read lectures and explanations from professors. Some professors post outlines, while others link to a video or audio clip of a live lecture. The textbook or textbook excerpts are often available for viewing as well. Some professors post supplemental material like videos, diagrams, presentations or solutions to homework. Materials are identical to those used in campus-based classes.


Distance education students may be assigned homework, papers or projects. When they complete the assigned tasks, students submit digital copies to professors for evaluations. Sometimes submissions are solicited through an electronic drop box. Other times, professors ask that assignments be sent in an e-mail. On occasion, students are required to package and send an assignment through the mail.


Many professors teaching distance education courses require students to participate in online discussions related to course material. This discussion can take place in a chat room or forum, where students respond to ideas or questions posed by classmates. This setup encourages students who may be residing in different locations to engage with the course topics and each other. Grading is based on activity level and quality of input.


Examinations and quizzes are typically administered online. A link on the Web portal leads students to the exam questions, which may be in multiple choice or essay format. Some tests have a time limit. Depending on the program and instructor, students may be able to use class notes or outside resources while taking the exam. Alternately, local proctors may administer exams at an agreed site; instructors provide further details at the beginning of a distance education program.


Through the course of a distance education program, students' grades are posted online or sent via e-mail. Some systems allow students to view the scores for all assignments, quizzes and exams as the professor grades them. Others only display the final grade at the conclusion of each course.

To continue researching, browse degree options below for course curriculum, prerequisites and financial aid information. Or, learn more about the subject by reading the related articles below:

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