Adult education and country life

Distance learning in the digital age

Posted 3/16/21

REGION — Starting with correspondence schools in the late 19th century, distance learning has been a lifeline for adults who live in areas underserved by brick-and-mortar institutions of higher …

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Adult education and country life

Distance learning in the digital age


REGION — Starting with correspondence schools in the late 19th century, distance learning has been a lifeline for adults who live in areas underserved by brick-and-mortar institutions of higher education. Correspondence schools generally did one of two things: prepared students for admission to college or trade school or taught them the basics of a trade. And it was all done by snail mail.

With the advent of the internet, distance learning has come of age. Learners with access to personal computers and high-speed internet now have a world of higher education opportunities at their fingertips. The University of Phoenix, Grand Canyon University and Cappella University are some of the larger, older and best-known for-profit U.S. online schools, but they’re just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to online higher education.

Not only can today’s distance learners earn both undergraduate and graduate degrees in a multitude of disciplines, but they can do so at some of the most highly regarded universities in the world. Oxford University ( and the University of Cambridge ( both offer a variety of online degree programs, as do a host of other top-tier universities. Students of universities recognized the world over for academic excellence are truly learners without borders. As long as students meet the academic and language proficiency requirements of the online school of choice, they can matriculate there, regardless of national origin or citizenship.

However, a high-quality online education with world-recognition value can be pursued much closer to home. Empire State College (ESC) ( was founded by the State University of New York (SUNY) in 1971 to make higher education available to working adults living far from conventional college campuses. Despite being 50 years old, ESC is still one of SUNY’s best-kept secrets. According to its website, “From mail-in correspondence and satellite feeds, to internet-based and blended coursework, SUNY Empire has been—and remains—at the forefront of distance and online education. Since its inception, SUNY Empire has awarded more than 89,000 degrees to students of all ages and backgrounds around the state, the country and the globe. SUNY Empire continues its tradition of Leading the Way, offering the ability to pursue advanced degrees to those who otherwise might not have the access, means, or opportunity. And with ever-expanding degree programs, technologies and course terms, we’re looking forward to the next 50 years.”

Also, per the website, “Today, the college continues its commitment to flexible, accessible education with more than 110 online degrees and certificates and locations in every region of the state and seven international sites, so SUNY Empire students can pursue their education around the demands of a busy life: whether online, face-to-face or a blend of both. Once the only distance-learning program in SUNY, ESC now competes with online degree programs offered through most of SUNY’s conventional campus schools as well. To find a comprehensive list of SUNY online degree programs, see”

Famous alumni of ESC include actor Alan Rachins, The New York Times columnist Bob Herbert and writer Alice Fulton.

Although celebrated as a leader in distance learning, SUNY is not the only public university of its kind. Penn State now has so many online degree offerings that it’s branded them as Penn State World Campus. Per its website (, “For more than 20 years, we have been developing courses in partnership with our faculty and instructional designers to ensure a learning experience that is tailored to the subject matter and the expected learning outcomes. We develop our online programs so that they mirror the same quality content you have always expected from a Penn State degree.”

It continues, “Penn State World Campus is the second-largest campus in The Pennsylvania State University system with more than 20,000 students. Penn State World Campus provides an accessible, quality Penn State education online to address the needs of individuals who seek a higher education beyond the traditional campus experience. Partnering with Penn State’s academic units and colleges allows Penn State World Campus to offer more than 150 degree and certificate programs developed and taught by Penn State faculty.”

U.S. News ( has ranked Penn State’s World Campus as the 10th-best online bachelor’s degree program in the U.S.

Some online degree programs have limited residency requirements, meaning that students must spend from a few days to two weeks onsite at a conventional campus to undergo student orientation, testing, technology training, and in-person academic advisement and counseling. Although this requirement may pose financial and work challenges, many students find such residencies not only a great aid in preparing them for online instruction but also a welcome bonding experience with their school’s faculty, administrative personnel and fellow students.

In addition to tuition-based online degree and certificate programs, there are free courses in all manner of subjects. Known as MOOCs (massive online open courseware), these courses are offered without charge, usually by colleges and universities, and often in response to immediate workforce needs. Free courses in contact tracing, for instance, are being offered during the COVID-19 pandemic.

 These courses are usually offered through a third-party nonprofit organization, such as Coursera. Coursera ( is an American MOOC provider founded in 2012 by Stanford University’s computer science professors Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller. It works with universities and other organizations to offer online courses, certifications and degrees in a variety of subjects.

Where do prospective distance learners start? Like all learners, they must first decide what they want to study, how much money they can spend and how much time and effort they can devote to their studies—daunting tasks all. But so much better than spending a lifetime in a low-paid, dead-end, unfulfilling job.


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