by Robert Obradovic, Ph.D., Ed.D. (Granice Press, Toronto, 1987)
There are many adults who would like to earn a degree but are unable to take courses on a full-time, on-campus basis due to either work and family commitments or geographic location. The needs of these adults can be met through distance learning.
What is an external degree? It is a degree earned by a student who does not attend the regular classroom of a university or college campus. Instead, the student studies at home, usually working at his/her own pace, submits assignments to the university by mail, and passes the required examinations when he/she is ready. This type of education is not new. The University of London, a pioneer in external degree programs, has offered such degrees for some 150 years.
The term external degree has undergone many changes, and today more than a dozen expressions are used to refer to this type of education, including nontraditional degree program, adult degree program, home study, correspondence degrees, directed study, independent study, university without walls, open university, off-campus degree program, university of the air, alternative education, and individualized degree program.
While degrees through distance learning have been available for nearly one and a half centuries, their appearance on the North American scene is of relatively recent origin. The early 1960s witnessed the beginning of the development in the United States of programs offering degrees through distance education. Today, close to ninety postsecondary institutions in Canada and the United States offer bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees through independent learning in hundreds of fields.
Higher education through distance learning has created alternative opportunities for adults for whom traditional classroom attendance is impractical.
Colleges and universities that offer external degree programs are responding to the needs of those individuals whose educational goals cannot be met through existing academic programs.
Methods of instruction are based on what is known about the unique learning styles and needs of the mature learner.
Many external degree programs allow students to exercise control over the content, structure, and place of their learning.
This unique and innovative noncampus-centered method is for mature, self-directed, and highly motivated individuals. These programs are not designed for high school graduates who are immature, lack self-discipline, and need to be constantly reminded that their assignments are due by a certain date.
Degrees offered through distance education are of high quality and are no different from the traditional degrees in this respect.
Accreditation is often misunderstood by both the public and those working in institutions of higher learning. One should not assume that an accredited college or university offers a higher quality of education than in institution that is not accredited. Furthermore, it should be noted that no accrediting agency ranks or grades colleges and universities.
While some educators argue in favour of regional accreditation as a means of maintaining the quality of education offered in postsecondary institutions, others have criticized any attempts at standardizing in higher education.
Recently, a Carnegie Commission report concluded that the major disadvantage of accreditation lies “in the suppression of innovation.” The fear of not being accredited, it further argues, “tends to prevent colleges from striking out in new directions.”