Working Women and Online Distance Learning = A Virtual Match Made in Heaven

For some women studying at Northeastern University in Boston, distance learning has made all the difference.

“I’ve had conversations with female students who said if it weren’t for online [education], they wouldn’t be able to finish their degrees,” said Denise Weir, director of distance learning for Northeastern’s School of Professional and Continuing Studies.

Indeed, experts say online distance learning is making a difference for working women across the country. Professional women tend to juggle a lot-children and spouses, full-time work, aging parents-so carving out time for studies can be tricky. That’s where distance learning comes in, offering a more flexible way to get a degree than the traditional classroom.

Weir said the flexibility is key for women with children.

“At-home moms can do coursework in the evenings or [during] naptimes. For working moms, it’s even more critical they have the opportunity to finish the degree based on what limited time they have,” she said.

Dr. Jia Frydenberg, director of the University of California-Irvine Distance Learning Center, said women’s multi-tasking abilities make them excellent candidates for online distance learning.

“Mid-career women are self-directed and self-motivated, so they do flock to the online learning, and I find that very encouraging,” she said. “Women are very capable [of juggling] parents, jobs, family, friends, etc. They are able to schedule their time so they’re not too tired at 10 p.m. and can still get time in the course.”

As far as online enrollments go, women are in the lead, experts say.

Sean Gallagher, program director and senior research analyst at Eduventures, said the split between women and men enrolled in online education is about 61 percent/39 percent, respectively. Eduventures is a research and consulting firm that focuses on education.

Those figures are comparable to the proportion of women throughout higher education. In fall 2005, 10 million women were enrolled in degree-granting institutions-57 percent of all 17.5 million students, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics.

At Northeastern, about 56 percent of all distance-learning students are women, Weir said.

Frydenberg said distance learners are evenly split between men and women at UC-Irvine. But concentrations of women are greater in certain programs, such as business and management, while men dominate other areas, like information technology.

Why Online Distance Learning?

Besides providing flexibility, distance learning also can lead to career advancement.

“The overwhelming majority of distance learning grads at DETC institutions (over 96%) report they achieve their goals after finishing their programs, and job promotion is a top goal of many students,” said Michael P. Lambert, executive director of the Distance Education and Training Council, a nationally recognized accrediting agency for online institutions.

There are other perks, too.

“In some cases people do better with online education. For students that may not be as vocal in a face-to-face class, many students literally find their voice in an online environment because they have the opportunity to think before they speak,” said Dr. Diana G. Oblinger, vice president of Educause, a nonprofit group focused on advancing higher education through technology. “Studies show students develop more self-confidence if they develop through online learning. This is particularly true for students whose first language is not English.”

And while some suggest the lack of face-time with peers and instructors is a drawback, others say that’s not always the case.

“We shouldn’t assume with online courses there’s no interaction with other people. Many online courses have team projects, collaborative work where students have to get together online or over the phone. Just because the work is online doesn’t mean it’s always individual and solitary,” Oblinger said. “That again replicates what you find in the workplace, where over and over again people come together virtually-people who’ve never met work together to solve problems. As our entire society has gotten more comfortable with online communication, it doesn’t feel as uncomfortable as it might’ve 10 years ago. It’s the way we work.”