Distance Education vs. Correspondence Courses

Dentist Taking an Online Distance Education Course in Postgraduate Dentistry from the Comfort of Their Home

Not all online programs are the same. Let’s look at the definition of a correspondence course versus an eLearning experience.


Why is the distinction important?

While there has been no payment made by St. Mary-of-the-Woods College, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of the Inspector General categorized courses given at this college as “correspondence courses” not as distance education courses.

This is critical as students qualify for financial aid dollars when they take distance education courses, not correspondence courses. The Inspector General suggested that St-Mary-of-the-Woods college should refund $42 million in federal financial aid dollars that it disbursed to students over a five-year period.

At any time in the future a college can be inspected and if instructors are found to be offering correspondence course, this finding can be very financially damaging to the University.


Correspondence Courses vs. Distance Education

To understand the difference, let’s look at the Higher Education Act of 1965 and it’s subsequent amendments. In part 600, Institutional Eligibility, the HEA-1965 defines a “Correspondence” course as one that has the following elements:

  • Course materials given by mail or digitally.
  • Exams are all non-proctored (open book).
  • Limited, irregular faculty-to-student (F2S) interactions.
  • Almost all interaction initiated by student.
  • Courses are typically self-paced.
  • Emails to instructor gets no response.
  • Help requests responses only staff, not faculty.
  • There are no office hours.
  • Student must trouble shoot own problems.
  • Course have no chatroom for students.
  • If discussion forum exists, no faculty input.
  • All course work is automatically graded.

Like what you’re learning? Consider enrolling in our online, competency-based certificate or master’s program in Orofacial Pain and Oral Medicine to deliver appropriate and safe care to your growing and aging dental patients.


Get More Information


Other Styles of Education

Here are five other popular styles of education:


1. Tutorials at Oxford and Supervisions at Cambridge

The two oldest and quite highly ranked universities in the world are Oxford and Cambridge. At these institutions they have used small group interactions between faculty and students which they call either tutorial or supervision sessions.

Oxford’s student tutorials may be more academically challenging and rigorous than a standard lecture. At each session students must orally communicate, defend, analyze, and critique the ideas of others as well as their own.


2. Large Lecture Hall Lectures

Some colleges and universities use large lecture halls to provide content to a very large group of students (usually taken 1st-year core courses). As we mentioned in the first lecture in this course, these lectures are usually not effective as there is not interactivity and even if you wanted to ask your students questions, the group is too big.

Related Reading: How to Use Guided Discovery Questions to Deepen Learning


3. Project-Based Learning Group Sessions

A style of education similar to Oxford or Cambridge tutorials is Project-Based Learning (PBL). In a PBL class the instructor gives the students a problem, the students identify their learning needs, they are assigned, and students go off and research these LNs. At the next session the students review what they have learned and then the instructor gives them another piece of the problem to work on. Like the Oxford and Cambridge tutorials, PBL is moderately expensive as the faculty to student ratio is usually 1:8.


4. Asynchronous Lectures Using Video Recording

Non-interactive recorded lectures are not better than a traditional lecture hall (F2F) lecture, just more convenient to watch!


5. Flipped Classroom Style Teaching

Flipped classrooms are great if the students watch the lectures before hand! The problem again is the faculty student ratio as most of the time the number of students that can work or discuss a problem is small (8-10 students in a discussion group)


Distance Education

Let’s review distance education and more specifically hybrid online learning! A hybrid style of distance education includes F2F instruction, online collaboration, and self-paced learning.

In part 600, Institutional Eligibility, the HEA-1965 lists the following elements that are used in distance education:

  1. Regular and substantive F2S interactions
  2. Interaction is synchronous or asynchronous
  3. Regular instructor initiated communication
  4. Instructor feedback on student progress
  5. Regular F2S interaction using discussion boards, video conference, or email/text.
  6. Faculty monitored student-run chatroom, option and guided & structured tasks with regular input from faculty.

Beyond audits by the Department of Education Office’s Inspector General, the distinction between distance education courses and correspondence courses is important because it is a rapidly growing style of education and if done right it is extremely valuable and if done wrong it is a rip-off! See the figure below showing the ever increasing number of online students.



Online vs. Traditional Education

Below are three studies that researched and discussed this issue along with my comments.

1. OB Palpation Skills for Web vs. Traditional Instruction

Mangala Gowri P, et al. compared web-based and traditional instructional methods to teach obstetrical palpation for antenatal mothers among B.Sc(N) II year students. The study randomly selected two groups of 15, 2nd-year nursing students in each group. Group 1 had web-based instruction while group 2 had traditional instruction in class. The study compared obstetrical palpation skills and knowledge, and the outcome was a test of both knowledge and OSCE skills.


The study found that knowledge on obstetrical palpation was higher in the web-based group, and OSCE scores on OB palpation were higher in the traditional training group.

Overall, the statistical analysis showed no significant group differences. In conclusion, both methods worked but the combination of these two methods of education may further enhance the students skill acquisition level.


The convenience of recorded lectures is very important to students but a recording without interaction is not better than a F2F lecture.


2. Grade-Based Student Learning Outcomes

Cavanaugh JK and Jacquemin SJ compared a large sample of grade-based student learning outcomes in online vs. face-to-face courses. The study used grade data from 5,000 courses taught by more than 100 faculty over 10 terms at a public, four-year university. They used multiple regression analysis and controlled demographic and GPA confounders.


  1. A significant difference was seen between the course formats.
  2. Difference was probably negligible however (<0.07 GPA pts).
  3. Primary influence on course grades was student GPA.

In conclusion, students with higher GPAs will perform even better in online courses. Conversely, struggling students perform worse when taking courses in an online format vs F2F.


When you are taking classes alone at home, you must be very disciplined otherwise you will not find the time to watch the lectures. I assume higher GPA students are more disciplined and therefore do better than low GPA students in the online world.


3. Blended vs. Traditional Course Delivery

Tseng H and Walsh EJ Jr. studied the impact of blended versus traditional course delivery on students’ motivation, learning outcomes, and preferences. The study compared results from two groups of 26 students taking an English Literacy course across three outcomes: 1.) level of learning motivation, 2.) level of learning outcomes and skills, and 3.) learning achievement. Group 1 used a traditional format and group 2 used a blended format.


  1. Group 2 (blended) had a significantly higher learning motivation
  2. Group 2 (blended) had a significantly higher learning outcomes.
  3. Final grades showed no significant group difference.

Blended learning students indicated that they would take more blended classes and would recommend them to their friends.


When you say blended this means an online element and a F2F component, which in my opinion is the best approach.


Can Hybrid Online Teaching be better than F2F?

Yes and no. Yes, if you compare a great hybrid online program to a traditional one-way lecture. No, but equivalent if you compare a great hybrid online program to active learning face-2-face classes. If you compare “correspondence type” online education to active learning F2F, I’d say it’s not even close. Outcomes are more important than student preference, but hybrid online is preferred, however an undisciplined student will do poorly in both formats.


What is good online teaching?

Here are some elements:

  • Recorded interactive and focused lectures with interactive elements such as pop-up questions and hotspots
  • Course manuals with interactive elements (e.g.polls, Easter eggs, thought-provoking discussion questions)
  • Hybrid courses where students are rewarded with accomplishment badges
  • Small group video conferences where live F2S discussion occurs and student presentations are given
  • Practicums where experience is gained and reflective journals are kept and commented on


Explore USC’s Postgraduate Dentistry  Programs

Like what you’re learning? Consider enrolling in our online, competency-based certificate or master’s program in Orofacial Pain and Oral Medicine to deliver appropriate and safe care to your growing and aging dental patients.


Get More Information


The information and resources contained on this website are for informational purposes only and are not intended to assess, diagnose, or treat any medical and/or mental health disease or condition. The use of this website does not imply nor establish any type of provider-client relationship. Furthermore, the information obtained from this site should not be considered a substitute for a thorough medical and/or mental health evaluation by an appropriately credentialed and licensed professional. Commercial supporters are not involved in the content development or editorial process.

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This