Distance learning is still new
Although distance learning programs have been available for decades (correspondance courses through the mail) before the internet was invented, the current version of distance learning (online education) is very, very young. More and more people enroll in distance learning programs each year and more and more schools offer such programs so it is becoming more normal and accepted in society at large.
To be clear, I think online education and distance learning is the future of education. As long as internet connectivity and bandwidth speeds increase, there will be an increase in online education options. I have taken a couple online courses in the last 15 years and recognize there are benefits as well as challenges to learning in that environment. I do think online education is a good option, but want to point out that consumers of online education have to be very careful when selecting a course or program.
Distance learning programs have uneven quality
Many traditional universities are now offering online degree options. Some of these institutions offer online degrees through their “extended studies” offices and not through traditional academic departments (San Diego State University and George Washington University come to mind). What happens in this situation is the online education arm offers the degree but it can be a cash generator for the university, rather than an academic program with all the usual resources and respect (even on the same campus).
With new online programs at well established universities, you may get taught by lots of adjunct teachers and could earn a degree that is quite different than others on the same campus. Additionally, online education institutions are well versed at training the online student, but can offer a lower quality alternative.
Online education convenience comes at a price
Although the growth rate for distance learning programs is quite high, admissions offices for (on-campus) graduate programs are not yet giving much respect to distance learning degrees. Admissions officers at the most established universities are not familiar with the learning experience and view transcripts from online degrees with skepticism.
Add to this the fact that many online education programs are far more expensive than high quality, on-campus alternatives and you have an expense that is no bargain. I am appalled when I see that an online education program costs more than the same program would cost if taught in person. Be a careful shopper when looking for online education. Perhaps in the future there will be a high quality review and feedback system for online education, but right now, that is not a great resource.