Everything you need to know about distance education

Everything you need to know about distance education

Table of Contents

You’ve probably heard the terms ‘distance education’, ‘home school’ and ‘online school’ a lot lately. Contrary to popular opinion, they are not one and the same. This article provides helpful information and answers common questions families have when considering distance education for their child.

What is distance education?

With distance education, a child is enrolled like they would be at a regular school, except they learn from home. The school provides the learning program and qualified teachers, and the student is supervised by a parent or another responsible adult. It is more like regular school than home schooling, because the child is in a class of peers and the teacher is responsible for their learning – even though they learn from home.

Distance education students are not necessarily ‘at a distance’ from a local school, as many live in Australia’s capital cities. Moreover, distance education is not like correspondence courses, where physical materials are posted back and forth between student and school. Nowadays, the work is completed online using the latest digital technologies.

History of distance education in Australia

In 1951, the world’s first ‘school of the air’ was opened in Alice Springs. Isolated students were educated by correspondence and used the Royal Flying Doctors’ radio network. Over the next 50 years, more schools of the air were opened in Queensland and New South Wales due to the popularity of this schooling mode.

Around the turn of the millennium, a shift to ‘distance education’ and using internet-based technologies to educate rural and remote students occurred. Since 2000, distance education schools have increasingly used digital technologies such as email, webinars, screencasting, live chat and video recordings. At the same time, distance education has become more mainstream, with students in metropolitan areas benefiting as much from this schooling experience as their remotely located peers.

How many students do distance education?

Official numbers of distance education students are not available, however anecdotal evidence indicates that upward of 10,000 students learn online in Australia.

The students now engaged in distance education are more diverse than the original ‘farmer’s kid’ stereotype. Some of the students you’ll find doing distance education include:

  • children who have been bullied and find respite with distance education
  • children with learning disabilities such as ADHD, sensory processing problems, autism spectrum disorder and dyslexia, and benefit from a customised learning approach
  • young people who are working part-time or completing vocational training alongside their schoolwork
  • children with illnesses and physical disabilities such as cystic fibrosis, cerebral palsy, impaired mobility, and hearing or visual impairment
  • the children of families who are working or serving overseas
  • children with severe anxiety or other mental health concerns
  • children pursuing a sporting or performing arts career
  • any students who appreciate the flexibility afforded by studying online.

Australian Christian College (Australia’s largest non-government distance education provider) has over 1,400 students ranging from Preschool or Kindergarten to Year 12 in its distance education programs.

Is distance education the same as home school?

The short answer is ‘no’. In home schooling, the parent is responsible for the child’s education. Home schooling is legal in all Australian states and territories. A parent choosing home schooling must apply to their state or territory authority for permission. Parents must plan, implement and monitor their child’s learning program, which will usually need to align with the national curriculum. They may purchase a prepared program, but many parents develop their own curriculum to suit their educational philosophy.

In contrast, students enrolled in distance education have the support of teachers and educational resources associated with that distance education provider. Teachers are responsible for planning, implementing, supporting and monitoring the students’ learning. Unlike home schooling, families are not visited by inspectors from government authorities, because the school holds the necessary government registration.

How does distance education work?

Distance education offers students a genuine alternative to attending a regular school. They still ‘attend’ classes, except they ‘log in’ from home.

For distance education, students enrol just like they would for a regular school. In some states, such as Western Australia, students must meet a set of criteria to enrol as a distance education student. Once enrolled, the school operates much like any other – providing qualified teacher support, registered curriculum, learning resources and university pathways.

The biggest difference is that online courses are portable and flexible, so students can learn at any time from anywhere.

Students don’t need to sit entrance exams, but they will usually need to do an online literacy and numeracy test in order to place them in the right classes. Regardless of your child’s academic ability, distance education can accommodate their needs.

With distance education, students progress through the learning material at their own pace within a term. If they have difficulty with a topic, they can review the material as many times as necessary before moving on. And if they grasp something quickly, they can progress to the next thing without needing to wait for class.

Students can’t fall behind, however. Like regular school, assessments must be completed by certain dates. Assessment tasks will be like those of a regular school, such as exams, essays and multimedia projects. If students are struggling, teachers are there to respond and support their learning.

Distance education students can interact with their peers through class discussions and build friendships in the distance education community.

At ACC, new students can start any time but where possible, beginning with a new term is preferable.

How do primary school and high school differ in distance education?

As with regular school, students in primary grades will have one ‘primary’ teacher for most subjects, while those in high school have specialist teachers for different subject areas.

Students in primary also spend less hours per day on schoolwork (averaging three to five), compared to their high school peers (averaging five to seven).

How much does distance education cost?

Costs will vary depending on several factors, including:

  • the school your child enrols in
  • the state
  • their grade, and
  • why they’re enrolling

Government distance education providers, for example, may charge different fees depending on whether you are enrolling by choice, or because circumstances prevent your child from attending regular school.

Independent distance education providers charge fees for enrolment similarly to regular independent schools. However, these fees are usually significantly lower than those for enrolment at an on campus facility. Distance education offers a great value means of education. Some schools offer discounts for making annual payments or for sibling enrolments.

Additional costs may include stationery supplies, novels, a device and your internet connection. Costs for optional cocurricular activities like excursions, camps and mission trips are typically charged on a user-pays basis.

How many learning hours per day?

As many as necessary! Government distance education schools may require your child to go online at specific times each day. ACC’s distance education system is truly flexible. Your child can finish once their work is complete. We do, however, provide a recommended timetable to help keep students on track.

For primary school students, schoolwork takes three to five hours, with secondary students working five to seven hours daily on average. Our senior secondary program has some set times for assignments and/or for some lessons.

What is the regular routine for a distance education student?

While government school enrolment may entail a regular routine, ACC’s distance education allows students to log on and submit their work straight to the teacher. Primary students and some secondary students don’t need to follow any set timetables, provided they complete their work and assessment tasks within each term’s schedule.

In fact, over a third of our students begin learning before 7:00am, while another third start learning after 1:00pm each day.

What educational technology is used for distance education?

Distance education uses several digital technologies, including:

  • a device to connect to the internet, such as a computer or tablet
  • broadband internet
  • educational platforms including Canvas, Google for Education and YouTube
  • email.

And don’t worry – you don’t need to be a technology whizz to manage distance education! A basic proficiency in office software and email is all that’s needed.

What is the role of the parent or home supervisor?

You don’t need to be a teacher for your child to succeed with distance education. The learning programs are designed and delivered by the school, using the skills of qualified teachers.

The parents’ role is that of supervisor. A responsible adult needs to be available to monitor the student (and ensure compliance with child safety legislation). The home supervisor ensures children remain on task and work to their full potential. Commonly, primary students require more focused attention from the home supervisor than secondary students.

Because parents know their children so well, they are the ideal partner in their student’s learning. You are the ‘expert’ on your children, and the school provides the teaching expertise.

Do distance education students wear a school uniform?

No, which means cost savings and no need for daily washing and ironing! Distance education students may need to wear the school’s sport uniform if attending a school-based activity, such as a cross country carnival or swimming carnival.

How much screen time for distance education students?

Primary students spend, on average, less than an hour per day online. For secondary students, this increases to about three to four hours.

Do distance education students use textbooks?

This varies from school to school, though most distance education providers still use textbooks for some subjects to supplement the learning materials delivered through the distance education platforms.

How are distance education courses structured?

Again, this will vary a little depending on the school. ACC’s distance education program is modelled on that of universities. Courses are uploaded at the beginning of each term, with a clear start and end point and progression through the subject content.

To keep on track with their education, students must complete the lessons set for each subject every week.

The courses use video content created by our qualified teaching staff and from premium-quality and trusted education content providers. This allows students to pause and replay lessons until they understand the learning material. No more falling behind because they missed a concept or getting stuck waiting for other students.

Students engage with their peers through online discussion forums. Here, teachers pose open-ended questions to stimulate critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration and help students value the points of view of others.

Your child’s teachers monitor their academic progress, help to resolve any learning issues, and provide feedback on assessments. Learning support is available for students who need it.

Public vs. private distance education

All Australian states have government schools of distance education. Queensland, New South Wales, Western Australia, and Tasmania also have non-government schools of distance education.

There are several differences between public and private distance education, including:

  • the degree of flexibility ­– generally, public distance education requires students to attend online lessons at specific times, while private ones afford greater flexibility.
  • costs – private distance education providers may have higher fees, although these are significantly lower than for private on campus or boarding schools.
  • enrolment criteria – many government distance education providers require students to meet strict criteria for geographical distance or personal and family circumstances. In contrast, you can usually enrol in private distance educations by choice. You may even be able to enrol in a private ditance education in a different state or from overseas.

Common reasons families choose distance education

Children working part-time

Senior school students often work casual or part-time jobs, while some undertake vocational training or apprenticeships. Distance education offers the flexibility to combine the two, although it’s important that work doesn’t interfere with your student’s learning progress.

Pursuing a sporting career

Some families choose distance education because its flexibility fits perfectly with sporting commitments. Students who play representative sport at a state or national level frequently train for long hours and may be required to attend interstate or international competitions. This can mean late nights and extended periods away from home.

Distance education allows these students to train and compete without compromising on their schoolwork. For example, if they’re tired the morning after training, they can simply start their work a bit later. If a week-long international meet is coming up, they can complete extra schoolwork in advance or upon their return.

However, time off school is rarely required. Because they can do their schoolwork from anywhere, provided they can connect a device to the internet, most distance education students complete schoolwork in their hotel rooms either before or after competing each day.

Pursuing a performing arts career

The same applies to students pursuing a career in performing arts. Students who have been selected for dance, drama and music academies, for example, usually need to attend numerous rehearsals in the lead-up to performances. Others travel regularly to specialist schools or academies for instruction.

Rehearsals and performances frequently mean late nights and may include national or international travel, but that doesn’t have to mean missing out on learning. The flexibility of distance education allows performing arts students to work around their rehearsal, performance and travel schedules.

While travelling around Australia or going overseas

Some families want to travel while still giving their children a quality education. While travelling isn’t recommended for high-school students, who tend to do best with a settled routine, primary-aged children can travel with their families while keeping up with their peers through distance education.

Provided they have good internet access and a computer or device, children can complete their schoolwork requirements from anywhere.

It’s also a great option if your family moves at regular intervals, for work or church commitments, for example. Some families choose distance education because they are going overseas for work or missionary service.

Students with disability

For students with disability and/or special needs, there are many advantages to distance education. Aside from the increased flexibility, which can be a huge advantage if your child has complex needs, distance education gives parents greater ability to monitor and control their child’s learning.

For students who find the classroom environment difficult, such as those with hearing impairment or ADHD, the distance education option may be ideal. Students with mobility impairment and those using adaptive aids such as wheelchairs have what they need at home, and distance education can be much easier in terms of getting around and setting up the learning environment.

Distance education can be easily adapted to suit each child’s learning needs, and early evidence suggests that students with disability, and their parents, see distance education as a successful option. There can also be savings in time, energy and money in learning from home, as families don’t need to pay for things like transport or integration aides at a school.


Sadly, bullying is a serious and widespread problem. Removing their child from a bullying situation is a common reason families make the switch to distance education.

Receiving a quality education from the loving, nurturing home environment can help to restore a student’s confidence and mental wellbeing. It also gives them an opportunity to make new friends in a safe online community.


In Australia, anxiety disorders are the most common group of mental health conditions and they affect children, too. A 2015 government survey showed that 6.9 percent of children aged 4 to 17 years had suffered an anxiety disorder in the past 12 months, while almost 20 percent of those aged 11 to 17 years had experienced high or very high levels of psychological distress.

For some students, the campus school environment is stressful. Aside from bullying, students may struggle with social anxiety and peer pressure. For students with learning disabilities such as ASD and ADHD, the classroom can be overwhelming.

For these students, distance education is a legitimate, accessible and stress-free option for getting a quality education.

How distance education affects mental health

Your child’s mental health includes their emotional, psychological, and social wellbeing. It is influenced by genetics, relationships and everyday stresses as well as traumatic and challenging events.

The education experience is linked with student wellbeing and learning outcomes. For students who have anxiety, depression, or other mental health concerns, distance education can be an excellent choice. Some of its advantages include:

  • the option of learning from the safe, nurturing and stress-free home environment
  • flexibility to attend classes when and where best suits the student’s needs, which may include fitting school around therapy appointments
  • self-paced learning, which allows students to work at their own speed without the pressure of keeping up with classmates
  • no need for transport to and from school, which can be stressful for some students
  • the ability to develop friendships in a safe, monitored online environment.

Boarding school vs. distance education

Unlike boarding school, where students are removed from the home environment, distance education allows students to receive a quality education at home. For many students, this warm, loving and nurturing environment is ideal for learning.

Distance education offers remote families the opportunity to stay together. It’s also more affordable, as it eliminates boarding fees and travel costs

Do distance education students have university pathways?

Yes. Depending on which state or territory you’re in, your child may be eligible to receive the standard university entrance scores, or to gain placement by linking their studies with state or territory university entrance exams. Check with the school for further details.

How can distance education students develop social skills?

With distance education, students are learning at home, away from the social context of a regular school environment. For this reason, parents need to be intentional about creating socialisation opportunities for their children.

Students can easily build friendships with their peers and connect with those with common interests in the distance education student community. At ACC, distance education students have lively discussions around topics like sport, movies, books and computer games.

Distance education providers often provide cocurricular activities where students can meet face-to-face, such as camps, workshops, excursions and sporting events. Many distance education students are also active in their local community, church, sporting and hobby groups, where they meet friends and learn to interact with a variety of people.

Is distance education right for me?

To help you decide whether distance education could be the right choice for your family, it’s worth asking a few questions. For example:

  • Will my child benefit from the flexibility and self-paced instruction of distance education?
  • Will distance education be helpful for my child’s physical, emotional, spiritual and social development?
  • Is the home environment a better place for my child to be learning right now?
  • Can we provide a home supervisor?
  • Does my child have special needs, an illness or a disability that makes attending regular school more challenging?
  • Do we want to provide a home-based education that offers all the teacher support, learning resources and university entrance pathways of a regular school?
  • Do you like the idea of developing a close-knit family?

If you answered yes to most of these questions, then it’s definitely time to consider distance education.

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Applying for distance education enrolment

If you’re ready to enrol, you’ll need to check your chosen school’s enrolment requirements, read any contracts and follow their process. You’ll probably need to complete an online application form, which may include an application fee.

Enrolment applications often require you to submit copies of important documents, such as your child’s:

  • Birth Certificate
  • Australian Citizenship/Visa/Passport (if your child was not born in Australia)
  • Latest school report
  • Years 3/5 NAPLAN results (if applicable)
  • Medicare Card
  • Immunisation records
  • Custody orders/parenting agreements​ (if applicable)
  • Specialist reports/documents relating to students with special needs or disability
  • Medical reports, eg. for asthma, anaphylaxis (if applicable) ​

If the school has any questions, they will contact you. The next step will usually be an interview, either in person or over the phone. The school will advise whether your application has been successful and next steps to start if your application has been accepted.

Jeremy Kwok

Jeremy Kwok

Jeremy Kwok grew up in Sydney before moving to the United States for tertiary studies. Jeremy completed the BA, MA (History), and MDiv degrees before returning to Australia with his wife Debbie to have two children. He works for the Australian Christian College Group developing online curriculum and is an Apple Distinguished Educator.