An instructor lectures in front of an oversized white board while gazing at a sea of students. One boy intensely writes down her every word and throws his hand in the air at the first sign of a question. A few rows down, a girl feverishly stares at her cell phone as she sends text messages. In the far back, there he is. Head down on the desk. Passed out, asleep.

When Ben Smith envisions a classroom, there isn’t a teacher or other students. Instead, thoughts of the leather chair in his living room, a hot cup of coffee and his laptop come to mind. After all, there are a few perks to being an online student.

“I see a lot of positives and just a few negatives to being an online student,” says Smith, a territory manager for John Deere and a student in a dual-degree, distance-delivered program offered from Purdue University and Indiana University (IU).

Like nearly eight million American students enrolled in distance-delivered education, Smith has the advantage of flexibility. He decides when and where he wants to attend class. One day, he’s sitting in his leather chair, and the next he may be listening to a lecture on his iPod in the airport waiting for a flight.

Students such as Smith find that distance education allows them to maintain their career, family and personal commitments while taking courses. It also offers people living in rural areas the opportunity to enroll in programs that wouldn’t otherwise be available to them. Plus, it’s the most cost-effective option for those watching expenses and trying to cut back on travel costs, according to the Distance Education and Training Council.

“There are times that you can feel like you’re on the outside though,” Smith admits. “It’s like you against the world.”

Smith believed that five years ago, when he earned an MBA online from the University of Phoenix; however, in his current program, he’s built strong relationships with the other students and professors when they come together in person for a one-week residency.

Each distance-delivered program is uniquely structured, and it takes a certain type of person to succeed, according to Gary Pavlechko, the director of teaching technology in the Office of Teaching and Learning Advancement at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind.

“If you’re able to work at accomplishing tasks, anyone can apply the skills necessary to do the work via electronic means,” says Pavlechko, who has more than 20 years experience with distance education. “But, you have to be dedicated to stay with the content and not fall victim to procrastination.”

By blocking out parts of his day specifically for studying, Smith says it’s possible to balance his coursework with his job responsibilities. He spends two or three hours a day for six days a week studying.

“I try to take at least one day off for myself,” Smith says with a quick laugh.

While people generally associate distance-delivered education with universities and degree programs, many companies are utilizing the technology in their training efforts, according to Pavlechko.

Moline, Ill.-based John Deere, for example, currently offers about 100 distance classes for employees and equipment dealers, and the number of courses offered grows every year, Smith says.

“The company looks at it as an opportunity to increase knowledge and significantly reduce travel costs,” Smith explains. “It’s a winning combination of the use of technology and maximizing the employee’s time.”

Creating an e-learning environment at a company requires an in-depth needs analysis and is built basically from a case study of the company, Pavlechko says. The company must also establish a strong infrastructure of people responsible for the learning experiences.

“You change how everyone does their role when you support distance education,” Pavlechko says. “But, it provides a very rewarding growth experience for everyone, and employees shouldn’t look at it as a hindrance.”

Creating a distance program involves more time and resources upfront, but companies won’t incur the logistics costs, such as facilities, associated with a traditional program. Plus, once the framework and curriculum are in place, it’s easy to repurpose and reuse it, according to Pavlechko.

Distance education fits well in a company’s training and continuing-education strategies. For example, instead of offering employees a leave of absence or flexible schedule to earn an advanced degree, managers can encourage people to find reputable, distance-delivered programs.

“Companies can develop their employees without the fear of losing them,” Smith says.

John Deere recently promoted Smith. He moved from California to Maryland without having to miss a class, or worse yet, drop out of his graduate program. A further benefit to the company is that Smith now applies what he learns from his leather chair into his business meetings the next day.