Is Distance Learning For You?
by Sunnie (Leslie Bowman)
Distance learning is the most convenient way for adults with busy lives that include full time jobs and family responsibilities to obtain a quality education. Adults are earning bachelors degrees, masters degrees, and doctorates online in every field through accredited colleges and universities. Distance learning students are self-motivated and independent learners. They are willing and able to take responsibility for their learning and can accept a learning environment in which the instructor is a facilitator of knowledge application rather than a dispenser of information. Adult students take with them into each course vast and varied experiences and knowledge upon which further knowledge is built. All that information and all those experiences are incorporated into applying knowledge to real life and work situations. Distance learning is not for everyone; but if taking control of your learning appeals to you, then you should consider an online course.
What to expect?
Distance learning (DL) students learn to focus on significant issues rather than readily available information. DL requires the ability to relate new ideas and previous knowledge. Relating and applying concepts to everyday life or work is a major element of DL. Another major element is the ability to relate and communicate online in a text-based medium. Students get to know each other and work together through the asynchronous threaded discussion forums in the course format, emails between/among collaborative group members, mailing lists, and synchronous interactive chat. Some universities have technology infrastructures that include teleconferencing, audio and video. While these latest are not yet the norm, as technology becomes more widely available, more courses will include these features as well.
DL students must be able to recognize their strengths and limitations. Excellent time management skills are mandatory in an online course. The structure of a traditional class is not present in an online class and sometimes DL students fall behind in their work because there is no requirement to "go to class." DL instructors assist students in time management skills in a variety of ways, including posting due dates and participation requirements. If a student does not post assignments or respond to discussions, then an instructor will send a private email or call the student to find out if there is a problem with which the student needs assistance. The structure is in the organization of units or modules - one per week - just as in a traditional class in which the student is physically on campus once a week.
Just how much time is involved in an online class?
If you take a graduate course on campus, you will spend approximately three hours a week in class for a semester, which is approximately 16 weeks (these times may vary from school to school). Usually graduate students spend another 10-15 (this is the minimum) hours a week outside of class preparing assignments, reading, and completing projects/papers. So if you count sitting in class plus required outside work each week, then you are spending between 13 and 18 hours a week for the course. Now remember, we also have to add to this the number of hours you would spend traveling to and from class. Some folks may be fortunate enough to live close to a course site and so that would be 15 minutes to drive there and park, then another 15 minutes to get back in the car and drive home. We all know people who have driven as far as 2 hours away to get to a campus that offers a class they need to take so that number will vary considerably as well. And if we want to get really picky, we can add the time necessary to get ready to go to class and also whatever you do when you get home from class late at night - change clothes, unwind, whatever. So let's add another 30 minutes total for the getting ready to go to class and unwinding when you get home. As you can see, depending on how far you have to travel to get to the class, that could add up to a huge amount of your time each week for a whole semester plus whatever outside work you must do for assignments.
DL courses do not require anywhere near that amount of time. First of all, forget traveling to class - all you do is log on to your computer. Second, forget about getting ready to go to class because you can "attend class" in your jammies if you want to and no one will be the wiser. Next, forget about the three hours a week sitting in class and forget also walking to and from the parking lot and the long drive home late at night when you are already tired from your long day at work. Instead, you can do your work whenever you like. Whether you are a morning person or a night owl, your schedule fits your lifestyle. You schedule your work when you can make the time and you do not have to give up one night a week of your family time to attend class for a semester.
Most DL graduate courses state that, on average, 10-15 hours a week should be spent on course work. Some weeks you might only spend 3-5 hours and some weeks (when a project or paper is due) you may spend 25 hours. The whole point is, though, that you decide how much time and when that time will be.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Distance Learning
As a distance learning graduate student and as an online instructor, I have to tell you honestly that DL is not for everyone. However, those who state that they could never complete a course without the structured class attendance requirement every week are just making excuses. A professional who designs lesson plans day in and day out, effectively teaches a classroom full of students everyday, and continues to provide an engaging, enriching and motivating learning environment most certainly has the self-discipline and motivation necessary to further his/her own education. DL might not be for you, but you owe it to yourself to discover whether or not there is a legitimate reason for not taking advantage of online courses rather than just assuming that you need the structure to complete assignments. After all, how can we expect our students to be responsible learners if we ourselves summarily dismiss a learning experience that demands the same of us?
The advantages of DL include the flexibility to:
- schedule classes and work, participate in discussions at any hour and have the ability to catch up on previous discussions
- study and read materials at a personal speed and intensity
- skim material already known and focus more time and effort on new ideas and information
- have an entire network of classmates (professionals) from around the world who all contribute new ideas to the course.
There are also some disadvantages, which include:
- tendency toward procrastination
- difficulty staying on track without structured classroom
- no direct face-to-face interaction with classmates and instructor
- occasional technical problems that prevent immediate contact with classmates and instructor
Are You Considering An Online Course?
Distance learning can give you the freedom to learn and study at your convenience, in your own time, and on your own schedule. I would like to share an illustration of the bonding that occurs among online students during courses and programs, much the same as the network of friends many find here at Teachers.net. My masters graduation is in June and many of my classmates (teachers and business trainers from all over the country) are planning to fly to CA for the graduation ceremony. There was mention made that we are going to start a new tradition: the DL students are going to wear jammies and fluffy bedroom slippers (the men in our classes are balking at the fluffy slippers), and carry a keyboard and mouse in the graduation ceremony. I am hoping this is just all in fun - some humor to share within our group. But who knows? It could happen!