Are You a Candidate for Distance Learning?

by Charlotte Thomas, Career and Education Editor, Peterson's

It sure looks easy. Sign up for a distance learning course or degree program, and either from home or on the road, rack up the grades and reap the rewards.

There's no question that people who previously would not have considered distance learning are finding that it adapts to their needs. They also find that convenience and flexibility don't equal easy. Many new distance learners are shocked at what it takes to complete distance courses or degrees. (See the quizzes "Just How Ready Are You for Distance Learning?" and "Rate Yourself for Discipline and Motivation," listed below.)

Kay Kohl, Executive Director of the University Continuing Education Association in Washington, D.C., cautions that not all people find that online instruction is the right learning environment for them. Some students have learning styles that clash with the way a distance course is delivered. (See the article "On Line or Face-to-face: Which Works Best?," listed below.)

It's not an easy way to go to school, comments Peter Ewell, Senior Associate at the National Center For Higher Education Management Systems in Boulder, Colorado, referring to the significant number of distance learning students who drop out midstream. Mixed with the high praise that many have for distance learning is the frustration that some feel because they are not well suited to deal with its unique requirements.

What's your motivation for learning?
One of the top mistakes people make is assuming distance education is an instant education, observes Pam Dixon, a columnist and author of seven books, one of which is The Virtual College, published by Peterson's in 1996.

A huge difference exists between what's expected of participants of degree or certification programs and those taking a course in investing money, warns Kohl. Some programs rigorously challenge students with the amount of reading and writing assignments. "The perception that distance learning is easy quickly evaporates when the course work comes hard and heavy," she notes.

Will it be a TV show or homework?
Distance learning demands students who can work independently without a lot of prompting. "We're not in the business of motivating you to learn," says Frank Mayadas, Program Director at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation's Asynchronous Learning Networks in New York, New York. Sitting in a classroom with a professor asking questions is a powerful inducement to be prepared. Sitting alone with a pile of assignments--and no professor in sight--affords the temptation to put off doing the work.

"You have to be able to stay on task. It's easy to lose interest when you're not interacting with others," suggests Patricia Sullivan Lynch, a distance learning student taking a University of California Extension, Berkeley course in integrative biology from her home in South Salem, New York. She has a passion for the subject and so is able to squeeze in assignments between caring for her three children and starting a business called Sea Wonders, which brings marine education programs to camps and schools. (For more about how Sullivan Lynch learned from a distance, see the article "Three Students, Three Stories," listed below.)

Another distance learner, Dietra Wade, who recently earned her Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree from Regents College, is even more adamant about the rigors of distance education. "You have to be interested. There's no reason to put yourself through this unless you absolutely want to do it," she reflects. (You'll also find Wade's experience in the article "Three Students, Three Stories," listed below.)

How do you learn best--listening, reading, looking?
Distance education is delivered in many ways--by satellite, microwave, Internet, video, TV, audio, or print--so that whether you're a visual or auditory learner, you'll find a method to complement your learning mode. But Dixon cautions students to evaluate ahead of time how they learn best. "There can be a technology mismarriage," she comments. "Some might enjoy teleconferencing, but not satellite delivery." When learning off-campus, your strengths and weaknesses become amplified, so that knowing how you learn becomes extremely critical.

Dr. Joe Boland, Director of the Center for Distance Learning at Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, says that some students learn better by listening and others by reading or interacting with other students. These multiple ways of learning are accommodated by distance learning, but to truly take advantage of distance education, you should know which method of delivery best fits you.

"I'm a visual learner," says Wade. "You can talk all you want to, but I have to see it." As a nursing student, she had to become thoroughly familiar with anatomy. She found a Web site that incorporated three-dimensional animated graphics with text and sound, which perfectly matched her way of learning.

Do you have what it takes personally?
Discipline is the most often mentioned characteristic of successful distance learners. "If you have a tendency to put things off until tomorrow, you don't have time for distance courses. You must be disciplined enough to commit a substantial amount of time each week to do the necessary work," says Mary Beth Almeda, Director of the Center for Media and Independent Learning at the University of California, Extension in Berkeley. Because distance learning allows so much flexibility for the student, it also requires a much higher level of discipline, contends Boland.

"It wasn't unusual for me to have ten to twelve videos stacked up to watch over the weekend," reports Ryan Pastrana, a lead application engineer for GE Power Systems in Atlanta, Georgia, who completed his master's in mechanical engineering from Georgia Tech via distance learning. He's very familiar with how much discipline is needed. He sometimes handled two courses a quarter and had to incorporate six hours of lectures plus homework into at least a fifty-hour work week.

Are you organized enough to handle many things at once?
Along with being able to say no to favorite TV programs and yes to watching lectures or doing homework, distance students also must be able to organize their time and resources. Wade, for instance, set weekly and monthly schedules for herself to plot out how much material she had to cover and target dates for completing it. With three children at home and a full-time job as a high school counselor, she had to. The Extended University Services at Washington State University in Pullman (WSU) conducted a survey of distance students and found that discipline and organization were consistent characteristics of successful learners, reports Muriel Oaks, Associate Vice President there.

On-campus students have the luxury of procrastination and can scurry to the campus library the afternoon before an assignment is due, then pull an all-nighter. Not so for distance learners. They must plan ahead to be sure books and materials are at hand, observes Dixon. She also mentions the necessity of accomplishing tasks in small pieces rather than big chunks of time, which distance students seem to have little of. It's like fitting an education into the cracks of your life, she illustrates. Having talked to thousands of distance students, she finds lack of this skill is one of the major reasons why students drop out.

Do you have the academic skills you'll need?
Paula Peinovich, Vice President of Academic Affairs at Regents College in Albany, New York, also comes in contact with thousands of distance students and notes the need for basic academic proficiencies, such as being able to skim information from texts, write clearly, and think critically. Dixon elaborates on this point by explaining that some people get into an online class and hate it because they don't have good writing skills. Distance learning requires a great deal of written communication, either when submitting homework or "talking" with other students and professors via e-mail.

Will the technical requirements unplug you?
Distance education providers are aware that not everyone has the latest technology necessary to access their programs, so the tendency is to deliver their programs in the most uncomplicated manner. "Most colleges post minimal requirements in terms of technology," says Thom Swiss, Director of Web Assisted Curriculum and Professor of English at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. But he also says distance students should be thoroughly comfortable manipulating the Internet and not frustrated by inevitable technical glitches. They should be willing to spend an hour or two a day sitting in front of a screen.

While it might seem like a number of obstacles could impede a distance student's success, the reality is that the benefits outweigh the downsides. Distance education is rapidly developing, and soon some of those negatives will be overcome by technical advances. Perhaps the best way to know if you have what it takes to learn from a distance is to take one class in something you truly enjoy and see how you do.

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