Three Distance Students - Three Different Stories

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

Distance education is as varied as the individual needs of the students who can't (or don't want to) attend classes on campus.

Patricia Sullivan Lynch
Center for Media and Independent Learning
University of California Extension, Berkeley

Patricia wanted to take a course in marine biology and apply the knowledge to her own business, Sea Wonders, a marine education consulting business bringing programs about marine biology to camps and schools. Having had no formal higher education, she was self-taught. After her experience with distance learning, she definitely plans to take more courses.
What made you go the distance learning route?
I'm a widow with two children at home so my time is precious. I needed something where I could go at my own pace. When I found this course on the Internet, I was surprised and happy because I thought I had to be in a classroom. Most biology courses require classroom attendance.

How was the course structured?
The course was composed of ten lessons with assignments. I also had reading. Homework was submitted via e-mail. There also was an online component for each assignment. A proctored exam was required to receive a grade and college credit.

How did you pick the course?
This was the only marine biology program I found online. Because it was with the University of California at Berkeley, I was delighted.

What are some things to watch out for when choosing a program?
Even if you're taking just one course, any institution can be costly. So make sure it's accredited and not an operation that will take your money and not provide services.

What makes a successful distance learner?
You have to be self-motivated and able to stay on task. It's easy to lose interest when you're not interacting with others. You have to have a passion for the subject matter.

What kind of interaction did you have with fellow students and professors?
I found the professors willing to answer questions and offer support. The message boards (where students put up assignments they are working on) were really nice. I liked looking at other students' work and the comments about it. That gave me some of the interaction distance students lack. I don't know if being on campus would allow that same kind of interaction. As a distance learning student, I had the leisure to interact whenever I wanted and for as long as I wanted.

What didn't you like about distance learning?
I missed having that one-on-one or group interaction. For someone who likes to talk and listen and does well under those circumstances, it may be difficult to keep motivated.

Did the program measure up?
It was excellent. I don't think I could have expected any more from this type of course. I had a good time and learned a lot.

Ryan Pastrana
Center for Distance Learning
Georgia Institute of Technology

Ryan is a lead applications engineer at General Electric Energy Services in Atlanta, Georgia. After graduating from the Georgia Institute of Technology with a B.S. in mechanical engineering in 1995, Ryan decided to work toward his professional goals and get his master's at the same time. It took him 3 years to earn his M.S.M.E. in mechanical engineering.
What made you go the distance learning route?
When I was about to graduate with my bachelor's, I had to make the decision to enter the work force or get an advanced degree. I wanted to make some money, even though I was accepted to other graduate schools. I decided to do both--work toward professional goals and get my master's.

How was the course structured?
The distance courses I took were all through videos of the lectures on campus. Homework and exams had to be turned in within two weeks. The distance learner group had a two-week buffer because we were working and not full-time students. Our homework was faxed or mailed in with a confirmation that it was received. As far as tests, Georgia Tech was very strict. Every distance student was required to have a proctor who wasn't a peer or family member. They would mail a copy of the exam to the proctor, and he would schedule a time during work for me to take it at the office. I returned it to the proctor, and he'd sign it saying that I had followed the rules.

How did you pick the course?
It was pretty much the only distance learning institution I looked at. I figured Georgia Tech's master's program should be better or as good as their undergraduate program.

What are some things to watch out for when choosing a program?
You want a program to meet the same standards as a traditional degree on campus. I'm not convinced that industry completely buys into distance learning. When I was at my job in Orlando before coming to Atlanta, Human Resources didn't think distance learning had the same quality as on-campus learning. But because it was Georgia Tech, they reimbursed me. A virtual university would not have been acceptable, but because the distance degree was from an established school like Georgia Tech, they did.

What kind of interaction did you have with fellow students and professors?
With professors I communicated through phone, fax, and e-mail. With students it was all e-mail. I had less interaction with other students. During the three and a half years I only spoke to one or two students, which was my own choice. Some professors did a good job to form news groups on the Internet where students were able to share ideas. I took advantage of that on occasion.

It's more prevalent now. Some professors were still new to it then. Now they're taking more advantage of the Internet, such as putting up old tests for students to study from. Mostly I e-mailed my professors. To some extent I missed the personal interaction and not having a professor explain something to me face-to-face. With distance students, that's a downside. Some aspects of teaching get lost for distance students. But Georgia Tech has great faculty members, and they were open to helping and describing things to me.

What would you say makes a successful distance learner?
The discipline factor. The 40-hour work week is a thing of the past. It's more like 50 or 60 hours in addition to commuting. I did most of my studying in the evenings. There were times I took two courses a quarter which meant 6 hours of lectures a week. And that's just the class. I had to put additional effort into homework. All my weekends were tied up. It wasn't unusual for me to have a stack of 10 to 12 videos to watch over a weekend. You have to have discipline and be able to stick to it.

What did you like about distance learning?
I could put what I'd learned immediately into practice.

What didn't you like about distance learning?
One aspect was that the course offerings for distance learners were not as extensive as they were on campus. They couldn't offer every course. The time commitment necessary to pass the courses was difficult to meet, especially working full time. I also missed the interaction with professors and students.

Did the program measure up?
Yes. The education I got was of the same caliber as students get on campus.

What's your advice for others thinking about distance education?
Go toward an established school. And be ready for the long haul. Don't try to rush through. I'm single, and so I had more time than someone who has a family life.

Deitra Wade
B.S.N. program in science and nursing
Excelsior College

Dietra, a high school counselor, had a B.S. in business education and a M.S. in guidance and counseling from Tennessee State University. But she wanted to change careers into nursing. So she went back to Shelby State Community College at night, which entailed a commute. Having three children at home and working full time, it was a long haul for her. She got her associate degree in nursing from Excelsior College which at that time was an extension of the University of the State of New York. She then went on to enroll in the B.S.N. distance program at Excelsior College, which had become its own separate entity. Dietra can now proudly add a few more titles after her name--R.N., B.S.N., M.S. Geriatric Psychology Nurse Supervisor.
What made you go the distance learning route?
People are beginning to recognize the need for distance learning even though there are a lot of misconceptions about it. It's great for people in their forties like me who want to do other things. College is no longer confined to the 18-year-olds looking to start a career.

I would never have been able to do it without this program. I live in a rural town and had to drive 81 miles one way to attend a junior college (to begin my nursing degree). I did that for 2 years. But the more advanced nursing courses were more demanding because of the clinical rotation. I have three kids at home. It was beginning to take its toll on me. I happened to find out about distance learning. Most adult learners have children and a job. We can't spend 3 hours in class at night plus travel time. I have a home to manage and house payments to make. With distance learning programs you're in control of what you want to do and how fast you want to cover the material.

How is the course structured?
It's different for each individual because it's independent study. But I have assistance from the nursing faculty members who are at my disposal during office hours. If I'm reading the text and don't understand it, I can call for clarification. They help me with studying. The Excelsior program puts a community of students together, making it up close and personal. They have an electronic peer network group with chatroom groups according to your major. We can discuss certain classes we're in or examinations we're about to take. Or if I've already taken one, I can help someone else out. These discussion groups are helpful because I can collaborate with a variety of people who bring a broad mix of outlooks to the discussion topics.

How did you pick the course?
I looked to see if it was an accredited school. I learned about the program through other students at the junior college I was going to.

What were you looking for in a program?
Time, convenience, and a schedule that I could make my own.

What kind of interaction did you have with fellow students and professors?
I never felt like just a number. The professors communicate with you constantly by phone, mail, and e-mail. Also there's a data base in the electronic peer program with the teachers' names and faces, so you know what they look like. It makes it close to what it would be like in a class situation. I have an assigned group of advisers. If one of the advisers is not available when I call, someone else who knows me is. That's their job to keep up with you and make sure you're staying on course.

What makes a successful distance learner?
Distance learners don't have to have a teacher explaining what needs to be done and when it's due. When you read information and you don't understand it, you try to find the answer yourself. If you need further clarification, you can get a nurse educator.

How do you manage your time?
I make weekly and monthly schedules for myself, listing what I need to do, how much material I need to cover, and target dates of exams. I set up a goal sheet that I adhere to. I study after work when everyone is settled. On weekends I spend 8 to 10 hours and allow myself break times. Because there's so much material to study, I go from one study book to another so that it's not so monotonous.

You have to be interested in what you're studying because there's no reason to put yourself through this unless you absolutely want to do it.

What do you like about distance learning?
I'm getting a much better education from distance learning than I did at the junior college. At the college, I had to learn very quickly with no time to let it soak in. I had to meet their demands and their time frames. With distance education, I'm in charge. I set my schedule. I know what I have to do and don't waste time. I finished up my associate degree in 20 months and will finish up my B.S.N. in 20 months. That time limit varies from individual to individual.

The electronic peer network makes us a small community. I can't hear their voices, but I know their names. I met some wonderful people through the nursing program from prestigious schools who work at major medical facilities and are seeking medical degrees or who work in physical therapy or some technical field and are going back to get their R.N. degrees for personal satisfaction. I like the variety and make up of students. They're not all Americans. I've established a broad network of people.

What don't you like about distance learning?
The amount of work is overwhelming and you wonder sometimes if you can do it. But then you have a discussion with someone who says hang in there, don't drop out, you'll see the light. Others have done it, you can too.

What advice do you have for others thinking about distance learning?
This program is for anybody who can do things on their own, who knows how to take action and follow through and not give up. Once you finish, you can't express how elated you feel because you've done it. The degree isn't given to you, you earned it, and as a result, a lot of people respect you.

The main thing is to know what you're getting into. Make sure you're the type of person who can handle independent study. If you have to have someone looking over your shoulder, distance learning is not for you. You'll have to go the other route where you have a teacher in classroom who is basically reading information and passing out handouts you could get on your own.

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