I have been struggling for a couple of months to actually write this point about distance education, trying to figure out what about my recent school experience has left me unsatisfied. It finally dawned on me that the distance program that I just completed had no soul, no personality and no heart – absolutely nothing to set it apart from any generic online classroom experience. I would like to believe that institutions of higher learning are not implementing distance programs solely as a means to increase revenue. However, it is awfully difficult to avoid this conclusion when faced with accounts of bad experiencesin the online arena.
To me, an education is so much more than just textbooks, reading the literature, writing papers and attending lectures. One can’t in any way discount the important of the academic piece, but neither should anyone rely upon it as the sole component. After much internal debate, I think this is where I see the biggest weakness of distance education programs. They tend to offer little to students outside of the curriculum. Somebody needs to understand that distance students have the same needs and expectations as traditional students, but that those needs have to be filled in different ways.
When one chooses a degree program, they look at many things besides academics. People look for opportunities outside of the classroom, opportunities to develop relationships with faculty and mentors, availability of career counselling, availability to help with academics and research, opportunities to interact with peer and other opportunities that augment and enhance the classroom experiences. These are the types of things that help keep students challenged and engaged. I am certainly not naive enough to expect that a distance education program can fulfill these things in the same manner than a traditional one can. However, it seems as if current programs are doing little to help round out the education experiences of distance students – especially distance students who are not ever able to make it to the physical campus.
This, of course, makes the online environment critical to distance students. Most programs have some type of online course management system to allow students to learn online. At SCSU, they currently use WebCT/Vista. I have to admit that I didn’t experience the level of technical frustrations with Vista as many of my classmates did. However, it is an awful tool – especially considering it is THE primary interface to the school for many distance students. This is THE face of the school. It was clunky, slow, and unattractive. It in no way promoted social interaction. People have commented to me that they do not think that the online course system is the place to encourage social interaction. But, as a student, if this is my primary interface with the college, this is where I want to interact with the school and its people.
Ultimately, I often felt like SCSU did not know what to do with its distance students. There was little infrastructure to support our needs (which I do not think are more important than traditional students – just different). There were several people at SCSU who made an extraordinary effort to help distance students and to make them feel valued. However, as a whole, neither the ILS department nor the school itself made much of an effort to include distance students in events outside of the classroom. Sadly, it seems as if this is a common problem to distance education in general. This is why I do not believe that distance education is quite ready for prime time. It needs to grow significantly – and hopefully mature a lot before it will even come close to offering students the same type of well-rounded education that traditional programs do.