How To Make The Most of Distance Education

March 21, 2007

Recent events at SCSU have been making me think seriously about how students can optimize their distance education experience. It is undoubtedly may well be true that students in online classes should be prepared to take greater responsibility for their own education than their counterparts in face-to-face classes and that they may be required to extremely resourceful to make the most of their program. This is an important point for people to consider before applying to a distance program. The ability to discipline oneself is critical to finding success. There are many distractions at home – family, the tv, the telephone, the refrigerator, etc. – so that finding time can be difficult.

Support for distance students can be very different than for on-campus students, especially if one attends a program where there are no residency requirements or established cohorts. At SCSU, it is extremely easy to apply and start taking classes. If accepted, one is in. It becomes more problematic when students have questions, need help and/or want to talk to someone. There is no general orientation. Students don’t really “meet” unless they are in class together. There isn’t much opportunity to officially bond outside of class. It can take one a while to get comfortable with the system and understand how it works.

However, there are advantages to a program like the one at SCSU. There are no residency requirements, so one never has to set foot on campus. Courses generally don’t require any live meeting times for chats, etc. This program is incredibly convenient, and for me that was the bottom line when choosing a program. It has been a challenge to adapt to learning online, but a rewarding one (for the most part).

So, how does one make the most of distance education? Here are some my suggestions – in no particular order:

  1. Create a blog– There are some wonderful online communities that can offer great support. Some of the people that I have relied most heavily upon are fellow bloggers who aren’t associated with SCSU. Other bloggers are often willing to help answer questions, offer stories of their own educational experiences and act as sounding boards. If you do know some students in your distance program, try and start blogging together. You might be surprised how quickly a community could evolve and expand. I think this would be a wonderful project for newly accepted students into any MLS program.
  2. Make friends with the distance education librarian – You may encounter all sorts of situations where you need some guidance. Distance education librarians can really help and not just with library questions – even if only to point you to the right person on campus. There may be problems with the course management system, questions about classes or registration, or confusion over student services and how they relate to distance students.
  3. Research the faculty– Relationships with faculty will be key. It can be very difficult to develop a rapport with any individuals in the program – especially faculty. Chances are you won’t learn much about professors until you actually take their classes. It will be critical that you have a good relationship with your advisor. Determining faculty research interests before you apply can help you determine which professor your interests coincide with most closely – and help you figure out where you should be going to school.
  4. Get to know your advisor early– You will need to rely upon your advisor a great deal. Make sure you are comfortable with the advisor you have been assigned. Don’t be afraid to ask for another advisor if you think that would be best.
  5. Don’t be afraid to get a bit personal in course discussions – This is really a good way to let a bit of your personality shine into the digital world. Otherwise, you may never really get to know your fellow students – or your professors. You may feel a bit left out if you don’t develop some personal ties. Honestly, I was very hesitant to join in on discussions that seemed to consist of mostly banter during my first semester. As such, I didn’t really develop any friendships in that class.
  6. Don’t give up – keep asking questions– Distance students can feel left out or a bit removed from things that take place on campus. Don’t be discouraged if it takes a little bit of work to get questions answered sometimes. It isn’t always straightforward to figure out where to direct questions. Fellow students sometimes may be the best resource you have.
  7. Create a comfortable school-work zone – You will need a place at home where you do your school work. I found it helpful to designate a spot as a study/work zone – where I had all of my books, articles and notebooks (yes, paper is still key for me). My husband quickly came to understand that when I was in this zone, I was doing homework – and should not be disturbed unless necessary (He learned that helping him locate his shoes did not qualify – and that “YES, you need to answer the phone”). I also had to learn to be clear with my family about my due dates and what days I wanted to reserve for homework. There were things I couldn’t do without adequate time for scheduling. One caveat: you don’t want your work zone to be too comfortable. I made that mistake also and learned that almost everything is more exciting that homework (including napping).

Update: I added to this list. I noticed last night that some things were missing from the original post. I would love to blame WordPress, but sadly think it was user error!