How To Make The Most of Distance Education

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!

6 Responses to How To Make The Most of Distance Education

  1. Easterangel says:

    Wow! Great tips Jennifer!

    How a person can thrive in an online education environment has been a mystery to me and your suggestions can really be of help to lots of people out there!

    I making your post the “Post of the Day” for my blog. Please check up on it by Saturday to know if it was picked as a “Post of the Week”.

  2. Mark says:

    Hi Jennifer,

    This is extremely useful advice, for any student–distance or on campus. I have a question for you, though, regarding this statement:

    “It is undoubtedly true that students in online classes must be prepared to take greater responsibility for their own education than their counterparts in face-to-face classes and that they will be required to extremely resourceful to make the most of their program.”

    Could you please say a bit more about what you mean by “greater responsibility” and “extremely resourceful” regarding distance students vs. on campus students? I might have just skipped past it without the “undoubtedly true,” but probably not.

    Part of me really wants to agree with you on some level, but most of me says “No.” I do believe that there are differences in the ways these things must be acted on, but to me they are differences in kind, not in degree. But before I disagree with you, I’d like to know more of what you mean by that statement(s). I’ve seen similar comments elsewhere from distance students, but never from anyone as eloquent as you, so I am hoping you can help me understand and perhaps even agree with what you are saying.

    I know you are really busy right now, so if you want to respond but can’t right now please just drop me a quick line and let me know you will when you can. Thanks!

    And please everyone, whether I disagree with Jennifer’s claim as such, her advice is invaluable! Heed it, to your own benefit.



  3. Jennifer says:

    Hi Mark,

    Thanks for the comments. I will indeed post more about my comment about distance students needing to take greater responsibility for their education. Quickly, the gist of my reasoning is that it is more difficult to get guidance and help – there is less of a traditional support system for students who aren’t on campus (part of this could also be that distance students may be less inclined to find out how to get help). As such, distance students don’t seem to be able to rely upon people at the school as much (again, not necessarily because they are discouraged from doing so). Distance students need to rely upon themselves more and, I think, need to be prepared to shoulder more responsibility for their educational experience – not necessarily their actual studies. I also think this statement refers to programs without residency requirements or cohorts – since campus visits may help distance students feel connected.

    I’m definitely thinking more about it. I can see how the statement would bother those not in a distance education program. It is certainly always up to the student to take responsibility for their own education – and taking such responsibility can be the difference between just passing and truly doing well.

    I’m thinking of taking out the undoubtedly true part – I agree with your sentiments about that phrase.



  4. Mark says:

    Thanks much, Jennifer! That helps a lot. I basically agree with you; even entirely. But for some reason I still want to disagree on the finer points. Actually, I’m not sure what my disagreement is. What I do entirely agree with is that it is more difficult for distance students to get guidance and help and that there is less of a traditional support system for them.

    I guess my problem comes with the idea that that means that they must take more responsibility for their education. Personally, I see no difference in the amount of responsibility that any student within any particular group of students must take over another in a different group for their individual educations. ALL students need to take responsibility for their own educations; some do a better job than others and that has nothing to do with the method of delivery of said instruction.

    But, in almost every case, it is undoubtedly *harder* for distance students to do so; and that is a shame! It is something that every department, college and university that has a distance ed program needs to address. Now!

    I know that you are particularly close to this topic right now and I especially appreciate your further clarification. I believe we do, in fact, agree fully on this. Myself, I’d just flush it out more as a (much) harder task(s) for distance students to accomplish. But I’d maintain that the level of responsibility is the same.

    I know (or have known) several hundred distance students (having broadcast distance ed classes and taught them in workshops for 2.5 years) and about the same number of on campus LIS students (maybe less). In both groups there are outstanding students who take full responsibility for their education to include ensuring adequate advising and forcing the system to work for them and then there are those who never meet once with their advisors or figure out that they need to talk to someone about some issue.

    Thanks again, Jennifer, and best of luck with all your issues! I know it’s tough being a leader in such a situation, but your fellow students are in wonderful hands. Just make sure you’re leader enough to get at least one or two to assist you. 🙂

  5. Jennifer says:

    I have been thinking a bit more about all of this. Part of me wants to say that maybe responsibility isn’t the right word to use in this instance – and yet, I can’t really come up with another word to replace it with. The bottom line for me is that students need to take responsibility for their education in a different way than in the traditional setting. This can be problematic because many don’t realize it until there is a problem (of course, isn’t that how we learn most things in life).

    I completely agree with your point that students are quite different – some excel, some don’t. Students can slack off whether they are in an on-campus or distance program. I sense it might be easier to slack off in an distance program because it may be easier to fly under the radar – meaning it isn’t as easy for people running the program to identify students having trouble.

    I’ll keep trying to see if I can find a better way to verbalize the issue!!!

  6. Mark says:

    I think you’ve done an excellent job, Jennifer! Spend your time where it’s needed and thanks again for the excellent conversation.

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