Is Distance Learning Right for You?
Is Distance Learning Right for You?
IS DISTANCE LEARNING RIGHT FOR YOU?
Distance learning can satisfy a wide range of needs for many people in diverse circumstances, but it's not for everyone. Some students don't have the study skills or self-discipline to succeed as a distance learner. Others are interested in a field of study or a degree that is not offered via distance learning. Still, for most people distance learning has the potential to open up new possibilities in higher education. For many adult students, the advantages of distance learning far outweigh the disadvantages. In this section, we'll discuss the pros and cons of distance learning and help you assess whether or not distance learning is right for you.
THE ADVANTAGES OF DISTANCE LEARNING
Distance learning has many benefits. That's why distancelearning programs meet the needs of so many different people of all ages, genders, professions, and educational backgrounds.
As you read the following list of distance learning benefits, ask yourself if any of them provide a way to overcome an obstacle that is standing in your way when you think about going back to school. Do any of these advantages make continuing your education a real possibility right now, rather than a vague goal for sometime in the future?
Here are the benefits of distance learning in general:
- Distance learning breaks down time barriers. In most distance learning programs, you don't have to be at a certain place at a certain time. You can learn when it's convenient for you, so you can fit your education into a busy work and home life. You only take as many courses as you can handle at a time, and sometimes you can start whenever you like instead of at the beginning of a semester.
- Distance learning breaks down geographical barriers. Whether you are logging on to a course from your own computer at home or traveling a short distance to a satellite classroom, distance education makes your geographical distance from a college or university irrelevant. Students who live in remote areas, who don't have time to commute to a campus, and who travel a lot on business benefit from this aspect of distance education.
- Distance learning goes at your own pace. Distance learning is ideal for students who like to set their own pace and who learn best on their own. As you work through course material, you can spend more time on difficult concepts and less time on easier ones. Although you are likely to have weekly or other periodic deadlines, as long as you make them, you can approach the work at a pace that suits your schedule.
- Distance learning can save money. Although the tuition and fees for distance learning courses are usually comparable to those charged for on-campus courses, you can save money on child care, gas, parking, and other commuting costs. In addition, you generally don't have to take time off from work to attend class.
- Distance learning fits individual needs. You can often tailor a program to fit your particular educational and professional goals and take courses from various institutions if necessary.
- Distance learning provides freedom of choice. Since you are not confined to schools within easy commuting distance, you are able to consider distance learning programs at reputable colleges and universities around the country and the world.
- Distance learning teaches more than just the course material. Depending on the type of program you take, distance learning can improve your computer, Internet, reading, writing, and oral communication skills, which benefits you no matter what kind of career you pursue.
- Distance learning broadens your perspective. Often, your classmates will be from diverse backgrounds and places. You will interact with a more diverse group of people than you would normally find on most campuses.
Refer to Figure 2-1 for the specific advantages of each of the major distance learning instructional technologies.
THE DISADVANTAGES OF DISTANCE LEARNING
Lest you think that distance learning is the solution to all problems of access to education, it does have its drawbacks. Consider whether or not any of the following general disadvantages would cause you to eliminate distance learning from your education plans. For disadvantages specific to a particular instructional technology, refer to Figure 2-1.
- Distance learning requires a high degree of discipline and self-motivation. Dropout rates are higher for distance learning programs than for campus-based programs. No doubt, some dropouts are students who did not realize that distance learning requires as much, if not more, time than a traditional on-campus class. For older distance education students, it's easy for work or family needs to take priority over education. Many distance learners drop out because the distance course is the easiest thing to let go of when things get too hectic.
- Distance learning can be lonely. Some people need the face-to-face interaction that a traditional classroom provides. Even though instructors may try to overcome social isolation in distance learning courses, for some students there is simply not enough social contact to keep them enthusiastic and motivated.
- Distance learning can take longer. Because distance learning is self-motivated, it's easier to give in to other demands on your time and postpone taking courses, increasing the time it takes to complete a degree program.
- Distance learning students may get poor student services. On-campus students have convenient access to the library, academic advisers, job placement services, tutoring, and student centers. Many distance learning programs offer student services such as online library access and registration, but in most schools the services still can't compare to those available to on-campus students.
|Distance Learning Technology||Advantages||Disadvantages|
|Online||▲Course work can be done at any time of day or night.||▼Lots of self-discipline and motivation are needed.|
|▲Any computer with Internet access can be used.||▼A computer with Internet access is needed—a significant cost.|
|▲Courses can easily be taken from more than one school.||▼Social interaction is on line only.|
|▲Computer skills are developed.|
|▲There are no commuting costs.|
|Two-way interactive videoconferencing||▲There is access to courses at distant campuses.||▼Classes are held at particular times and places.|
|▲Social interaction is most similar to that of a traditional classroom.|
|▲There is no cost to the student for technology.|
|Videotapes of class sessions||▲Course work can be done at any time of day or night.||▼Lots of self-discipline and motivation are needed.|
|▲Any TV and VCR can be used.||▼Social interaction is minimal.|
|▲There are no commuting costs.||▼Distance learners are several days behind on-campus class.|
- Distance learning students miss the college experience. College campuses offer a lot more than classes, with cultural and sports activities, dorm life, faculty-student interaction, and the opportunity to form lifelong friendships. Although this is not an important consideration for most older distance learners, younger students that pursue an undergraduate education may find the on-campus experience too valuable to pass up.
- A traditional college degree is a better choice to meet some future goals. Although distance learning is becoming more mainstream and is usually accepted by employers, as long as it is from a reputable institution, it is still regarded by some in the traditional academic community as inferior. Thus, a traditional degree may be more valuable if you are considering applying in the future to the more prestigious graduate and professional programs, including law school and medical school.
With the advantages and disadvantages of distance learning in mind, you should take some time to honestly answer the following questions. Consider your own goals, circumstances, personality, skills, social support, and comfort with technology to determine whether or not you are a good candidate for distance learning.
What are your educational and professional goals?
First you must determine your educational and professional goals. Ask yourself what you would like to be doing in five or ten years, and then determine what courses or degree programs will help you achieve your goals. Do you need a course to update your skills, a certificate to provide professional credentials, or a degree to solidify or advance your professional standing?
For example, when Head Start announced that an associate's degree in early childhood education would soon be a requirement for its teachers, Angela Butcher had a problem. Butcher, who teaches at Jackson-Vinton Community Action Head Start in Ohio, just had a high school diploma. "I was so scared of losing my job. Going to a college campus (the closest is 45 minutes away) after working 8 hours a day and finding a sitter for my two children because my husband works second shift—it was just impossible to even think about doing it. Then my director received a brochure about the distance learning program at the University of Cincinnati and asked if I would like to give college a shot that way." Butcher continues, "I felt this was a true gift to help me to [keep] the profession that is dear to me."
For Butcher, the goal was crystal clear and the means of achieving that goal fell into place quite nicely. However, for any student, it's important to know what you hope to accomplish by undertaking any degree program. "Make sure you have your goals defined," advises Scott Garrod, a Master of Business candidate at Syracuse University. "Then the decision between a distance or traditional [program] will be easy." Keep in mind that in some fields a distance education degree is not as acceptable as it is in others. Although most business employers don't make any distinctions between distance and on-campus degrees, as long as they are from reputable institutions, in academia and some professions employers may not be so accommodating. Be sure you understand what academic credentials will carry weight in the field in which you are interested.
Why are you considering distance education?
Do you have a busy schedule full of commitments to work, family, and community? If so, your top reason for enrolling in a distance education course or program may be the flexibility it offers. The ability to do course work at your own convenience is the key consideration for most distance learners.
"My schedule does not permit consistent attendance in a traditional classroom," comments one 46-year-old undergraduate. "As a consultant, I may be required to spend up to 60 hours at a client site…. As a parent, I have many commitments that would take priority over my attending class." She continues, "The online program at the University of Maryland University College offers me maximum flexibility in which to pursue my educational goals without interfering with the rest of my crazy schedule." Another student, Kimberly Foreman, who is studying for a Master of Healthcare Administration from Seton Hall University's online program in New Jersey, investigated several programs. "Traditional on-campus evening classes interfered with work and family obligations. The weekend programs still required that I be at a certain place at a certain time, and this was also inconvenient," she explains. "I wanted flexibility and a program that allowed me to be self-directed but still have interaction with faculty members and classmates." The online program she found at Seton Hall met her needs.
Some students need the flexibility of distance education because their work involves a great deal of travel. "With my job, travel is a requirement… sometimes unpredictable travel," says Scott Garrod of Syracuse University. "So a distance learning program that was not classroom-dependent was a great alternative." Another student, Paul Nashawaty, explains, "My profession has me traveling around and moving from place to place."Nashawaty, who is earning a Master of Business Administration from Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, concluded, "It would be very difficult for me to transfer from school to school."
Other students enroll in distance education courses and programs because they live too far from the institutions of higher learning that offer the education they need. These are students for whom the word "distance" in distance learning has a literal meaning. "My husband is a farmer, so my family is not mobile," explains Patti Iversen, a nurse who lives in Montana and is working on a Master of Science in Nursing degree (family nurse practitioner) from Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington. "I live in a rural community and the closest colleges and universities are 250 to 300 miles from my home. I did not want to leave my family for extended periods of time in order to meet my educational and career objectives." For Iversen, distance learning was the only way to achieve her goals.
"I wanted a degree from a respected and vigorous program but didn't want to move my family or quit my job," says Lara Hollenczer, a marketing manager who lives in Maryland and is pursuing a master's degree in communications management from Syracuse University in New York. Distance learning provided Hollenczer the means to earn the degree she wanted without disrupting her work and family life. So, when you consider taking a course or enrolling in a degree program, ask yourself whether flexibility of time and place is critical for you. If flexibility is one of your top needs, distance learning may be the right choice for you.
PERSONAL ATTITUDES AND SKILLS
Are you prepared to do as much work as you would have to do in a traditional course, and perhaps more?
Many people believe that distance learning is an easier or faster way to earn a degree. This is because in recent years many fraudulent distance-learning schools have sprung up, promising degrees in little or no time for little or no work. These diploma mills have given rise to the false perception that distance learning degrees are somehow easier to earn than degrees earned the traditional way. However, distance learning courses and degree programs offered by reputable schools require just as much time and effort as their on-campus counterparts.
"Some students think that an online course is cybersurfing for credit," says Michael S. Ameigh, Assistant Provost for Distance Learning and Information Resources and Associate Professor of Communication Studies at the State University of New York at Oswego. "But an online course is actually more work than if students took the course in the classroom." That's because online instructors often require a certain amount of participation from students in order to pass the course, whereas most classroom instructors do not demand participation from students beyond completing the assignments and exams. So, at the beginning of each course, Ameigh tries to weed out students who think that online learning is easier than conventional courses. He provides a six-minute "welcome document," a streaming media PowerPoint presentation with narration that gives an overview of what the course covers and what he expects of students. In courses taken by distance learners and on-campus students, instructors make no distinctions between distance learners and traditional students when it comes to the course work that they must do. For example, in Gonzaga University's undergraduate and graduate nursing programs, "Course requirements for students at a distance are identical to those for their on-campus colleagues," according to Dale Ann Abendroth, Assistant Professor of Nursing.
From the student's perspective, a high-quality distance education course is as rigorous as a traditional course. "Certainly the expectations of the instructor and the volume of readings and assignments were as stringent, or even more so, than on-site courses I have taken," comments a high school librarian of her Rutgers University postgraduate course in critical issues for the wired classroom. "Be prepared for a great deal of work. It seems to me that more work is assigned than in a 'regular' class, so students shouldn't perceive distance learning as an easy way out. It isn't!"
Do you have the time-management skills necessary to juggle work, home, and school responsibilities?
As we have seen, a distance learning course or program takes as much time as a traditional one, and sometimes more. So ask yourself, do you have enough time to take a distance learning course or courses? Will you be able to juggle your course work, professional work, family obligations, and community activities to make time for all your responsibilities? "I've seen students register for four or five classes in a semester and try to work full-time," says Patti Wolf, Assistant Academic Director and Assistant Professor of Computer Science at the University of Maryland University College. "Many of these students have underestimated the time required for their online courses and ended up doing poorly." Wolf adds, "You should expect to spend as much time on line (or otherwise preparing for class) as you would in a traditional classroom." Distance learner Patti Iversen advises students to "be realistic about the amount of time that will be needed for study and travel, if required [for programs with residency periods]."
In addition to having enough time to do the course work, students have to be able to plan their time, make a schedule, and stick to it. "The biggest problem I see among my students is an inability to budget their time," says Wolf. "They get to the third week of class and realize that it's Saturday night and they haven't done their homework."
Iversen agrees. "Failure to adequately anticipate and plan for the rigors of independent learning leads to frustration and poor outcomes," she warns. Even though many courses, like Wolf's, are set up in weekly blocks to help students pace themselves, it's still up to the student to make time to log on or watch the videotape and do the assignments.
Do you have the discipline and self-motivation to work regularly if you don't have to show up for class at a given time and place?
When we asked students and faculty members what personal qualities a distance learner needs, most people mentioned discipline and self-motivation as the keys to success. "Success as a distance learner requires more self-discipline and greater ability to learn autonomously than site-based learning," claims distance learner Patti Iversen. M.B.A. candidate Paul Nashawaty echoes her remarks, "You must keep on top of the workload and try not to slack off," he says. "Discipline is my number-one factor for success in this program." A University of Maryland University College undergraduate agrees, "Students [must] have the discipline to complete course work studies and assignments on time and independently without the in-person reminders that come with regularly scheduled class meetings." When you are considering distance education, ask yourself whether or not you have the qualities needed to see it through. According to Denise Petrosino, a certified public accountant working on a master's in organizational management from the University of Phoenix Online, "As long as you are goal-oriented and self-motivated, you can do it."
Do you have the initiative and assertiveness needed to succeed in a distance learning environment?
Initiative and assertiveness are qualities needed for success in distance learning. Students need to take the initiative to ask questions and resolve problems that the instructor may not be able to perceive.
In addition, students in distance learning courses need to be assertive in order to make themselves known to the instructor and to other students. For example, in an online course, a student who never participates in threaded discussions tends to "disappear." "In the online environment, students have to be assertive," says Michael S. Ameigh of the State University of New York at Oswego. "Otherwise we don't know who they are." Similarly, in a prerecorded video course, a student who never contacts the instructor has little presence in the instructor's mind. Of course, initiative and assertiveness are pluses for traditional on-campus students, too. The student who speaks up in class is more likely to have a good learning experience and succeed in a course than the student who sits silently in the back of the room. For many adults, maturity brings assertiveness. "My students are a professional group," says Dale Ann Abendroth, Assistant Professor of Nursing at Gonzaga University. "It's rare that I have a wallflower in a course."
YOUR ACADEMIC AND PROFESSIONAL SKILLS
Do you have sound study skills, including reading, researching, writing papers, and taking exams?
Good study skills are a necessary prerequisite for distance learning. In fact, many institutions that offer distance learning courses and degree programs require that students have taken at least some college-level courses before they enroll in a distance education degree program. For example, some distance education bachelor's programs prefer students with an associate's degree from a community college or a certain minimum number of undergraduate credit hours. In this way, they ensure that students are ready to tackle course work via distance learning without needing much help with basic study skills.
For graduate programs, it is simply assumed that students have the necessary study skills and are ready to undertake graduate-level work. Laurie Noe, a doctoral candidate in management of children and youth programs at Nova Southeastern University, explains, "You are required to produce papers, take tests, conduct research, and formulate and state your opinions just as if you were in a traditional setting."
Do you have good communication skills? Can you present yourself well in writing? Can you speak up on camera?
Good communication skills—reading, writing, listening, and speaking—are necessary to succeed in all types of distance learning courses and programs. However, different distance learning technologies emphasize different communication skills.
"Online students have to be reasonably articulate in the written mode of communication," explains Claudine SchWeber, Assistant Vice President for Distance Education and Lifelong Learning at the University of Maryland University College. That's because virtually all communication in an online course takes place through the written word, therefore you must be comfortable with reading messages and responding in writing.
For some people, this is ideal. "Students who are petrified to talk in class often find it easy to communicate in writing on line. They can make well-reasoned, thought-out responses to the discussion," explains Patti Wolf of the University of Maryland University College. "One of the things that happens on line is that people who talk little in the classroom feel more comfortable and tend to communicate well on line," says Karen Novick, Director of Professional Development Studies at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Robert V. Steiner, who directs the distance learning project at Teachers College, Columbia University, also agrees. "For some students, online learning may provide a more comfortable environment in which to express themselves. Students can reflect on what they want to say before they post a message." On the other hand, some students are simply more visual and more oriented to getting information via television rather than the written word. For them, two-way interactive video is a more comfortable way to communicate. It's easier for these students to speak up and communicate with people they can see and hear rather than to write messages to unseen students and instructors. "Once students get used to being on camera, they react fairly normally," says Larry Anthony, Director of the Addiction Studies Program at the University of Cincinnati. Of course, students who take courses via video still need written communication skills because most of their assignments and exams are in writing.
If you are pursuing a degree or certificate to improve your professional standing, do you have the background that may be required?
Many graduate-level professional programs require that students have worked in the field for several years before they apply. For example, many programs that offer a Master in Business Administration prefer students who have demonstrated their professional capabilities through several years of work. Graduate-level work in other fields, such as nursing, social work, and education, often requires related work experience. Be sure you have the necessary professional background for the programs you are considering.
Do you have the support of your family and employers?
As you have realized by now, a distance learning course or program can be challenging. Taking such a course or program means that you will be working harder than ever, so having the backing of your family and employer can be very helpful. "It's important to have a good support group behind you," says Barbara Rosenbaum, who is working on a master's degree in communications management from Syracuse University. "My husband, friends, family, and colleagues helped me keep my energy and focus up." Distance learner Patti Iversen agrees. "A local support network is a valuable asset in helping to overcome the occasional slump in motivation that occurs over time."
Are you comfortable with the social interaction that is characteristic of distance learning? Can you overcome or accept the social isolation that often occurs?
The issue of social interaction and isolation is complex because different factors, including instructional technology, personality, and life circumstances, influence how each person reacts to the social element of distance learning.
Instructional technology. As we saw when we discussed communication skills, each distance learning technology draws on particular skills. Similarly, each distance learning technology offers a different type of social interaction. Let's look at each major distance learning technology to get a better idea of how it affects the social elements of distance education.
The technology that offers a social experience most similar to that of the conventional classroom is two-way interactive video. Even though the students may be geographically distant from one another, communication is in real time, people can see one another, and the feeling of social isolation is minimized. Kenneth Wachter, Professor of Demography at the University of California at Berkeley, offered an advanced postgraduate course in mathematical demography via two-way interactive video to students at Berkeley and the University of California at Los Angeles. He was delighted by how the two groups of students were brought together. "The thing that works best is the human back and forth," says Wachter.
Online courses can also offer social interaction, but in a new and, to some, unfamiliar form. "At first it is strange e-mailing someone you don't know. However, you get to know the person via e-mail just as you would talking or writing a letter," explains an undergraduate at the University of Maryland University College. "In the cybercafes that are provided for classmates, we talk about class work, movies, music, time management, and sports. It helps bring the class together socially." Denise Petrosino, who is enrolled in a master's program in organizational management at the University of Phoenix Online, agrees. "If you have a fear of limited interaction with the teacher and students, you can put that aside because I believe that we learn more about our teacher and classmates in the online program than in the live classroom," says Petrosino. "The reason I say this is because you get to read all correspondence between students and teacher."
In courses in which class videotapes are mailed to off-site students, the sense of social isolation is the most pronounced. That's because these courses often do not provide a means for ongoing discussion between off-site students, on-site students, and instructors. "The professors do not know much about the distance students' personalities, or even what they look like," explains Nicole DeRaleau, who lives in Connecticut and is a Master of Engineering student at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts. "Their interaction with us is minimal, and the closest form of personal interaction may be a telephone call, which is almost always initiated by the student." Note that some courses that rely on videotapes for instructional delivery are now moving on line as well, establishing class bulletin boards on which discussions can take place, thus improving the social interaction of the off-site students.
Personality. The second factor that influences how social interaction and social isolation are perceived is an individual's personality—one person's social isolation is another person's cherished privacy. For some people, the type of interaction that characterizes distance learning is not enough to overcome a sense of social isolation. "Eye contact, vocal inflection, body language—all these elements of communication are missing [online]," explains Robert V. Steiner, who directs the distance learning project at Teachers College, Columbia University. "For some people, the sense of isolation can be significant." Joanne Simon, a student at the University of Phoenix Online who actually prefers online classes to traditional classes, admits, "I like to talk, so for me, the social interaction is lacking." Another distance learner thinks that people who are "social butterflies" will find the social interactions of distance learning unfulfilling.
On the other hand, people who are not especially extroverted may find distance learning suits them. They can participate, especially in online courses, without risking too much personal revelation.
Personal circumstances. How important is social interaction? Clearly, there must be enough interaction to facilitate learning. But for many adult students, the lack of social interaction is simply not a problem.
"For the most part, I feel detached from the class itself, and that is okay," says Brigit Dolan, a nurse who lives in Boise, Idaho, and is enrolled in Gonzaga University's Master of Science in Nursing program in Spokane, Washington. In this program, students are required to attend classes three times per semester. The remaining classes are mailed to them on videotape. "I feel okay to share my ideas and experiences when I'm there, but I'm fulfilled enough in other areas of my life that I don't yearn for that much interaction from my school life…. I just do my work, communicate with my professors and classmates occasionally, and that's about it." Like Brigit Dolan, most adult students are not looking for the social life and collegiality that are characteristics of the on-campus under-graduate experience. A librarian taking a postgraduate course at Rutgers University explains, "I don't think social interaction is a high priority in the kind of postgrad courses I take; we all have jobs and personal lives, and time is precious." Carla Gentry, a nurse enrolled in a distance learning master's program, agrees. "At my stage in life, I am not going to school for the social benefits."
How well do you work with others?
After the discussion of social interaction and social isolation, you may wonder why working well with others is important in the distance learning environment. The reason is that many instructors try to overcome the potential social isolation of the distance education course by assigning group work, thus forcing people to interact with each other.
Doing a group project in a distance learning class is challenging. The first challenge is to coordinate the activities of a group of people who are extremely busy, geographically distant from one another, and doing their work at different hours of the day and night. The second challenge is to get a group of distance learners to work together. "Since distance learners are so independent and self-motivated, they also like to do things their own way," says Brigit Dolan, who finds group projects the most challenging aspect of distance education. Trust, cooperation, and flexibility are key.
Do you have the technical skills, or the willingness to acquire these skills, that may be required of a distance learning program?
Those of you who see yourselves as technologically challenged may have been dismayed by the discussion in "What Is Distance Learning?" of the technology involved in many distance learning courses. Don't be. Remember that the technology is just a tool, a means to an end, and it can be learned.
In fact, some distance learning technology is not particularly advanced from the user's point of view. For example, in two-way interactive video courses, all you have to do is learn to activate the microphone (some even activate automatically when you speak) and watch the video monitors. For prerecorded video, you just pop the videocassette into the VCR and turn on the TV. Online courses do involve a little more technological savvy. However, consider the experience of one librarian who was taking a traditional on-campus postgraduate course at Rutgers University. "My first online course was thrust upon me," she recalls. The instructor, who developed a serious health problem that prevented her from coming in to class, gave students the option of continuing online. "I, on my own, would never have chosen this mode; I was too computer-illiterate at that time. However, I quickly found that the technical skills required were really not onerous at all and that I could master them easily…. If I can succeed—no spring chicken with little technology experience—anyone can." Denise Petrosino agrees. "You do not have to be a technical genius to go to school on line. If you have a computer, can log onto the Web, and know how to use e-mail, you are set."
Do you have or are you willing to gain access to the necessary equipment, which may include a computer, VCR, television, or fax machine?
Most people own a television and VCR, so these are not usually items that a new distance learner needs to purchase. However, investing in the proper computer hardware and software for a distance education program can be costly. Even if you already own a computer with Internet access, you may have to upgrade your hardware or Internet browser or purchase additional software in order to meet the minimum technical requirements of a course.
Can you tolerate dealing with technology problems?
Technology sometimes fails, and distance learners have to learn how to cope when it does. Many schools offer technical support for distance learners, and sometimes problems can be solved quickly. But if your computer system crashes for a week, you'll have to find other alternatives until you can fix the problem. "Students should be comfortable with the technology triad—fax, phone, and computer," says Claudine SchWeber of the University of Maryland University College. "Then if one goes down, they have other channels of communication."
A MINI SELF-ASSESSMENT
If you do an Internet search using the phrase "distance learning self-assessment," you will find dozens of brief quizzes designed to evaluate whether or not distance learning suits your personality, skills, and learning style. Most are posted on the Web sites of colleges and universities that offer distance education courses. For example, the University of Texas at Brownsville's distance learning self-assessment can be found at http://pubs.utb.edu/semester_courses/spring2001/distance_learnself_assessment.htm, and St. Louis Community College offers its self-assessment at http://www.stlcc.cc.mo.us/distance/assessment.
For your convenience, we've provided a brief self-assessment. Although most of the online quizzes focus on Internet-based courses, this assessment is broader. Take it and see how you do!
DISTANCE LEARNING SELF-ASSESSMENT
- When I think about how I learn, I think:
- I learn best independently. I am self-motivated and like to work at my own pace. I don't need a lot of handholding.
- I like to work independently, but I like to get some feedback once in a while on how I'm doing. I don't need a lot of support, just a little help every once in a while.
- I can work independently, but I want to know where I stand. I like to be in an interactive situation where I get regular feedback on how I am doing.
- I need lots of interaction with my teachers and peers. I like the give and take of the classroom setting. It keeps me engaged in my classes.
- When I think about learning through different media, such as the Internet or videoconferencing, I think:
- It would be exciting to be able to do my work through a different medium. The idea of sitting in a classroom does nothing for me.
- I am open to the idea of trying something different, like an Internet class. I would like to see how it would work for me.
- I'm not sure that I would be ready to work that independently. When I think of furthering my education, I see myself in a more traditional setting.
- I absolutely want a traditional learning experience. I want to be in a classroom setting and experience all that school has to offer.
- When I think about interacting with my teachers, I think:
- I don't really care whether or not I have any face-to-face contact with my teachers. As long as I'm getting the kind of information I need to be successful in my classes, I can be satisfied as a student.
- I don't need a great deal of direct contact with my teachers. I'm a good, independent worker. I do want to be able to ask for help and direction when I need it.
- I don't need to be in a situation where I have daily conversations with my teachers, but I do like to know that they are there if I need them. I find a good teacher really helps me get excited about a topic.
- I really value my contacts with my teachers. I like to be able to engage in a dialogue in the classroom. A good teacher helps me connect to the subject.
- When I think about trying to do schoolwork at home, I think:
- I have a great setup at home, which is conducive to studying. I like the idea of being able to work in my own "space" and at my own pace.
- I can work fairly well at home, I just have to make sure that I don't get too distracted by what is going on around me.
- I could work at home, but I really don't see that as an ideal situation. There is too much going on and I would be able to concentrate better in a classroom or library setting.
- There is no way I want to learn from home. I want to get out of the house and be in a classroom with other students.
- When it comes to setting my schedule for learning and studying, I think:
- I need as much flexibility as I can get. I've got a lot of other things going on in my life and I'd really like to be able to work at my own pace.
- I would like to have some flexibility in scheduling my classes, but I don't want to drag it out either. I want to get through my education as quickly as possible.
- I like the idea of having my time fairly structured. If I don't have someone pushing me along, it may take me longer than I want to get through school.
- I need to have a structured schedule to keep me on task.
- When I think about the traditional education experience, I think:
- Campus or classroom life doesn't really appeal to me at this stage in my life. I don't need or want the experience, for example, of living in a dorm or sitting in a classroom. I want to find an alternative way of earning my degree or certificate.
- I'm not sure if I want to commit to the classroom experience. It may work for me, but I'm willing to look at other ways of earning a degree.
- I think I would be happier if I were on a campus somewhere. I think I'd probably regret missing out on the learning experience. I wouldn't rule out the notion of being a commuter, though.
- I really want a traditional learning experience where I can get away from home. I'm at a point in my life where that seems to be the logical next step for me.
To evaluate your readiness for distance education, count the number of (A)s, (B)s, (C)s, and (D)s among your responses. If most of your answers were
- (A)—you should carefully investigate distance education as an option for continuing your education.
- (B)—you should investigate whether distance learning programs are suitable for meeting at least part of your educational needs. For example, you may want to complete a significant portion of your academic work through a distance learning program but still allow yourself time for some of your work to be completed in a traditional classroom setting.
- (C)—you're probably better-suited for a traditional campus-based college experience than a distance learning environment. However, some course work through a distance learning program may be a great way to supplement your on-campus course work. You should probably look for a program that will provide you with faculty or mentor feedback on a regular basis.
- (D)—You are clearly suited for a traditional classroom setting where you can have more immediate interaction with your teachers and peers. This is not to say that you may not find distance learning programs useful at some point in the future, but it sounds like you need something more hands-on so you can get immediate feedback in the classroom while enjoying the other benefits of college life.
As you have seen in this section, distance learning is not for those who lack motivation or need other people to keep them on task. On the other hand, it is perfectly suited for those who have definite educational and professional goals, are committed to getting an education, are focused and organized, can persevere when things get tough, and need the flexibility that distance education offers.
Finding the time in a busy schedule to successfully complete distance learning courses is a challenge for most adults. It's easy for work and family obligations to take precedence over getting an education. Still, distance learning makes it possible for many adults who cannot regularly attend on-campus classes to get a high-quality education. As one undergraduate distance learner commented, "For working adults (and particularly working parents), distance learning may provide the best means for obtaining an undergraduate or graduate degree from a highly respected university without interfering with life's other commitments."