Succeeding as a Distance Learner

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Congratulations! You have weathered the selection and application process and you are about to embark on a new phase of your education. As you will soon find out for yourself, taking courses at a distance is not like going to class on campus. Distance learners often have the convenience of setting their own hours and pacing themselves in their studies. As we have seen in previous sections, the instructional technology lends itself to innovative approaches to teaching and learning, including more student participation and collaboration, especially in online courses. You'll find that because you work at a distance you will have more time to reflect about and respond to what you learn as well as to take part in discussions. You may be surprised at the ways in which the community of learning develops in a well-run distance course.

Of course, distance learners face a few challenges unique to the instructional design of distance courses. As a distance learner, you'll be expected to organize your time, work independently as well as collaboratively, take the initiative in your studies, and monitor your own progress, all while mastering the technology and using it as a valuable tool for learning.

So, in addition to the basic study skills you would need to earn any degree—reading, writing, analytical thinking, and test-taking skills—you will need other skills and strategies to succeed at distance learning. In this section we'll give you some suggestions and tips from successful distance learners that will help you become a more effective and successful student yourself.


We'll start with technology, because success in distance learning depends first upon reliable technology that you understand how to use. Once you've mastered the technology, it will recede into the background and become something you simply use and even take for granted.


Before you start a course, make sure you have the technological tools you will need to participate in discussions and complete assignments. Most programs provide a list of technical requirements ahead of time. If your course is on line, get a list of the hardware and software required, and make sure the computer you plan to use is properly equipped and that you have a reliable Internet service provider. If you take a course via broadcast or videotapes, learn how to use your VCR. If you have to buy equipment, don't skimp on specifications to save a few dollars now. The money you spend now to make sure you have the appropriate hardware and software is money well spent, because you'll find it much easier to get your work done properly if you are not struggling with inadequate machinery.


If you have the proper equipment but think you may not be up to speed technologically, try to improve your technology skills before courses start. As we discussed in "Selecting a Good Distance Learning Program," many colleges offer online tutorials or sample minicourses that you can take if you feel you need some practice with the technology before you actually take your first course. "I am a computer novice and never realized the extent of the computer's online capabilities until I had to learn about it through trial and error," reports a language arts literacy teacher who took a graduate course on line from Rutgers University. "This was very frustrating." So if you have the opportunity for a sample course or practice session before courses begin, take it.


To master the technology involved in your distance courses:

  • Make sure you have the appropriate hardware and software for your courses, and don't skimp on the specifications if you need to purchase any items.
  • Take a tutorial or sample minicourse ahead of time to familiarize yourself with the instructional technology.
  • Allow yourself extra time at the beginning of the course to navigate the technology.
  • Keep copies of your assignments and back up your computer files.
  • Ask for help when you need it. Well-run distance programs have technological support via telephone seven days a week, 24 hours a day.

Remember, the technology involved in distance learning is a tool that anyone can master—it just may take some effort.


Once you've got the technology working for you, the next resource you need to familiarize yourself with is the library. Understanding how to use a library is important to any student's success, but it is especially important for distance students who may not be able to get to a good bricks-and-mortar university library to get the materials they need.


One of the first things you should check before courses begin is whether or not a library services orientation program designed for distance students is available. If it is, sign up to take the orientation right away. "An early orientation to library resources, particularly interlibrary loans, is needed for those who can't physically access a library," recommends Kurt Krause, a hotel manager who took an online hospitality management course from Virginia Tech. Learning about library services through an orientation program will save you time later on when you actually need to do research for a course.


Although the Internet has revolutionized the way we look for and store information, don't make the mistake of thinking that all the information you will need is available on the Internet. True, many journals, databases, catalogs, and newspapers are instantaneously available on line, and you can access them directly or through the university library if a subscription is needed. However, the material that's available on line is only a fraction of the total resources of a library. Books, for example, are still primarily in print form. Many academic journals provide only abstracts (not full-text articles) on line, and a few are not on line at all. Reference services may be available only face-to-face or by telephone. And reserve collections may or may not be available on line. So one of the first tasks you face is to learn just what you can access on line via the university library or directly on the Internet and what you must access in paper, microform, or other physical media.


The reason you will need to know what your research resources are fairly early in the game is that you will have to plan ahead if you need to access nondigitized (paper) information at a distance, especially if the material needs to be secured via interlibrary loan. "Because I did not have physical access to a medical library in my community, I had to organize my data collection for assigned papers early in the semester," explains Patti Iversen. "The biggest handicap was the time delay in ordering and receiving full-text articles. A time lapse of three weeks from time of request to delivery of articles was common." You can see the need to plan ahead under these circumstances.


In order to be prepared for course work, early in the term or, even better, before the term starts:

  • Take a library orientation if one is available. If there is no formal distance orientation, call the library and ask for an informal orientation.
  • Check your local public and university libraries. Find out what resources they have and whether or not you can arrange access.
  • Check each course syllabus very early in the term. Determine whether you can obtain everything you will need on line or whether you will have to make other arrangements for some items.
  • Use the reference services of your university library. Ask for help. Reference librarians are there to help you, even if it's by e-mail or over the phone.


"If you are a student at any college, there is one thing you just don't have enough of….TIME! Everything is about time," says Cena Barber, an undergraduate who has taken online courses toward her degree in political science and history at Drake University in Iowa. For students who have family and work responsibilities as well, lack of time is a particularly acute problem. "With life's challenges, kids, family, job—it's hard to keep your studies a high priority," explains Scott Garrod, who is earning a master's degree in business from Syracuse University. "When your four-year-old wants a story read, do you have to study your accounting? That's an easy choice, but it means making up the accounting at a later time."


Not having enough time is a common problem. Distance learners can approach this problem in several ways:

  • Be realistic about how many courses you can handle. If you work and/or have a family, you will have relatively little time to spend on schoolwork. Start out with one or two courses at a time, and then if you feel you can increase your courseload, do so. This is especially important if you take a distance course for the first time and don't know exactly what to expect.
  • Set up a regular time to study, but expect to be interrupted. If you have a study schedule, you are more likely to get your schoolwork done, but be sure to leave some extra time. Unless you live alone, you'll need time for your family commitments. Young kids, especially, don't much care what you are doing when they need a parent, so if possible try to schedule study time when they are not around.
  • Set up a regular place to study. Although it may be difficult if you are doing schoolwork at home, try to establish a study area that's yours alone to use. If possible, the area should be quiet and free of distractions. "Since you are doing the work at home you can be easily distracted," explains Andrea Bessel, who is earning a bachelor's degree in business administration from the State University of New York at Oswego. "A lot of times something comes up and I end up setting my homework aside, which is not a good habit to get into." So if necessary, do schoolwork at your local public library or from work if your employer permits it.
  • Set priorities on what you have to do. Make judgments about what you need to do, and then spend your time on activities that are the most important and must be done first. Get used to the fact that you may have to postpone some tasks.
  • Set deadlines. Distance learning can be very unstructured, so you probably will have to be your own taskmaster. "I have learned that I have to set deadlines for myself," says Brigit Dolan, who is earning a master's degree from Gonzaga University in Washington, "or I will never get anything done."
  • Don't procrastinate. "Procrastination is your worst enemy," claims Robin Barnes, who earned a master's degree in nursing (family nurse-practitioner) from Gonzaga University.
  • Use time-management tools to help you schedule your time. Planners, whether paper or electronic, can help you allocate time and keep track of deadlines. "To do" lists can help you manage your short-term commitments.


In addition to the lack of time that all students contend with, online distance learners face unique challenges associated with time, namely, managing the flexibility of the online format and dealing with lag time when communicating with students and faculty members.


Flexibility is a unique advantage that attracts people to asynchronous courses, especially online courses. But flexibility can have a downside as well. "The best thing about distance learning is the freedom to set one's own hours for study and learning. The worst thing about distance learning is the freedom to set one's own hours for study and learning!" exclaims a middle school language arts literacy teacher taking an online graduate course from Rutgers. "Although it hasn't happened to me, it is easy to put aside work and projects for the course when one is not locked into a regular schedule. I can see how one could easily fall behind through a lack of discipline." So you can see that you'll have to use your time-management skills to take advantage of the flexibility and not let it take advantage of you.


Not only does the flexibility of online courses mean that you need discipline to log on regularly, but once you are connected you have, in theory, as much time as you want to spend on the course. Cena Barber points out, "There is no time limit as to how long the class lasts. It could be five minutes one day and five hours the next." Unless you are careful, it's easy to spend more time than you really have on an online course, so before you log on, decide how much time you have to spend during that session.


Another difference between online and traditional courses that comes as a surprise to many students is the pace at which discussions proceed. In an online course, there is a time interval between when you post a message and when you get a response—in an asynchronous discussion group—or when you send an e-mail and get a reply. Hours, even days, may elapse between exchanges on a topic, and it can take a while to get used to the slow progress of communication.

The time delay sometimes becomes a problem when students work on a group project with deadlines. "Given the time lag, it took ever so much more time to get anything done if you had to collaborate with anyone," explains a library media specialist taking an online postgraduate course from Rutgers. "When would they open the discussion thread? When would they respond? These were frustrations that I hadn't counted on and found difficult to deal with." To solve these problems, groups working on projects often communicate by telephone or in real-time chat rooms.


Given the asynchronous nature of online courses, you will not be able to completely solve the time problems they pose. However, you can minimize or avoid them to some degree.

  • Set a schedule for logging on. Even though no one may have given you a daily class schedule, you will benefit if you work one out for yourself. "You should become accustomed to getting on line on a regular basis," advises Vania McBean, a computer studies major at University of Maryland University College. "I log on each day to see what is new."
  • Limit the amount of time you will spend on line at one session. The limit might be 1 hour, for example. On some days that will be too much time, and on others, too little, but at least you will have a benchmark to aim for.
  • Don't fret about the time delays in asynchronous discussions. Before you know it, you will have become used to this method of communication and it will no longer seem odd.
  • Use a chat room or the telephone when asynchronous communication becomes too slow. You can make an appointment to meet in a chat room or have a teleconference if group work needs to be accomplished more efficiently. If e-mailing a fellow student or the instructor takes too long, try telephoning.


Students that take courses in which on-campus lectures are videotaped and mailed to them face a different set of time-management challenges. First, the weekly videotapes may take a considerable amount of time to watch. And second, the taping, duplicating, and delivery time means that distance students lag behind on-campus students in the same course.


Depending on the course load, students that take videotaped courses may find themselves with 3 to 12 hours or more of videotape to watch each week on top of their assignments. Essentially, the amount of time is the same as it would be if they had to attend classes. Since they don't have to attend classes, inexperienced students may put off watching the videos, thinking they can catch up at a later date. "In the first semester, the learning curve is steep," comments Dale Ann Abendroth, assistant professor of nursing at Gonzaga University. "So I set up my assignments to force students into a pattern of watching the videotapes." If you have a savvy instructor, the assignments will put you on a schedule. If the instructor doesn't take a structured approach, you will need to plan a regular schedule to watch the videos in order to keep up with the course work.


In videotaped courses, the distance students are a half-week to a week behind the on-campus students. "It can get a little confusing when reading topics don't correspond with lecture topics because the tapes arrive one week later than the class," explains Carla Gentry, who is earning a Master of Science in Nursing (family nurse practitioner) from Gonzaga University. If the course also has a Web-based component, the distance students have to cope with joining the Web-based discussion group and receiving the readings before the videotaped lectures arrive.

Schools do try to solve this time-delay problem, with mixed success. "Throughout the semester, we have a one-week lag on assignment due dates (in comparison to the students who are actually in class on campus)," explains Nicole DeRaleau, who is earning a master's degree in engineering from Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts. "At the end of the semester, however, we have a one-week disadvantage because the whole class has to turn in final assignments, projects, and finals on the same date in order to get grades done on time," says DeRaleau. "This can be very stressful." In contrast, at Gonzaga University's nursing program, distance students are permitted to take their final exams in their local communities a few days later than the on-campus students. "These are logistical problems that both the faculty and students become accustomed to solving," explains Abendroth.


There are a couple of things you can do to manage your time if you take videotaped courses:

  • Set a schedule for watching the videotapes. Even though you don't have to show up for class, you still need to put in classroom time in front of your own TV. If you're good at multitasking, you can follow Brigit Dolan's lead. "Sometimes I'm able to pick up my house while listening and taking in the information," explains the graduate student.
  • Keep up with your course work. Since at times you may need to complete assignments or take exams with less lead time than on-campus students have, it's imperative that you keep up with the work on a regular basis. You may face an end-of-term time crunch, so study regularly throughout the course to minimize its effect.


When you are a distance learner you can't just raise your hand and ask a question or stay after class to talk with the instructor. Even in two-way interactive video classes, which are more similar to traditional classes than other distance learning formats, there can be difficulties in communicating with an instructor at a remote location. "It can be a little more inconvenient to speak with your instructor if you need to ask about something you wouldn't ask in front of the whole class," reports a horticulture student taking a two-way interactive video course from the University of Cincinnati.

For students in online and videotaped courses, communicating with an instructor can be slow. "Sometimes you do more self-teaching because you cannot just drop into the instructor's office," explains Robin Barnes. "You may have to wait a day or two for an answer to a question. Have patience and be kind to yourself." However, you can use technology to your advantage in communicating with faculty members. E-mail, for example, is an excellent way to contact a faculty member to find out what his or her expectations are, to clarify assignments, or simply to ask a question. You may not get a response immediately, but most faculty members will answer their e-mail within a day or two. In fact, you should make a point of communicating with your instructor in distance courses. "Be sure to communicate regularly with your professor because [the course] can seem pretty far removed if you are not getting feedback every week or so," advises Sonja Cole, a middle school media specialist taking online courses from Rutgers.


To ensure you get the input an instructor can provide and to make yourself known, here are some strategies for communicating with faculty members:

  • Participate in online discussion groups. Although your instructor may not comment all the time, he or she is following the class's discussions and will get to know you there.
  • Participate in class discussions in two-way interactive video courses. It's easy to "hide in the back of the class" if you attend a course in a remote location, but you'll get more out of the class if you respond to the instructor and the class discussion.
  • Be assertive in communicating with your instructors. "You have to take the initiative," advises a distance learning student. "If you do not make sure that you get the best learning opportunity that you can, no one is going to do that for you." Remember, most faculty members are more than happy to help their students.
  • Use e-mail or the telephone. If you need to communicate with the instructor privately, use e-mail or the telephone. Most faculty members will respond within a day or two.


Just as you should take the initiative in communicating with your instructors, you should also be proactive in communicating with fellow students. Communicating with your peers has two benefits: it helps you feel connected to the learning community and it enables you to learn from your fellow students. In addition, establishing good communication with fellow students is key to successful collaborative efforts.


"I have made a conscious effort to build relationships with other students and to keep e-mail contact with them," explains Patti Iversen, a graduate student who lives in Montana and takes distance courses from Gonzaga University in Washington. "This allows each of us the opportunity to get feedback and commiserate." Another student, who is earning a bachelor's degree in information systems management from University of Maryland University College, reports, "My experience with fellow classmates in the online classroom has been very positive. I have found that establishing relationships, despite the fact that they are short-lived, has aided me." During periods when your motivation flags, this connection with others in your courses can help energize you and put you back on track.


Second, your fellow students can be resources for you. Many distance students are adults with considerable life and professional experience, so they can contribute as much as they learn from the interactions in a course. According to Michael Olsen, who teaches distance courses on the hospitality industry at Virginia Tech, students in his courses "are mature, industry-experienced professionals who come extremely well prepared. They are good contributors and they are not afraid to interact." Scott Garrod, who is pursuing a master's degree in business from Syracuse University, likes the broad range of people he meets through his distance courses. "You do not develop deep relationships," he explains, "but in a distance program you meet a wider range of individuals across multiple countries and careers."

Since all this knowledge and experience is within easy reach, you should take advantage of it. "You need to read through the responses that others post on the Web, so that you actually gain something from the forum discussion," explains Beth Grote, a Drake University student who took a course on line. Some students do more than simply participate in class and in online discussion groups—they form study groups of their own. "You just have to make it a point to form an Internet study group," suggests Robin Barnes. "We would try to converse once a week, more often if we were working on a project."


Since instructors often assign group projects in distance courses to help forge a community of learners, you will probably find yourself working with others much more frequently than you did in your past on-campus classes. According to several distance students we surveyed, doing group projects well is one of the most challenging aspects of distance learning. Often the logistics of getting a group of busy working adults in different time zones to meet at an appointed time in a chat room or be available for a conference call can be daunting. In some online courses, separate discussion groups are formed so group members can communicate asynchronously. "You need to have lots of patience and dedication," warns Kevin Ruthen, who earned a master's degree in information resource management from Syracuse University. "Interaction in an online environment can often be more time-consuming than an on-campus meeting."

And the problems of interaction are not limited to time factors. In the online environment, it's sometimes difficult for a group to coalesce and assign roles and tasks to its members. "In one of my courses, members tiptoed around each other, no one wanting to seem overbearing and declare themselves the leader, boss, facilitator, whatever. But we really needed one," explains a library media specialist taking online courses from Rutgers. "It took quite a while for a shakedown to occur so that some work could be accomplished." She continues, "Another problem was what to do about members of the team who were unproductive. It's very hard to prod people over the Internet. On the other hand, since you don't have the opportunity for meandering, off-topic conversations that start in onsite classes, things move swiftly, on schedule."


To make the most of your interactions with your fellow students, you can use these suggestions:

  • Participate. You should participate in discussions, whether they are in class in two-way interactive video courses or are on line. You will get a lot more out of your courses if you take an active part. In addition, you will get to know the other students and they will get to know you.
  • Share your knowledge and experiences. Don't assume you have nothing to offer. Most adults have plenty of experience and knowledge that can be of value to others.
  • If you need support from other students, ask for it. Everyone runs into occasional problems in a course, even if the problem is simply feeling overwhelmed by the amount of work you have to do. Communicating with other students can help you solve problems and get back on track, or it can simply make you feel better because you've let off some steam.
  • Use various forms of communication as needed. Don't feel limited to class time or discussion groups. You can e-mail or call people with whom you'd like to converse in private. Remember, other distance students may feel somewhat disconnected from the group, too, and they will probably welcome an overture from you.
  • Be assertive. When you work in a group, be assertive about what you can contribute. If the group is not making progress, try to use some of your leadership skills to get things moving.


One of the main benefits of most distance learning courses is that you can take the course from home. But unless you live alone, that means that you are working from a shared space in the presence of your family. Not only do they have to cope with the fact that you have less time for them, but they have to watch you be inaccessible—not an easy task. Therefore you should make sure you enlist the support and cooperation of your family; having their support will make your life—and theirs—much easier.

One distance student has made her education something of a family enterprise. "I work full-time, and I am blessed with a wonderful, supportive husband and the two greatest children one could ever dream of," says LaVonne Johnson, who is earning a master's degree in nursing from Gonzaga University. "We are in this together, everyone helping on some level," she continues. "My husband cooks, cleans, does laundry, and will proof papers if he is the last resort. My thirteen-year-old daughter is a great help around the house and my sixteen-year-old son is always helping with Power Point projects, statistical analyses, and Excel graphs. Needless to say, in return I try really hard not to impact my family any more than they already are, and we get by."


Distance learning is challenging, but with motivation, self-discipline, and the support of family, coworkers, and fellow students, you can succeed in your courses and earn a certificate or degree if that's your goal. Perhaps the best summation of distance education we encountered from the scores of students we surveyed came from Patti Iversen:

Distance learning isn't for the faint of heart or those who require considerable reinforcement to remain on task. It is sometimes difficult for others to recognize the challenges of the distance learner, as job, family, and community activities all continue as before. Finding a way to carve out of a busy schedule the time necessary to successfully complete courses that seem relatively invisible is a big challenge. At the same time, there is absolutely no way that I could have hoped to accomplish the goal that I have set for myself except as a distance learner. I am able to stretch and grow, professionally and personally, while continuing to live a lifestyle that I value immensely. It isn't always an easy task—it is often rigorous and sometimes frustrating—but distance learning has opened a gate of opportunity for me that previously was inaccessible.

Distance learning can provide that opportunity for you as well.