Like me, many of you may be distance learning students; you are simultaneously working full-time and trying to complete a graduate degree that expands your knowledge and skills. Some of you may be on this educational journey to expand what you can offer to your current employer. Others may be here to seek a promotion that may result from their graduate education. And some may be here for the sake of learning. The common thread between these groups are the challenges we encounter with engaging in distance learning.
Distance learners tend to be full-time professionals, individuals taking time off due to personal circumstances, newly matriculated undergraduate students, or current graduate students. All these individuals have busy lives. The distance learning environment, therefore, is distinct from the traditional learning environment for the following reasons:
- The learning environment is virtual that exists on the learning management system
- The onus is on the student to review course material and follow the schedule diligently
- Students’ motivation and commitment to the course learning are tested daily
Although distance learning has made education accessible to individuals who may have geographic and time obstacles to continuing their education, they have uncovered challenges in the traditional notions and processes of learning. As a distance learner myself, I am constantly faced with challenges that test my motivation and commitment to my program. In this blog post, I will discuss some of the most salient challenges with distance learning and offer experiential advice on how to overcome them.
Virtual Learning Environment
For many, aphysical community of learners in a traditional classroom is an important source of motivation, creativity, and commitment to learning. However, in distance learning, this community is problematized because it exists in the virtual world whereby learners are prompted to engage in learning activities and open-dialogue mediated through the passiveness of the virtual world. This learning environment lacks the emotional and physical connection between learners that is cultivated through verbal and non-verbal communication. The learning process, as a result, is different and, in some instances, slower.
Take an open-discussion on the NAFTA talks as an example of a learning activity. Facilitating this discussion in-person may require learners to prepare responses to a set of discussion questions, share their thoughts in a face-to-face tutorial session and reflect on the discussion in the form of an expository assignment.
On the contrary, learners in a distance learning classroom are separated by both space and time. These learners are able to start, stop, and continue their engagement in learning activities based on their convenience. Although a disjointed discussion may enable learners to use fresh perspectives daily, it may slow negotiation and consensus decision-making that is at the centre of learning from open-dialogue.
In a virtual learning environment, it is imperative for distance learners to keep in mind the following:
- The discussion is a platform for you to interrogate, challenge, problematize, and reflect on key course topics with your peers
- Engage in a thoughtful inquiry that examines, builds, and elaborates your peers’ ideas because this process will allow you to seek and illuminate new perspectives, preferences, and values underpinning course content
- Use your time wisely by visiting relevant discussion forums daily and offering emergent insight that appear overtime. Visiting the same discussion question on multiple days may enable you to transform these emergent insights into collaborative inquiry
- Do not be hesitant about the thoughts that randomly emerge as a result of reflecting on your personal and professional life. Integrate these thoughts in your inquiry and learning activities
Although this applies to everystudent, it cannot be stressed how important it is for distance learners to prioritize, manage their time well, and organize their course schedule. When I began my program in Fall 2017, I had three distance courses; for a month, I was scrambling trying to organize what I have to complete and by when. It was a difficult time for me due to the lack of relative support available by a distance course. Moreover, maintaining a full-time course schedule with a full-time job was an added struggle. Although I managed to organize myself in time, it was a stressful process. Learners entering or returning to a distance learning program should recognize that the initial weeks of adjustment may be difficult, but they need to focus on organizing their time and commitments. This effort will pay off in the end.
Keep the following things in mind when organizing your course work:
- Review all administration materials offered to you by the instructor including course schedule, assessment rubrics, introductory module, course learning outcomes, etc.
- If a course schedule is not available, ask your instructor for one because it is an extremely helpful resource
- Set a weekly alarm to remind you to on a convenient day and time to review your week’s schedule and organize the next week. I usually remind myself on Thursday evening to survey the assignments and learning activities due next week, and schedule myself accordingly over the weekend. I ask myself the following questions:
- What learning activities are due next week?
- Are these being assessed?
- What is the format of these learning activities (i.e., expository, discussion post, video post, presentation, meeting, etc.)?
- Are there any summative assessments that I can work on this week?
- Do I have any personal or professional commitments this coming week?
- What days and time can I commit to completing these activities?
- All course content is usually open, meaning that you can access them at any time throughout the course. If you have extra time on a day or a whole weekend, I would strongly recommend that you take some time to work on learning activities. This decision is prudent especially when your other professional or personal commitments may make it more difficult to manage course work.
- At the beginning of the course, access the instructions and rubrics of summative assignments and start organizing your weeks by responding to the following questions:
- When are they due?
- What knowledge do I need to complete them?
- Can I start now?
- How long do I need to complete it?
- When should I start?
- What are my weekly learning outcomes and objectives for each assignment?
- Do I need any resources to complete these assignments?
On most days, our motivation and commitment to learning are constantly tested. I have been in situations where I did not want, for the life of me, to complete an assignment because I felt exhausted and drained. I just wanted to sleep and eat. This is a common experience for many learners, especially those in a distance learning environment.
Nonetheless, we can employ useful strategies to help us boost our motivation for learning:
- Organize blocks of weekly times to work on course activities. This block of time may not be used every week, but it is important to block off this time in case it is needed. Finding a time is always harder than already having a time in your schedule
- When you sit down to work, minimize distractions. A lot of distance learning is reflective and creative, which may be hindered if there are persistent, external distractions
- Guide yourself through course learning activities through question generation. Whenever you encounter something, problematize it; inquire about it. Ask yourself tough, but intriguing questions. Don’t worry about answering the questions, just ask them to get your mind working. View the content from different perspectives. Don’t be afraid to learn from the experience.
- Sometimes, it helps to reimagine the outcome of your efforts in the program. Revisit your original reasons for enrolling in the program. Use these reasons as a platform to envision your completion of the program. In many cases, this thought may sufficiently revitalize your motivation to resume your course work.