Jan 16, 2009

How to Succeed in a Distance Learning Course

As a college instructor I have taught quite a few distance learning (DL) courses, and I have observed the successes and struggles of countless DL students. Given that distance learning is such a growing field in education, I decided to assemble a list of suggestions for prospective and future distance learning students that will help such folks achieve their academic goals in an online environment.

I should probably begin by pointing out the obvious: distance learning courses are quite a bit different from the traditional classroom experience. In many cases, students never meet the instructor face-to-face, and potentially students and instructors could be many thousands of miles away, connected only by a website. It is thus important for first-time DL students to prepare themselves for a different approach to education. Also, be sure to let the other people in the house know when you are working so that you do not end up getting disturbed.

One of the common misconceptions about distance learning is that these classes are somehow easier. In my personal experiences as both a DL student and a DL instructor, I must wholeheartedly disagree; if anything, there is a higher workload in DL classes than in traditional classroom settings. I know that I assign a higher level of written work in DL classes than in face-to-face courses for the simple fact that this is the surest way of assessing competence.

DL classes, of course, offer students the ability to work from home or any other place with an Internet connection, as well as to work at any time of day. Do not confuse convenience with simplicity, though: distance learning courses can progress at a rapid pace and with higher workloads than traditional classes.

As always, feel free to weigh in with your experiences, tips, or comments.

1. Develop a regular schedule for your DL course and stick to it. Unlike the traditional classroom, many DL classes do not have scheduled meeting times, although some make use of regular virtual chat rooms. DL students have to set aside dedicated times to read, complete assignments, and take the exams, and possessing self-motivation is an essential factor in Dl successes.

2. Get familiar with the software platform and the course website right away. Every reputable school with DL classes offers online tutorials and trained technicians to assist students. In many cases you can access some of these tools and services before the semester begins, making you ready for success once the course website is accessible to students.

3. Learn the preferred method of communication with the instructors, and stay in regular contact with them. I, for example, am an email person, and while I am happy to answer phone calls, I sometimes leave my cellular off for days at a time. In addition, some students are bashful about "bothering" their instructors with questions, but they need to get over their fears and get their questions answered. If an instructor gets snippy, too bad - it is your money paying for the class, and you should insist on receiving a quality education.

4. Thoroughly read the syllabus, keep it handy as a reference, and stay on top of all deadlines. One of the surest ways to fail a DL course is to forget about important assignments and exams. Moreover, an excuse like "I had the flu" probably will not meet with a sympathetic instructor, since the course website is available 24/7, and one could conceivably take an exam in a post-op recovery room. Also, be sure to ask questions of your instructor about even the slightest ambiguity in the syllabus. Sometimes directions that seem patently clear to the instructor might be confusing for any number of students, and you do not have the ability to raise a hand and get a face-to-face answer in a DL class.

5. Visit the course website regularly. I once studied the relationship between site visits and student grades, and the results were conclusive: students who visit the course site the most are also the ones who achieve the highest grades. I tell my students to visit at least five times a week, and to never let more than two days go by without visiting the site.

6. Thoroughly read any course announcements. This is the surest way to stay informed about any changes to the course, possible site downtimes, or any other pertinent information that could affect your studies. Once again, get pushy and ask your instructor for clarification when necessary - don't be a bashful wallflower.

7. Do not wait until the last few hours to complete an assignment or an exam. Inevitably, if your test is due at 11:59 pm and you start taking it at 11:22 pm, you will run out of time. In keeping with Murphy's Law, this will also be the time the college servers crash, or an overload of traffic causes the system to lock up on you. Your instructor or the support staff are much better able to help solve problems when you work well in advance of deadlines.

8. Remember: the assigned reading materials in a DL course are your lectures. Many college students in face-to-face classrooms like to boast how they never read the assigned textbook, and that they got by simply on lecture notes. Guess what - most DL courses do not use lectures, and DL students typically have to read a great deal more to succeed than they might in a traditional classroom. Yes, there are some DL instructors who make use of video and audio course supplements, but the bottom line in DL classes is that students have to possess solid reading skills and the willingness to discipline themselves.

9. Regularly evaluate your progress. Most Dl platforms include some form of gradebook that students can access to make sure that all of their work has been graded. Do not wait until the end of the semester for unpleasant surprises - you should know at any given moment what your grade is and what you need to do to achieve the grade you seek.

10. Make friends with other students in the class and help each other study. Every other DL student is a potential ally in learning the material, and some of them might live nearby. At the very least, you can offer to critique each other's written work, or develop study sessions with AIM or an off-site chat room.

11. Complete your DL work in a serious setting. A home office with a closed door is helpful, as is a quiet space in a public library. Avoid trying to work on your academic responsibilities while simultaneously watching television or talking on the telephone - the distractions will affect your work and ultimately your grade.

12. Never, ever procrastinate. Those students who like to put off assignments are typically the ones who struggle in a DL course. Attack your work with gusto, and you will be much more likely to succeed. If an assignment is due Sunday night, turn it in on the prior Tuesday, and make it a goal to beat all deadlines by three days or more.

13. Be sure you have the right hardware and software. Most reputable distance learning programs tell prospective students about the technical requirements necessary to complete the course. Have a reliable high-speed Internet connection, and use the most up-to-date computer you can access. If all you possess is your uncle's 1995 Compaq laptop with a 2MB RAM chip and a dialup connection, you will be better served by using a computer at a public library. Remember - it is not the instructor's job to provide you with appropriate technological tools. Also - while you might adore your customized open-source word processor, you should not expect that the instructor and the other students will share your zeal for files that can only be opened by other über-geeks. Use a universal file format like .RTF, or grit your teeth and use a PC or Mac version of MS-Word.

14. Take the course seriously. Just because you are in an online environment does not mean you should act like you are text-messaging your best friend. Be an adult and use appropriate language for a classroom setting, and never get into personal conflicts with other students in course chat rooms or discussion boards. And by all means - do not clutter up the course website with a bunch of "OMG," "LMAO," or "LOL" leet-speak silliness.


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Mad Jack said...

Nice job, Mike. I've had a job that allowed me to telecommute and quickly learned about the special problems that telecommuting brings with it.

In item 3, I would emphasize, "If an instructor gets snippy, too bad - it is your money paying for the class, and you should insist on receiving a quality education." Remember just who is paying the freight here. The student may want to draw a parallel between a poor quality instructor and a poor auto mechanic. How much would you be willing to spend if your car still doesn't run? I'd also like to know the person a student should complain to about a rude or unresponsive instructor. This kind of information generally isn't covered too well in the student handbook.

I don't agree with your take on item 10, "Make friends with other students in the class and help each other study. Every other DL student is a potential ally..." Students are in direct competition with each other whether they know it or not. It's perfectly fine for you to stand behind your lectern and pontificate on the moral turpitude of those students who have no empathy for their peers, but those of us who will vie for the increasingly scant number of (at best) mediocre positions available to a recent graduate, have a more realistic outlook. Every student that graduates provides me with competition, and those with a high GPA provide me with stiff competition that I don't need.

You might have added something about a code of conduct to item 14, "Take the course seriously." Remember that the instructor and peers cannot see you, which might be to your benefit. Write in complete sentences and avoid making jokes or smart aleck remarks, especially at the instructor's expense.

This is one of your better efforts, Mike. I may save it for future reference if you don't mind. These items are appropriate for anyone telecommuting for work as well as LD teaching.

Randy said...

"Students are in direct competition with each other whether they know it or not."

Compete (in education, anyway) by doing well, not by capitalizing on someone else's weakness. I recall from my law school days times when the crucial volumes for research projects would go missing from the library for a couple of weeks at a time. Sure, it meant it was harder for the rest of us to do well, but a thte same time, I don't think it necessarily did the people who stashed the books any good. In fact, if anyone learned that they did it, those students would have been made pariahs in no time.

I now teach commercial law to art students, and realize that there is going to be collaboration on assignments. I allow it, as long as I see some evidence of separate effort. I would rather see students working together to learn the material (and, in the process, get better grades) than teach a life lesson in beggar-thy-neighbor.

Mad Jack said...


Deliberately denying access to public resources strikes me as unscrupulous and, in a way, somewhat petulant. Possibly I'm reading too much into the act. I'm referring to the position of a strong, knowledgeable student helping their peers - who haven't devoted the extra time and effort it would take them to achieve excellence.

historymike said...

Mad Jack:

If I ran into a poor quality DL instructor I would first complain to the department chair, and I would also make my concerns known to the person that manages the DL program. The competition for DL students among colleges and universities is highly competitive, since DL students can literally attend any college in the world that accepts them and offers DL.

Of course, one might wait until after grades are posted for some complaints, so as to avoid any possibility of payback by some disgruntled instructor. However, if a student is getting nowhere with an instructor, by all means get others involved, even if you have to pester a dean or provost.

It's your money!

As far as "competition": some classrooms and programs do indeed instill an unhealthy level of competition. Most college students, IMHO, are there to get a degree and a decent job, not to wind up with a magical 4.0 GPA, and in every class I ever attended as a student there were informal study groups that formed.

historymike said...

I've heard of some of these cutthroat academic stories, though I have not personally encountered such a situation. Perhaps that is a reflection of my own off-the-beaten path-research; I suspect if 20 students were studying the same narrow subject, there could be some serious shennanigans in trying to undermine classmates.